Amsterdam, the Magic Center The (Lost) Art of Counterculture in the Stedelijk Museum

Amsterdam, the Magic Center – a temporary exhibition currently on show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam – takes its name from the words of Dutch artist Robert Jasper Grootveld in 1962, who it seems prophetically predicted what Amsterdam would go onto become in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But it’s the subtitle, Art and Counterculture 1967-70, that addresses the urgency and power of the works displayed there, and their significance today.

Firstly, it’s quite extraordinary that this entire collection is made up of work from a period of just three years. The sheer scale, but also variety, of work and art on show is a testament to the explosive work rate of creative and dissenting voices in this era, in which the two qualities, art and counterculture, seem irrevocably tied.

But there is also a tension constantly present within the exhibition – not between “art and counterculture” or creativity and protest; rather, there is something clearly ironic in the subsuming of the revolutionary art and protest of late ‘60s Amsterdam into an institutionally authoritative museum such as the Stedelijk. This is a museum exhibition about how art was taken to the streets: how Art with a capital A, art in the museum, was rejected as anti-democratic and politically benign. Yet these provocative and challenging activities, most of which took place in public or without permission, are made coherent and presented in a neat package in and by… a museum.

The exhibition itself seems surprisingly silent on its own role as part of the establishment against which much protest of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s struggled

The exhibition acknowledges this irony to an extent. The announcement of the exhibition on the Stedelijk’s website acknowledges the museum’s “dual role”, when it was ostensibly the “modern champion” of ‘60s avant-garde art, while, at the same time, “the critical contingent label[led] it a conservative bastion of elitist art”. The audio tour accompanying the exhibition references the fact that the late 60s produced “criticism of museums, including the Stedelijk Museum […] from the artists’ movements that wanted a more democratic art policy”. And a long read piece on the Stedelijk’s website states that “[m]any young artists reject[ed] museums and galleries as incompatible with the needs of the new art”.

Yet, for all these admissions in periphery materials, the exhibition itself seems surprisingly silent on its own role as part of the establishment against which much protest of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s struggled, as well as on its present-day role in confining art and protest to an elitist, sterile and private sphere.

Of course, this is not to diminish the fact that the Stedelijk is in fact a rather friendly institution for many artists and critical voices. And the fact that it holds an exhibition like this also affirms the role it continues to play in expanding what is considered art and where such art takes place. Nevertheless, most striking about this exhibition – but silent in its curation – is the prevalence of issues pertinent to the counterculture movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that seem strikingly relevant, and in many cases unresolved, today.

One example of this is the focus on Dolle Mina, a radical feminist group from the era, which, amongst many important fights, campaigned against the lack of public toilets for women in Amsterdam. Just last year, this issue again entered the public debate after a woman was fined €90 for urinating in the street. After the ‘offender’ was told by the judge that she should have used one of the many (male) urinals in the city, protestors took to the streets, and to social media, to contest the still extremely sexist distribution of male and female-accessible public toilets in the city.

The exhibition also features images and artworks relating to the student protests and occupations of the 60s, including the disproportionate police violence they were met with. This cause too can in no way be simply relegated to the past, as showcased by the violent response to a student protest at the Roeterseiland campus of the University of Amsterdam last year and, more recently, the way in which the occupiers of another university building, the P.C. Hoofthuis, were dealt with just this month. Students in Amsterdam are still fighting to retain the independence of the university from external influence and against the increasing corporatisation of higher education in the Netherlands.

Housing too was a crucial issue for protesters in the ‘60s, as showcased by Rob Stolk and others founding a squatters’ housing association, Woningburo de Kraker. This organisation, and others similar to it, contributed to the formalisation and protection of squatters’ rights in the Netherlands – rights which were removed in 2010 and which have since led to a huge spike in the number of anti-kraak, or anti-squatting, properties. These are often the only affordable, if extremely precarious, housing available to students and those on low income. Dealing with such housing shortages, including the effects on Amsterdam of Airbnb and other similar sites, was a noticeably urgent concern across the political spectrum during last year’s municipal elections.

These issues are as pertinent today as they were in the late ‘60s. Yet both the creativity and power of those protests – at least based on the way they are presented in the exhibition – seems to dwarf today’s, which seem to have made relatively little impact, and were nowhere near as well-attended. What can we draw from this staging of the past in the present? How do we interpret the re-materialisation of these performances, artworks and, often, images or videos of people just living their lives? In a simple sense, what can we learn from all this?

These issues are as pertinent today as they were in the late ‘60s. Yet both the creativity and power of those protests seems to dwarf today’s.

Overall, the exhibition is not as self-reflective as it would like to be, or as I feel it should be. By only skimming the surface of critical attitudes in the ‘60s towards itself, this surface reading only solidifies the Stedelijk’s firm position as part of the establishment. In this light, it’s hard not to see the exhibition as a whitewash of the serious anti-establishment movements it showcases – a relegation to the past of the issues which were and continue to be so important to so many. It serves as a kind of pat on the back for its attendees, as we congratulate ourselves for a contemporary world seemingly free of the various -isms and prejudices that make those of the ‘60s seem so colourful. Nevertheless, the exhibition also shines a light on Amsterdam as an oft-forgotten battleground for the progressive movements of the ‘60s. And by doing so, it begs questioning why today’s struggles seem so incomparable.

The recent occupation of the P.C. Hoofthuis not only provides a timely reminder that the fights fought in the 1960s have not been ‘won’, but also that we still have the means to contest inequality and the neoliberal transformation of every facet of our life into capital. Intentionally or otherwise, this exhibition reminds us that Amsterdam still has the potential and capacity to be a ‘magic center’, but that this won’t happen without ordinary people doing remarkable things. And it certainly won’t happen in a museum.

Images of the exhibition were taken from the Stedelijk website. Credit: Gert Jan van Rooij