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10 Comments • Mar 12, 2014 2196

Medici, Machiavelli, Goebbels and Transfield

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.

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10 Responses to Medici, Machiavelli, Goebbels and Transfield

  1. Humphrey Bower says:

    I don’t see the protesting artists as ‘sans strategy’ or ‘chaotic’. The same goes for Pussy Riot and Guernica. All made coherent protests against irrational regimes of power for those who choose to hear them. The letter from the Biennale artists in particular was a model of reasoned clarity. Artists aren’t ‘a herd of cats’ but concerned citizens like anyone else: the phrase suggests an underlying contempt for artists which is also evident in other interventions published on this controversy. As for Mr Belgiorno Nettis: no one forced him to resign. He could have chosen to divest himself of shares in Transfield Services instead of cutting ties with the Biennale. The fact that he didn’t suggests where his true ‘philanthropic’ priorities lie. Clearly not with asylum seekers. Just who is being ‘irresponsible’ here? Not the artists. The hysterical reaction they have provoked from the commentariat and those in power however suggests that they have struck a nerve. It’s not the artists who have behaved in a manner that’s ‘sans strategy’, ‘chaotic’ or indeed like ‘a herd of cats’ but journalists, arts administrators and politicians.

  2. paddy says:

    Humphrey, you’ve pretty well summed up my feelings with a far more eloquent and coherent post than I’m capable of right now. Thank you.

    • Maria Miranda says:

      yes Humphrey. I have to repeat Paddy. You pretty much say what I’ve been feeling too – with perfect clarity..the hysterical reaction they have provoked… they must have struck a nerve.!

  3. Scott Redford says:

    Well all of the above are right really. As an artist I am worse than a cat to herd into a basket and sometimes I’m a basket case…But artists also develop and constantly amend a complex range of factors in constructing their work AND the ‘logic’ within it. So the actions of the artists were totally consistent with history as Rose lays out AND also highly organised and logical as Bower writes. What does amaze is that Belgiorno-Nettis and his New Democracy Foundation looks like it is in favour of direct political action outside the ‘box’ but as soon as it turned out he was part of the box he gets all upset! So in my book his whole foundation and all those “names, sweetly darling, names” look extremely hollow, in fact utterly fraudulent. As did Malcolm the Great’s dumbass outburst of “viscous ingratitude”…yes thank you for Utegate Malcolm.

    The artists definitely struck a nerve just as perfect storm was brewing above the Biennale, but it isn’t over. What the art public servants are terrified of is a conservative government cutting their funding and affecting their mortgages. Artists don’t matter as there are enough to throw some overboard and anyway dead artists are easier to work with, far less complaints. And anyway Fiona Hall will be furiously knitting some ‘concerned political’ work for her Venice Biennale show as we speak that will be hauled out as the real way to make Art fromTragedy! Malcolm Turnbull will applaud Fiona’s publicly funded show of gratitude I’m sure. In fact he’s knitting her a scarf already for his next press conference! If I were Fiona I’d just cancel my show now…but hey I’m trying not to be Uncle Tom in Australia’s Venice Cabin at the mo…maybe next lifetime…and anyway the people who choose such shows have predetermined who’s in and who’s out long ago…we don’t want any nasty surprises now do we…

  4. Angela Mitropoulos says:

    What a remarkable displacement. Instead of talking about mandatory detention this is all about Machiavelli. Who was not an artist, though he did write some terrible plays.

    This was not an extension of occupy, though occupy does figure within the history of organisational forms. The campaign of divestment, boycott & withdrawal emerged from the networks that organised Woomera 2002. There it is again, that connection to the issue of mandatory detention you seem to want to ignore.

    When you write of “chaos” and a “lack of strategy,” it would be more accurate to say that you do not understand what has occurred or how it did. Or perhaps you do and prefer not to say. Who knows.

    Here is some far more accurate reading:
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/11/sydney-biennale-boycott-victory-shows-that-divestment-works

  5. Jeff Richards says:

    I have some doubts about the idea of boycotting Transfield (as I do about some aspects of the BDS movement as well), especially when -as pointed out by one commentator on the ABC this morning- one is still taking money from the government that set up the detention centres in the first place. Where do you draw the line on boycotting? Do we encourage students to boycott the 36,000 student beds managed by Transfield services ? I think it takes the focus off the government and its responsibility for its organisational and policy failures. Service provision for places like Manus or the other detention centres is a moving feast- if not Transfield, then G4S or some other firm. I suppose Transfield wont be too concerned about a bunch of -mostly cash poor- artists taking a haircut on pay and grants.

  6. Darth says:

    Yes, shouldn’t the artists be targeting the Commonwealth Government who continued and worsened Labor’s already terrible policy?

    And I look forward to the Biennale’s first complaint about its lack of funding!

  7. John B says:

    It is sloppy in the extreme to blandly mash together three entities which are not functionally connected.

    Mr Belgiorno-Nettis is not a director or Executive of Transfield Services Ltd, which as a public company employs more than 20,000 people world-wide and has a wide palette of services, including as someone pointed out above, providing accommodation to more than 30,000 Australian students.

    Transfield Holdings is a private company which has no direct relationship with Manus Island or student accommodation, etc.

    Transfield Foundation is what its name implies it is.

    I do not see why it is that so many people so passionately attempt to publicly pillory a man who simply shares business names with and a fractional shareholding in a company which almost certainly features in every large superannuation company in Australia.

    By not recognising the logical disparity, Mr Rose has, in his first sentence, lost the plot. From there he doesn’t even try to regain his senses.

    The boycott is silly, meaningless and futile, because it is aimed squarely at the wrong target. No amount of juxtaposition of words on a page will turn the Foundation or the private company into the publicly listed one, whose directors and executive have not been mentioned in any of the public tirades, despite it being they who have bid and accepted the Manus Island contract. Not Mr Belgiorno. Not even nearly.

    It is counterproductive because it has ruined the relationship between artists in general with benefactors in general by introducing the very real risk that others, as has happened to Mr Belgiorno, will in future be exposed to misguided smear campaigns.

    What future benefactor of the arts would be willing to risk being humiliated in this manner? Donors’ money will inevitably stop flowing, as was predictable from the outset.

    Maybe the artists who are not happy with this outcome will “out” each of the trouble-makers and keep this sorry mess on the front pages for another couple of months. That would only add more negativity to an already spoiled situation.

    The million dollar question is how to stop the rot, to minimise the future damage and to find replacement cash flows. I don’t think that an easy answer will be found.

    • Tom says:

      That may be the million dollar question.

      The billion dollar question (well, $1.2bn in the case of Transfield Services’ proposed services contract) is how to end mandatory detention.

      Transfield Holdings owns a full 12% of Transfield Services, which means it will have a direct 12% financial stake in Transfield Services’ detention profits. The situation couldn’t be much clearer, but we are still seeing these weaselly apologia across the political landscape.

      Meanwhile Transfield Services’ connections to superannuation are already the subject of a parallel divestment campaign.

  8. Janet Jones says:

    It’s telling that so many writers on the boycott can’t seem to talk about mandatory detention, and that when they do they deflect attention away from the big-money contracts signed by private companies and the value in following the money instead of the politicians, who are happy to ignore public inquiry, public misinformation and international condemnation about mandatory detention since at least 2002. A sign of how very many smokescreens have been set up between us and those detained. Acknowledging these smokescreens is no excuse for not looking past them though, so Crikey, how about putting some refugee voices in your pages, as Sunili Govinnage suggests here?

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/14/asylum-seekers-the-key-to-compassion-lies-in-human-stories

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