The Flemish canon: “Us vs. them is inevitable.”

Flemish Culture with Jaouad Alloul and Joachim Pohlmann - 18.02

It’s been two months since Media & Culture Fast Forward, but we still owed you one session. Jaouad Alloul and Joachim Pohlmann met on February 10 at VRT for an in-depth conversation about “Flemish culture”. What does it mean to be Flemish? And what about the Flemish canon? Revisit this session now (Dutch only). Too long, didn’t watch? Our digital creative, Jacotte Brokken, summarises it for you.

Organic culture

“When a culture comes to a standstill, it ceases to exist.” Joachim Pohlmann, Cabinet Secretary for Culture for Minister-President of Flanders Jan Jambon, is an anthropologist. And you can tell by the way he approaches culture. Yet this approach differs a lot from the person sitting opposite him: Jaouad Alloul, singer, activist and artist. “We are colleagues,” opens Alloul. Fellow villagers too. But for Alloul, culture is something worldly. It cannot be crammed into national borders. According to him there is no such thing as Flemish culture, let alone Flemish identity. “For me, identity is fluid. It’s something that’s constantly changing and being influenced. Identity is so complex and so multi-layered. It’s very individualistic and that’s a good thing.”

Joachim Pohlmann, Jaouad Alloul, Fredo De Smet

Knowing Me, Knowing You

If there is such a thing as Flemish identity, we often see it as a case of us versus them. “Us vs. them is inevitable. But how can we close the distance between ourselves and others?” Alloul wonders. Pohlmann likes to focus on the healthy competition that comes with it. Like in football clubs. The euphoria you feel when your team scores can only be felt thanks to the presence of an adversary. And if your rival scores, you don’t just start cheering for the other team. “One should focus on the positive side of that we-feeling,” concludes Pohlmann.

Joachim Pohlmann

A digital tale

We can fill many books or podcasts about culture and identity. But one thing’s for sure: the Flemish canon will see the light of day. Online, to be precise. Not a canon museum, rather a canon website. Alloul immediately points out that, in doing so, part of the population will be ignored. We don’t need to worry, says Pohlmann. Because it’s precisely by displaying the canon in a digital way that there are much more possibilities. For starters, it breathes new life into an old concept. But above all, it gives us more liberty. Many Flemish art works are on display all over the world. Gathering them in one museum would be impossible. However, placing a small QR code next to all those works, is no big deal. “That way we can turn the canon into a digital story with physical elements,” says Pohlmann.

Jaouad Alloul

The Flemish Wikipedia

Then, how does the Flemish canon differ from a refined encyclopedia or an art history museum, you might be wondering. Well, Alloul was curious too. And Pohlmann had the following to say: “The debate will never be only about facts, but also about the interpretation of those facts. That’s where the friction lies.” The canon must clarify the relationship between all those facts. Because young people no longer see those connections.

With this, Pohlmann answers a question Alloul asked before: for whom is this canon intended? For young people and for newcomers, as it turns out. Or young newcomers anyway. With access to and understanding of a digital device.

The canon that is currently being drawn up, is as much a historic document as the items it contains. “The Flemish canon is a window into history that will constantly change. A new version will be released in ten years’ time,” says Pohlmann. “Can I also enter the Flemish canon?” Alloul laughs. Sure, but not yet. According to Pohlmann, the canon is primarily intended to honor historical figures.

Hi there, neighbour

The Flemish canon is causing quite a stir. In our neighboring countries (and a little further), however, a similar collection has existed for quite some time. In the Netherlands they’re even ready for a first update. There is also a canon in Denmark, although it works differently. Alloul: “They talk about core values such as freedom, equality, open-mindedness, prosperity, trust, … I was hoping to see that too in the Flemish version.” Pohlmann disagrees. According to him, these values are – although he says it with some nuance – too important for a canon. Just because a canon is somewhat changeable. “Values such as freedom, prosperity, … should apply in all circumstances. Regardless of time and independent of the space in which they are located.”


The canon can be an asset for Flanders. But Alloul is still concerned: “I hope that this canon doesn’t sow more division and I hope everyone feels represented.” Pohlmann replies: “The Flemish canon will be divisive. But this division isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s constructive. The division must not exist in a way that makes a synthesis impossible.” Culture will always create discord. Politics will too.
“What about the media?” asks Alloul. “Media are a platform where opposing opinions can find each other,” says Pohlmann. “Media in its broadest sense. The use of this platform ensures that the thesis and antithesis can form a synthesis. And constantly searching for synthesis, we’ll keep dragging ourselves throughout history.” “Dragging,” agrees Alloul, “but full of enthusiasm.”

Videoproductie Vlaamse Cultuur achter de schermen