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The art of being awkward: Brandis is wrong about the Biennale

Politicians and artists often join together in an uncomfortable game. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

As anyone who works in the arts business well knows, when art and politics meet (and certainly when art and politicians meet …) the result is more often than not awkward.

Many of us will remember the fuss around former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s pre-emptive strike in 2008 on an exhibition of Bill Henson’s photographs. It didn’t seem then, and still doesn’t seem today, to be one of Rudd’s finest political moments. If he believed he was standing up against the public display of offensive material (albeit before he’d been to the exhibition in question) he was also invoking that surely more offensive of “c” words – censorship.

Once again, however, a politician has publicly challenged the appropriateness of the arts community’s capacity to be awkward. A report in today’s The Australian notes that Federal Arts Minister George Brandis has issued a thinly-veiled threat to arts organisations that “reject private sponsorship because of political pressure”.

The threat came in the form of a letter to Rupert Myer, chairman of the Australia Council, “demanding” – according to The Australian’s report – the body develops a policy to deal with (that is, one assumes threaten the funding of) any Australia Council-funded body that “refuses funding offered by corporate sponsors, or terminates a current funding agreement”.

Brandis is responding to the apparent success of a campaign by artists associated with this year’s Sydney Biennale of Sydney (which, ironically, is subtitled “you imagine what you desire”) to pressure the Board of the Biennale to relinquish its sponsorship agreement with Transfield Holdings.

This was on the basis that Transfield Services has contracts with the Australian Government to operate the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres. The executive director of Transfield Holdings, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, was also the Chairman of the Biennale. He resigned last week.

Given Transfield Holdings remains a major sponsor of a number of other Australia Council-funded organisations (including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the the Museum of Contemporary Art), the impact of the fuss around the Sydney Biennale decision could be far-reaching.

How far-reaching depends, of course, on politics. I would argue that we should not be afraid of this fact – unless we want the arts to be “relevant” and “meaningful” only when it makes us comfortable.

Arts sponsorship is, indeed, always political. Commercial companies do it not just out of a sense of altruism. It helps with brand management and can give senior managers social capital to leverage for business advantage, among other benefits.

None of this is inherently wrong, or bad. But neither is a debate about such sponsorship in and of itself ill-conceived or misplaced. To that extent, George Brandis is wrong to imply that it is.

Brandis is also wrong to suggest the political opinion of the individual artists boycotting the event was “a matter which has nothing to do with the Sydney Biennale”. Aesop was on the money (as it were) when he argued that once an artist or arts organisation was connected to the community-at-large he or she could could not claim to be separate from it when things got, well, awkward …

Furthermore, if Brandis is concerned about the “effective blackballing of a benefactor […] merely because of its commercial arrangements”, is he not asking the Australia Council to commit a similar sin by refusing to fund organisations that make decisions based on political views with which he may disagree?

It is curious that he would argue this in context of the debate around S18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, given his argument for the Government to revise the current clause is, in my view, a powerful one. On a recent edition of ABC TV’s Q&A Brandis said, no less:

how do we achieve a civilised society? […] [D]o we have a society in which every time somebody says something unpopular or offensive to a majority of opinion the Parliament passes a law to say, well, you are prohibited. You are censored from saying that? I don’t want a society like that.

Is he not suggesting, in effect, that the Australia Council should silence (or at least disadvantage) organisations that say or do things the Government doesn’t like?

By the same token, there is no inherent contradiction in arts organisations taking funding from companies and governments that do things they disagree with if we are prepared to argue for the arts a place in civil society that we accord, say, to universities.

We should want them to be embodiments of the value of free speech, as awkward as that can be at times to ruling elites of any political persuasion. If we don’t allow occasional acts of subversiveness, the alternative might end up being submissiveness.

I know which I would prefer.

A report in the Sydney Morning Herald declared that “the arts are the only loser in the Biennale of Sydney’s decision to sever ties with founding sponsor Transfield”.

I could not disagree more. As cultural commentator Marcus Westbury wrote recently on social media:

The most important thing as far as I’m concerned for artistic freedom and democracy is to defend the principle that artists, audiences, and everyone can and should ask ethical questions of themselves.

If as a result of the debate around the Sydney Biennale we not only take the arts more seriously, but also artists (and arts boards) take their social responsibilities more seriously, that’s no bad thing for both art and society.

On that point, I suspect, Brandis and I would agree.

Further reading:
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis should just buy a yacht
We should value the Biennale protest, not threaten arts funding
Is there any clean money left to fund the arts?
Artists’ victory over Transfield misses the bigger picture
The Biennale, Transfield, and the value of boycott
Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?

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