By Fregmonto Stokes
This wasn’t meant to happen. Contemporary artists are meant to obediently put their works on display at events such as the Sydney Biennale, while corporate benefactors bask in the glow of their own generosity. Never mind where the money comes from. In the world of Biennales, from Venice to Port Jackson, artists are bit players in a carnival of self-congratulation organised by a global elite of financiers, bankers and CEOs. Of course, festival organisers tell us, artists can make a political statement if they want to. They just have to do so within the confines of the festival itself. Their work of art, their statement of free will, has to also double as a sell-able commodity.
But last week, artists did the one thing they’re not meant to do. They used the one power they still possessed: their ability to withdraw their labour at short notice. They went on strike. They showed that behind all the marketing, all the razzle-dazzle, the economic viability of the art world is still reliant on workers making things. This might seem fairly obvious, but the fact that this boycott has federal government ministers frothing at the mouth shows the significance of the act. The boycott, and the subsequent resignation of Luca Belgiorno-Nettis from his position as chair of the Biennale board, has become such a source of irritation for the government that Arts Minister George Brandis is now proposing a change in arts funding policy. If this legislation passes, the Australia Council will have to punish artists and festival organisers who ‘unreasonably’ refuse corporate sponsorship.
As such, I would argue that this has been the most dramatic and consequential action taken by a group of Australian artists this century. Of course, some of those consequences are rather terrifying, and that’s what’s upsetting others in the arts world. I’ve heard some artists say that the boycott has now lead to the worst possible result. The Biennale has lost a valued patron, other philanthropists will think twice about funding the arts, the government will now launch a witch hunt against activist art, and the policy of mandatory detention continues on regardless. I would reject such a simplistic understanding of events. Let’s look at what the possible outcomes could have been, listed in order from worst to best case scenario:
- Outside groups call for a boycott until the Biennale cuts funding from Transfield, or Transfield withdraws from its Manus Island construction contract. The artists and Biennale organisers ignore them.
- Outside groups call for a boycott, some artists join them. The board and Belgiorno-Nettis ignore them, or specifically reject their concerns (as happened at first).
- Many of the Artists withdraw their works, Belgiorno-Nettis cuts ties to the biennale.
- Most of the Artists boycott the Biennale, the board call on Belgiorno-Nettis to take action, Transfield Holdings cut all ties to Transfield Services and the Belgiorno-Nettis family publicly denounce the events on Manus Island.
- All the artists boycott the Biennale, Transfield stops working on Manus Island, no other corporations will work on Manus Island because of the potential threat of consumer and worker boycotts, offshore detention becomes exorbitantly expensive. After a period of time, the government is forced to start closing offshore detention centres.
- After a series of boycott induced migraines, Tony Abbott has a vision where Jesus tells him to be more compassionate, and immediately ends all mandatory detention.
Seen in this light, what actually transpired (option three) can be seen as a qualified victory, with some negative consequences for the long term viability of the biennale (the loss of Belgiorno-Nettis’s funding). The important thing to note is that option three does not preclude options four or five (though I will admit that option six is a long shot). The boycott of the biennale could be seen as an initial step in a larger campaign of divestment, boycotts and strikes against companies associated with detention centres. However the criticism from commentators on the left such as Helen Razer, and artists of various political stripes, fails to recognise this.
In general, this criticism follows the pattern below:
- Identify a mildly effective creative political action amidst the tide of contemporary artistic apathy.
- Tell the participants they didn’t try hard enough/are hopelessly naïve/are endangering everyone else’s funding.
- Offer no serious alternative suggestions.
Unless you can propose a worthwhile alternative, and (even better) put some effort into making that alternative happen, you’re not really contributing to the debate.
Of course, you could go further and make the argument that the world of art and political activism shouldn’t mix at all, as Malcolm Turnbull (apparently the progressive alternative in the Liberal party) appears to think. Turnbull is all for championing artists’ free speech when it comes to tasteful teenage nudity, as in the Bill Henson case. However he’s less keen on artists speaking out when it threatens the public image of his corporate philanthropist friends, or the policies of his government. In his mind artists are meant to stay in their role as performing poodles (or in the case of opera directors, fawning lapdogs). And the fact that Brandis and Turnbull are moving so decisively to prevent this type of boycott from happening again shows that they do view it as a threat to the system of offshore refugee detention, even if some other artists and commentators do not. As a general tip for the naysayers, when the government tries to stop you, you’re probably doing something right.
But if the government is always going to strike back harder, why bother at all? If nearly every art philanthropist has made his or her fortune through exploiting others, if the world of high art and high capital are hopelessly entangled, if there’s no other way of ever making a living as an artist, then why not just roll over and let them scratch your belly? Why? Because what distinguishes art from the production of coke bottles, if any distinction still exists, is that you don’t just make it to earn a crust. You make it to say something. And if your capacity to speak out is utterly compromised by the interests of your patrons, you probably shouldn’t bother calling yourself an artist anymore. Just go into advertising, it’ll be easier.
So for all the artists who are angry at the biennale boycotters for endangering everyone else’s funding, I’ve got one question for you:
Do you see yourself as a worker who opposes injustice, or as a dog that performs tricks for the rich?
It’s true that we’re in a pretty dire situation. The government now wishes to tie the acceptance of state arts funding to the blind acceptance of private sponsorship, a spectacular example of over regulation and corporate mollycoddling if there ever was one. But we shouldn’t just give up at this point. We need to find other ways to get the resources to make the work we want to make. There are examples overseas. In Italy and Argentina, artists are occupying theatres and factories and telling the stories they want to tell. The artists and workers are setting the agenda. That’s a long way off here of course, but if we start dreaming now, and fighting, and striking, then we can shape the future, rather than let others shape it for us. There are alternatives to funding slavery and self-censorship, but to discover them we need to use the one redeeming quality we have as artists: our imagination.