Good Art, Good Science?

By Quirijn van den Hoogen
Groningen University

Martin Stratmann, the president of the world famous Max Planck Society visited the Netherlands on March the 4th. The society can boost an impressive academic track record with 18 Nobel Prize laureates and a yearly ‘turnover’(this is really the word the Dutch newspapers used) of 15.000 scientific articles in their journals. It is a government funded agency which operates independent of German universities. On their website we read the following introduction:

The Max Planck Society operates a number of research institutions in Germany as well as abroad. These Max Planck Institutes are independent and autonomous in the selection and conduct of their research pursuits. To this end, they have their own, internally managed budgets, which can be supplemented by third party project funds. (…) The Max Planck Institutes carry out basic research in the life sciences, natural sciences and the social and human sciences.

Stratmann was in Nijmegen to sign a deal on scientific co-operation. Hundreds of master students from Nijmegen will do internships at the various Max Planck Institutes. Lucky bastards! Why is science doing so well in both Germany and the Netherlands, journalists wonder? I won’t visit the discussion on how to establish whether science is doing well. Apparently ‘turnover’ – i.e. the number of publications – for these journalists is the operative yardstick. Stratmann’s answer is far more interesting, however. Is science doing well because of a rigorous research strategy connecting universities to the issues that matter for companies and innovation or because of the excellent focus on questions that matter in society, as we pretend to do in the Netherlands with the ‘wetenschapsagenda’, a public debate which identifies the core questions society wants an answer to? Rather unsurprisingly, environmental issues appear to be more pressing than the study of complex narratives in film or the legacy of Hieronymus Bosch. However, Stratmann argued, such ‘agenda’s’ are counterproductive. Scientists should determine scientific strategies themselves. According to Stratmann good scientists come to the Germanic countries because they are interested in the social climate there: they look for pleasant cities to live in, day care support for their children and … drumroll… museums! Apparently, we are doing well in the social department and that’s what is good for science. And this from the president of an institute named after a famous natural scientist…


This is not new, of course. This is exactly the argument behind the creative cities strategies, a notion that was introduced in urban planning during the 2000s. Richard Florida’s claim that economy does well in creative cities has been taken up by city planners who try to create vibrant and authentic milieus. Artists are seen as the scouts who first enter the territory of ‘derelict city areas’, promoting their authentic and unconventional ‘vibe, preparing the territory for the designers, hip and funky coffee perks, high-end fashion shops, whatever the affluent value. To be sure, in military strategies the scouts are the troops you are willing to withdraw or sacrifice, they need not stay in the land you conquer. As a result, the artists are amongst the first victims of successful city refurbishments. Posh buildings, such as the flagship museums designed by infamous architects spearhead such developments as well. It is not uncommon that the money is spent on the museum building and not its programme. The intrinsic need for the existence of the museum, the stories it can tell about our art, our science or our migration histories, is often neglected, their performance being measured in terms of the number of visitors they generate: ‘turnover’.

Please, read the Max Planck’s Society statement again. It does contain the words ‘independent’ and ‘autonomous’.

Quirijn van den Hoogen is University Lecturer in Art Sociology and Art Policy at the Groningen University and a member of the Research Centre Arts in Society.