No-one really needs to be scandalised, confused or shocked by the decision of a group of Sydney Biennale artists to take on Transfield Foundation/Services/Holdings. Art has been so closely wedded to politics for so long that the relationship can be seen as more or less permanent. But, in an unhappy circumstance for headline writers and the commentocracy, art activism, from Guernica to Pussy Riot tends to be largely sans strategy and often chaotic. Artists, a herd of cats if ever there was one, don’t tend to find much to inspire them in strategy dot-points or in a policy document. But that doesn’t and shouldn’t deny them – or anyone else – the opportunity of flexing political muscles.
Artists having problems with arts patrons is not a new phenomenon. The relationship is historically complex and fraught and reflects very directly the steamy relationship both funders and funded carry on, rolling about in bed with the politics of the day.
Shakespeare, had to galliard and lavolta his way through the Tudors’ penchant for Towering and eviscerating its political enemies while The Renaissance took the artist/patron tie and put a number of extra Gordian knots in it. Niccolo Machiavelli, playwright, poet and political prisoner pandered to the Medicis on his release from prison, after that majestic family had weaved its way to power in Florence. His The Prince forever tightens the thick rope that binds politics and art by virtue of being a book that essentially invented political science, written by an artist.
As such, art patrons, if they haven’t always overtly framed the arts they support with their political views, have at least tended to reflect both their elite status and to enforce a kind of self-censorship. It’s an approach that isn’t likely to get favour among every crusty artist.
One of the first precursors to the Biennale protest in the modern era was in 1972, when English writer John Berger went public with his feelings about Booker McConnell – the massive UK food wholesaler which was the founder of the Booker Prize – which he blamed for causing poverty in the Caribbean. He gave half his winnings from the prize in that year to the Black Panthers and kept half to fund a book which he wrote to highlight just the problems he saw Booker McConnell and their ilk causing (His 1975 work, A Seventh Man).
More recently, in 2012, the heritage of arts dissent against private patrons was flexed again as two poets, John Kinsella – an Australian – and Brit Alice Oswald refused to accept the prestigious 2012 TS Eliot Award, because investment firm Aurum had kicked in the prize money.
Neither prize has collapsed. So, the huffing and puffing about arts funding being now is crisis because Luca Belgiorno-Nettis has taken his ball and gone home seems hubristic to say the least.
Looking to the bigger picture, much of the debate against the artists actions misunderstands how a free society is supposed to work. Mr Belgiorno-Nettis need not have withdrawn and could have opened a formal and open debate on the asylum seeker issue and on Transfield’s role in it. After all, he also founded and funds an organisation called New Democracy which seeks to redesign free society because, as the website says, “people want to be participants in politics, not just polarised voters in adversarial contests.”
He chose to pull stumps and that’s his right, as much as it is the right of those artists to voice their concerns. Move on.
British playwright Harold Pinter in another swing at the vested interests, argued in his 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech that words can enslave as much as they enlighten; “Language is actually employed to keep thought at bay,” he railed. “Sometimes” he went on, “a writer has to smash the mirror – for it is on the other side of the mirror that truth stares at us.” Mirrors, say, in the shape of Transfield Holdings.
Trouble is, in reality, smashing is rarely a strategic act and anyway when you smash one mirror there’s always another one behind it, giving you back a vision of what the prevailing powers of the day want you to see. The search for the narrative source never really ends.
The power of art is that it examines the narratives of our life – both present and historical. And, as any good PR professional will tell you, the narrative controls how we perceive things. We explain things to ourselves and to others through the stories we tell ourselves and are told by others. We are narrative-driven mammals. Ed Bernays, the founder of modern public relations, called our penchant for telling ourselves stories, “organising chaos.”
Joseph Goebbels called the language of politics – propaganda – the “ first rank among the arts.”
Clearly some writers and artists are visibly struggling with the fact that a creative moral conscience is a tightrope upon which we do and should walk across daily. No-one should expect anyone to articulate their rage at an inhuman and disgraceful policy just so that publicly remunerated professional politicians and bureaucrats can spreadsheet their argument. When elites force us all to put our grievances in language they can understand, then it’s the end of language. Art, words, action are in themselves, or can be, the language of dissent.
Criticising dissenters for not tying themselves in a strategic strait-jacket is missing the point. As with the Occupy movement, the point is actually in the lack of an agenda because it is agendas, often other people’s, that binds us, conflicts us and blocks us. Ignoring a strategy in the moment of protest is not so much irresponsible as trusting in the faith of the community to create something better, which, in this case, is not being funded by someone who profits from the dim-witted injustices of Manus and Nauru. It’s something those who expect instant gratification with a pre-packaged, freeze-dried solution to emerge from a moment of dissent may be lacking.