IMG_2010

Art at all costs?

The Long Read

… the charismatic ideology of ‘creation’… undoubtedly constitutes the principal obstacle to a rigorous science of the production of the value of cultural goods. It is this charismatic ideology, in effect, which directs the gaze towards the apparent producer – painter, composer, writer – and prevents us from asking who has created this ‘creator’ and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the ‘creator’ is endowed. It also steers the gaze towards the most visible aspect of the process of production, that is, the material fabrication of the product, transfigured into ‘creation’, thereby avoiding any enquiry beyond the artist and the artist’s own activity into the conditions of this demiurgic capability.

– Pierre Bourdieu, in The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field

So if we follow Bourdieu, what is the – old and tired – myth of the artist-as-demiurge hiding? Where would it be steering our gaze away from?

There’s a big clue in this quote:

I don’t care where the money comes from. It could be rolled by the mafia. If it goes to the arts it becomes good money.
– Lord Goodman, Chair of the Arts Council England (1965 and 1972)

And in this other one too:

All money’s dirty money. Not that I’m saying BP’s money is dirty.
– Alex Beard, Deputy Director of Tate

The value of art – symbolic, social, financial – is the result of a complex chain of transactions, just like any other human production. Sponsorship is one of these transactions: an exchange between a corporation providing financial support and a cause-driven institution – championing something worthy and with a wide appeal, such as the arts, health, education or social justice – providing grateful recognition.

When art is created or presented using public funds, we expect that it should reflect this origin and therefore be accessible to all and contribute to the social good: well-being, social inclusion, education. Investing in the arts comes with the condition that they should be aligned with the principles of a democratic government and contribute to its mission.

What is at the other end of the transaction between corporations and arts institutions? To quote Wikipedia on “Theories of Sponsorship”:

A range of psychological and communications theories have been used to explain how commercial sponsorship works to impact consumer audiences. Most use the notion that a brand (sponsor) and event (sponsoree) become linked in memory through the sponsorship and as a result, thinking of the brand can trigger event-linked associations, while thinking of the event can come to trigger brand-linked associations.

Sponsorship is a two-way endorsement: the arts institution is sharing the symbolic value of its cultural products, the corporate sponsor is imparting its brand image on the audience experience. The view that money get cleansed of its origin – and its symbolic ties – when it contributes to making art happen is a convenient celebration of the “magic power of transubstantiation” of the artist-creator that leaves in the dark the implications of the legitimacy gained by the sponsor through this transaction.

To delve deeper into the ethics of arts sponsorship, arts activists Platform have put together a study guide titled Take the Money and Run?, a selection of 9 key texts available for free consultation in the Live Art Development Agency study room (in East London) (as well as most likely in large libraries). It aims at providing readers with a set of critical tools, case studies and references to help arts organisations and artists take an informed position on their financial model. Texts include an edited collection of documents on public arts funding, State ideology and social engineering, an Arts & Business publication titled Using Art to Render Authenticity in Business (available online), or else a conversation between artist Hans Haacke and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on the impact of sponsorship and censorship on the arts.

Activists are getting increasingly vocal – and creative – to highlight the cooptation of art by corporate interests. Platform is a member of the Art Not Oil coalition, alongside Liberate Tate, Reclaim Shakespeare Company / BP or Not BP?, RisingTide, Shell Out Sounds and the UK Tar Sands Network, who are creating imaginative and high-impact campaigns to highlight to the public the associations of large arts institutions with oil-related companies.

I took a look at some critical enquiries from other countries using diverse methods – citizen journalism, visual essay and crowdfunding, video games – to question the links between art and power. If art provides a good ROI for political and commercial interests – and why would they invest otherwise? – at what cost to the art, the artists and the public does this come?

1. The citizen whistleblower: Louvre pour Tous (France) – 2004-present

Created in 2004 by designer Bernard Hasquenop to react against the change of concessionary regime at the Louvre (first revoking free admissions for teachers, then for artists), Louvre pour tous is “an observatory of public museums dedicated, through articles and in-depth investigations, to monitoring the rise of commercial interests: the ever-increasing weight of philanthropy, for better or worst, sponsorship masquerading as philanthropy, privatisation of the public space, dubious merchandising, high prices, blurring of borders between advertising and exhibition, exaggerated attendance figures, deliberate lies…”

The website – all in French and mostly about French museums and cultural policy – is a goldmine of information unveiling the tangled relations between art and power and probing the gaps between the ideal and practice of cultural democracy . There are too many interesting features to mention them all, so I’ll just choose a few:

www.louvrepourtous.fr
@louvrepourtous

2. The epic fight for freedom of speech: Banned on the Hill (Canada) – 2011-2014

What would you do if you discovered you were blacklisted by your own government for speaking up on climate change and the tar sands?

When Canadian artist Franke James’ European tour of her climate change-related artwork was suddenly cancelled, she started an investigation into her government’s practices, documented through a visual essay turned into an animated video (above). She also crowdfunded a public art campaign to put up posters on outdoor ad sites across Canada and in Washington.

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If the press coverage on James’ story is anything to go by, the government’s attempt at censorship has rather backfired – not only contributing to spreading the message far and wide, but also confirming that even governments and businesses take art very seriously indeed.

Franke James has been awarded a Gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards 2014 for the book version of Banned on the Hill – available here.

www.frankejames.com
@frankejames

3. The satirical business simulation: Oiligarchy (Italy) – 2008

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MolleIndustria create social simulations that lay bare the mechanisms of war, politics and business – in their own words, “homeopathic remedies to the idiocy of mainstream entertainment in the form of free, short-form, online games”.

Oiligarchy is a playable commentary on the oil industry in which the player takes the role of an “oiligarch” managing the extraction business in the homeland and overseas and lobbies the government to keep the carbon-fossil based economy as profitable as possible. A post-mortem available online explains the choices made and references used by the game designers.

Oiligarchy

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www.molleindustria.org
@molleindustria