The Birthday of Two Willems,
An Excuse to Celebrate Holland
The Netherlands has a special place in the heart of New York and its role in the city’s history helped forged its profound differences from other U.S. cities. Since today is the 108th birthday of a famous Dutch New Yorker painter, Willem de Kooning, we thought we take a moment to gather some of the latest, and quirkiest, highlights from the land known around the world as the Low Countries.
Today is also the 479th birthday of another Willem, a prince known as the Silent or Willem the Orange, with a passing connection to New York. So as we celebrate these two, let’s stop by at a Repair Cafe to fix something broken, check an amazing street-making machine, choose a snack from the Insect Cookbook, and see how long is the wait for the world’s first lab-grown meat to be served.
For a relatively small country sitting mostly under sea level, the Netherlands‘ has had an admirable influence over world culture. During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment era, seminal artists and philosophers came from or made their home there, and arguably, the liberal ideals thriving in the period infused ‘the island at the center of the world,’ New York, with its diversity and unique agnostic spirit.
While most European nations were mired in bloody, thousand-year fanatical wars, Holland was the cradle of the humanities and religious pluralism. It was the defeat of William the Silent’s eldest son, Dutch governor of Brazil Johan Maurits van Nassau, by the Portuguese, and the persecution of Jews that followed, what sent them to New York, in 1624, to become the city‘s first organized immigrant group.
BEBOP & ABSTRACT BLOTCHES
Years before he died, 15 years ago this past March, Rotterdam-born Willem de Kooning had already produced some of the works that, along with those of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko and others, would form the New York School, a movement marked as much for its aesthetic accomplishments as for its ability to instigate passionate debates about modern art.
The group was an evolutionary response of sorts to the landscape artists of the Hudson River School, who a century earlier, had helped establish the east coast as a vigorous force in the American arts. The work of their later, mostly New York area-based counterparts, was instead defined by the country’s vertiginous urbanization and economic dominance, and its soundtrack was the free jazz and bebop.
Kooning and Pollock became also identified, perhaps unfortunately, with their own battles against depression and alcoholism. When the Dutchman finally went sober in the 1980s, many who had vilified his self-destructive habits were first to dismiss his latter production. Of course, those are thankfully forgotten, while his art has only grown in artistic relevance and monetary value.
A PRINCE OF QUIRKY NAMES
The Dutch are forever indebted to Prince Willem the Silent‘s legacy, as he’s credited for leading his country’s revolt and finally independence from the Spanish Crown. His statue at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, calls him the ‘Father of his Fatherland,’ and the Netherlands’ National Anthem, the Wilhelmus, was dedicated to him.
The prince’s striking nickname is said to have been originated out of his reserved nature and shrewd political acuity, but its real origin may have been lost to time. He lived as a warrior, and his assassination by a Frenchman at the ‘old’ age of 51, was somehow upstaged by his murderer’s grisly, and unusually cruel, death penalty, exacted by the Dutch courts.
Historians consider that much of what motivated the former Lutheran, then Catholic and then converted Calvinist, monarch was his opposition to the Inquisition and increasing prosecution of protestants. It may have been his decision not to go along with a conspiracy to eliminate the ‘heretics,’ agreed upon by reconciled Spanish and French crowns, what probably sealed his tragic fate.
FIXING IT WHILE YOU WAIT
We’re so used to discard our gadgets when they stop working, or even before, just as a new model hits the stores, that most of us have no idea how to fix even a simple clothing item or a classic kitchen appliance, such as a toaster. In fact, a toaster was found adrift miles away from any land a few years ago, and chances are, so it may be an old fridge of yours, floating around somewhere.
What if someone would put together some kind of exchange counter, where people could bring their favorite pants to be stitched or that old fan to be rewired, and the people taking care of it would be regular folks, doing what they know for some loose change? Well, such places are all over impoverished nations, of course. But now they can be found also in the Netherlands.
Dutch entrepreneur Martine Postma didn’t reinvented the wheel, but she may have found a way of reminding everyone that what we toss out now, to be shipped to a landfill, may one day clog our toilet, or contaminate our food with heavy metals and plastic. Welcome to the Repair Cafe, 20 of each are already operating all over the country, with more to come.
The deceptively simple idea has so much potential to make an environmental difference, all the while providing a market for those considered ‘unskilled’ workers, and adding value to their communities, that it’s really startling that it hasn’t caught up with much more intensity. Oh, that’s right, most people are simply not interested.
Which is a pity. We still refuse to believe that an old staple of sci-fi movies, that of a back alley electronic repair shop that the hero visits, seeking spare parts, and the genial store keeper who helps him along with homemade high-tech devices designed to counter the power of evildoers’ machines, is, well, a fictional creation.
THE STREET-MAKING MACHINE
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the land of the bike riding and cycling trails is also where a practical brick-laying concoction was invented. Plus, it’s not a completely automatized, made-to-replace-human-labor, incredibly costly and pollutant to the point of impracticality. On the contrary, it’s something we could be seeing all over the U.S, where streets and roads can be treacherous.
Oh, that’s right, the federal budget is so tight with its provisions for increased defense spending and incentives to oil companies, that there isn’t much left to fund road repair at the moment. Come back in a century or two, and we may find a few million dirty roads to repair then.
Unless, of course, the whole thing is funded by those same companies. Perhaps after seeing that the U.S. construction industry is hurting, while oil and gas exploration projects are booming, and that millions of ‘unskilled’ workers could use the chance of getting jobs, they may decide that they could also help out in the country’s economic recovery.
That’s not happening, of course, unless they’re forced too. Anyway, where were we? Oh, yeah, the road-building machine, can also be very effective restoring decrepit city areas, as the machines can be adapted to use bricks made of all sorts of materials. Including recycled plastics and car tires, of course. Any other brilliant ideas, anyone?
NOW, LET’S HAVE DINNER
Hum, you know what? all this talk about art, and history, and recycling, and road construction made us famished. Again, only the Dutch to come up with some pretty odd, but perhaps tasty, choices. And we’re not talking about those two TV hosts who ate their own flesh on live television, a few months ago.
Take the Insect Cookbook, for example. Next week, chef Henk van Gulp plans on baking the world’s biggest grasshopper pie, as his contribution to global efforts to ease mankind from eating so much meat, and switching to other sources of nourishment. Put that way, it sounds awfully high faluting, we know, but it’s not the good chef, or you: it’s us.
See, just yesterday was Meatless Monday and, again, we failed to skip eating meat, not for some kind of contract with the industry, or a special craving, or even that we couldn’t resist a succulent steak. No, the reason is way more prosaic, having to do with pseudo-convenience and, of course, affordability. We’ll try to be good next time around.
Back to the insect pie, if you happen to be a member of the New York’s Explorers’ Club, you’re used of eating them, and we’re talking about tarantulas, scorpions, and other critters of many persuasions and shapes. Then again, to be a member, it’s implied you did some act of extreme daring, such as stepping on the moon or climbing the Everest a few times.
It also helps if you, by any chance, lead the free world now, but spent time as a kid in an poor Asian country, and your stepfather fed you some roasted crickets. Then you may not just qualify to be a member but maybe even suggest some choice of spices to go along with the crunchy meal.
The fact is, soon enough, we may not have much choice. Unless, of course, you’re Dutch and can’t wait to try what the folks at the Maastricht University, plan to present in October (drum roll, please) the world’s first lab-grown slab of meat. We know, they’ll have to work on that name. It won’t be easy, now that Pink Slime has already been taken.
HUNGER OR SOYLENT GREEN?
In any event, what has been called alternatively ‘test tube meat’ or our introduction to the exciting, and scary, brave new world of ‘test tube meals,’ has already ignited a fierce ethical and scientific debate. And we’re still in the Petri dish stage yet. Wait until the goal of 3,000 pellets of meat, required to make a whole burger, is achieved.
But there’s validity in such research, even if it leads less, not more, people to want to eat meat, no matter what. Overpopulation and increasing scarcity of natural resources will ultimately determine which way we’ll be heading, food wise, in the near future. Which means that research to produce artificial meat may help us one day to learn how to skip eating animals altogether.
And that’s all the ethics and scientific debate should be about. Even though that concerns about environmental pollution, food safety, labor exploitation, spoiling and disease-prone meat products are also in the ballpark. One thing is for sure: next to starving to death, being forced to eat spiders or choosing lab-grown meat, besides other, less appetizing alternatives, all of a sudden, the vegan way is no longer the highway.
And with that, we end our humble words in celebration of all, or rather, most things Dutch. Tune in next week to hear about the adventures of your old refrigerator on waters off the coast of Antarctica. And happy birthday to those two brilliant Willems, of course.