It’s funny that the less money artists have the less we’re willing to take. Running alongside the dismantling of the welfare state in the UK is the dismantling of its system of arts funding. There is less state money available, and it’s less widely distributed, and arts organisations are being carrot-and-sticked into pursuing the corporate buck. But increasingly the response to this isn’t to scrape and scrounge and take whatever money we can get, but to question where the money’s coming from and what the money can do.
The most high profile campaign on corporate funding is the attack on oil sponsorship of the arts. A coalition of organisations like Liberate Tate, Art Not Oil, and Platform are regularly raising hell by making great art about the oil industry’s artwash of its murderous and racist expansions. The targets are both major British institutions like the Tate, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and the British Museum, and the general public, in a campaign to remove the oil industry’s social license to operate. The work is in solidarity with indigenous activists and climate campaigners as part of a broad attack on big energy.
And as these questions are being asked, arts organisations are being pushed further into corporate sponsorship. ACE’s Catalyst fund supports and trains organisations in seeking funding from beyond state sources, and is also funding exploratory work about the question of funding itself. Catalyst money was involved in the recent funding ethics debate at Artsadmin, Take the money and run, and is also indirectly funding me to write this blogpost, as an artist commissioned to work with Artsadmin as a critical contributor to its Catalyst training and research.
The Take the money and run event was packed with artists and arts workers full of angry questions about how the arts is, will be and should be funded. There was wide opposition to the corporatisation of the sector, support for anti-oil action, questions about how to have an ethical fundraising policy, and demands to camapign for better state funding. In a way, it’s not surprising that this is the response of artists to cuts in funding: with money tight, everyone is thinking about money more, is more aware of where money comes from and what it means, is present to the politics of the issue. Artists have an inconvenient habit of searching out painful ideas, and an tricky inability to let go of them, even when they make art work more difficult.
This is a contribution to the conversation, asking (and trying to answer): What are artists supposed to do about money?
There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding of what a boycott is. A boycott is not a private personal action: it is an organised political campaign. It’s named after a British land agent whose evictions of tenant farmers led to social ostracism and an economic blockade. It succeeded because it was organised to the point of being total.
A personal boycott that’s not part of a broader political campaign is that absurdity, ethical consumerism. Ethical consumerism is the most ineffective political movement I’ve ever heard of. The idea that you can end corporate exploitation and abuse by encouraging people to buy different stuff has no basis in economics: all you’re doing is creating a new market for capitalism to expand into. Supermarkets don’t stop selling coffee grown in the worst possible conditions, they just sell the organic version as well. Sometimes consumer choice can be deployed as part of a broader movement, and sometimes the purchase can be part of building alternative economic structures – as is the case with Fairtrade’s support for co-operatives – but mostly, treated as politics, it’s a con.
Nevertheless, I myself mostly buy organic and Fairtrade goods. I’m even a vegan, albeit a very relaxed one. I can’t bring myself to wear sweatshop clothes or eat megacorp bananas, for the same reason as if I eat meat I can’t get the image of a factory-farmed pig out of my head and feel a personal complicity in the planet burning up. I do most of the ethical consumer things out a vague sense of moral duty and the ongoing construction of who I want to be; I just don’t kid myself that it’s politics.
This pursuit of moral purity defines a lot of this sort of bad politics. Ethical consumerism is an attempt to detach oneself from complicity in genocide and ecocide, an attempt to be a good and separate person in a bad and messy world. To me it feels like it belongs to certain religious traditions, in which sins and good works are totted up on a cosmic balance sheet. I prefer to try and accept that we – the we that I represent, the we of the globally privileged in wealthy countries – are unavoidably complicit in horror, inevitably hypocrites. Worrying about which smartphone is ethically better (spoiler: none of them) and whether or not quinoa is OK to buy since that Guardian article is more about your sense of self-worth than it is about changing the world.
In the arts, there’s now a growing trend of working to institute ethical fundraising policies, rules to make sure organisations aren’t complicit in corporate or state criminality. To me, there’s a risk here that this becomes like ethical consumerism – an attempt to buy a clean moral record, rather than a recognition that funding is politics. A good example is the Tricycle’s failed boycott of Israeli state funding. The Tricycle attempted to claim ethical neutrality – it just wasn’t accepting money from either political actor in a controversial conflict – but opponents easily pointed out the hypocrisy of the position. There was an honourable political approach – joining the major international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign called for by and in solidarity with Palestinian activists – but by claiming unmaintainable ethical neutrality rather than political commitment, the Tricycle’s attempt failed.
Ethics in arts funding isn’t about you. It isn’t about your personal values. It’s about leveraging cultural power to change something. I join a campaign against oil sponsorship of arts institutions I love not because I feel dirty being associated with oil (I need to accept that I’m morally complicit), but because I think that campaign might be a major wound to an industry that’s killing us. We each come to our own compromise the the world, our own ethical lines that help us to live in a terrifyingly oppressive system – but beyond that, we can campaign, and boycott is one of the tools available to us. When that boycott is called for by those constituencies most affected by the target, it truly isn’t about you: your moral sense is outraged, but your political self must act.
Something which came up repeatedly at Take the money and run was how special art is. How art liberates us, how art takes us to a better place, how art helps us imagine different worlds. These are all things I’d love to be true, and I think that they succeed in being true sometimes, but I’m sceptical about how the argument is often used: that art is special, and we can’t allow commerce to debase it.
Only recently has art become anything other than a plaything of the ruling classes. The culture that the majority of people enjoyed – folk music, say, or street games, or storytelling, or craft – were considered mere entertainment, or mere artisanry, while the arts – opera, ballet, literature – were bought and paid for as ways for the powerful to feel special. Artists were special creatures too, paid for by patrons, while artisans and entertainers had a lower status as workers or, in worse cases, drop-outs. Art as we understand it is a ruling class creation. What’s happened now is that we’ve opened up the category of art in terms of both participants – we want more people to be artists – and audiences – we want access to great art for everyone.
The result is an arts industry that has contradictions at its heart, that combines vaguely liberal ideologies of mass participation with elitist historical roots. Its artists want to be paid properly as workers, but also want to feel like they float about the drudgery of employment. It tries to make art accessible, but remains vaguely attached to the idea that artworks are a special sort of thing and not what everyone enjoys. It wants funding, but doesn’t want to lower itself into the mire of commerce.
We need to avoid assuming that commerce is an inherently bad thing to let into art, and instead ask about the power relations that are involved in different forms of funding. When a sponsor, patron, trust or funding body gives us money, what power are they giving and what power are they taking? What do they get from us, and what do we forget we are giving them? What creative control are they asking for? What social license do they walk away with? How does the art they fund reinforce their power? How might the art they fund undermine their power without them realising it?
A corporate sponsor might artwash, gaining social acceptability through its sponsorship of major institutions, as is the case with BP. A corporate sponsor might ask for creative input on the artwork, turning the art itself into a large scale advert. An arts culture built entirely on corporate sponsorship means that the only art that will get paid for is the art preferred by the rich. But a corporate sponsor might, just sometimes, might be a hands-off source of money, and a corporate sponsor might, just sometimes, not be paying enough attention to what you’re actually doing with their cash.
The goal of seeking funding is to get more great art made; ethical arts funding needs to be about making sure that art doesn’t end up giving more power to those who would destroy us. But there are also some deeper questions that considering where our money comes from gets us to: if we have ambitions for art to be something other than rich people’s toys, how might we make it differently? And what kind of funding might that need to make it happen? Sometimes I think we might be better off destroying the category of art entirely.
Despite the speed with which artists criticise corporate funding, we’re oddly at ease with state funding. And I’m writing in the British context, about a state built on empire, genocide and slavery, a state which continues to be complicit in financial colonialism and aggressively exploitative globalisation. In terms of the ethical record of funders, you can’t get much worse than the British state: every pound I take from it is a deeply compromised pound.
One difference between state and corporate funding is the chimera of democracy: the idea that when we take money from the state, we’re taking money from an instution we’re supposed to have some kind of democratic control of. The idea, the ideal, is that state funding makes great art happen that couldn’t happen otherwise, ensures that art gets made for and with diverse populations rather than just to the preferences of the rich, and is distributed in some way according to popular will. This ideal bears very little relationship to reality.
As an example, the Arts Council of England spends 15 times as much money per head on London organisations as it does outside the capital, and invests disproportionately huge sums in particular in national opera, ballet and literary theatre. Arts funding, even as it is being cut, shores up the institutions of power. Meanwhile, as the UK’s apathy vote rises, its major parties refuse to adopt the most popular possible policies in favour of cronyism, and its two party system begins to collapse, it’s hardly possible to say that the British state feels particularly good at offering democratic control of resources.
Just as corporate funding has obvious risks, state funding needs to be criticised and problematised. It’s not just in totalitarian regimes that state-funded art props up power: we have to ask to what degree the ruling classes decide where the money is spent, and how much control arts councils give them over distribution. In the UK, as the more independent arts councils are cut, government culture department funding increasingly supports national ideologies – it won’t be long, I’m sure, before DCMS requires funded organisations to disseminate “British values”. Campaigns for ethical funding need to also be campaigns for better state funding – not just more money, but money better distributed, with more democratic control over the distribution.
But then again, these campaigns for ethical funding both tend to imagine that states and corporations can be reformed into perfection; that with enough political pressure, we’ll get a state capitalist system we can all be happy with. Personally, I think that’s nonsense. Personally, I think that the ruling classes can only support ethical funding campaigns as long as the foundation of their power is threatened, and that such campaigns are worth very little, and that more powerful and honest campaigns will bring us into conflicts with the very systems of power we seek to reform. But that said, I’m happy for now to form liberal alliances for transitional reforms – if nothing else, because I refuse to fetishise poverty, and I need to get paid too.
So what can you do? If all money is dirty, if all artists are hypocrites, and if all funding is ethically compromised, what actions are available to you? I’d argue that accepting the brokenness of everything is a great place to start from if you want to make real and radical changes. I’d also argue that refusing the cling to the purity of any given action opens up a wide portfolio of strategies: rather than trying to hold our ethical ground, we can fight a guerilla war, adopting different tactics as needed to win the world we want. Here are four possibilities:
Take the Money and Run. Artists need to get paid, and the system we need to get paid by is inherently oppressive, exploitative and abusive. You’re going to have to accept you’re complicit, and you’re going to have to learn to hold your nose. Or rather, you’re going to have to learn when, for what and for whom it’s worth holding your nose, right to hold your nose. Remember that you’re own survival is important, and that the work you’re doing is important, and decide to make the kind of compromises you can live with. Accept that you’re a hypocrite, and make art that matters. Make your life strong so that you can fight back.
Steal the Money and Smash. Sometimes, they’re not paying attention, and sometimes taking money from a dubious organisation is an excellent way in to cause them some damage. I heard a story once about an artist who took some money from Vodafone’s World of Difference fund at a time when the mobile giant was the target of a major pay-your-tax campaign. The artist used the money to work for a local radical social centre, and leaked passwords to the Vodafone Foundations’ blogging platform to activists, enabling some troublemakers to plaster the company’s website with propaganda for a couple of days and grab some headlines. This story makes it seem possible to cause more damage to a funder than the benefit they gain by artwashing you. Stay alert for opportunities to use their money against them!
Hate the Money and Shout. But sometimes we need the boycott tactic. Sometimes we need to be able to state clearly that a given funder is not acceptable, and make a paraiah of the national institutions lending their reputation to corporate abusers. This is especially the case when the campaign is called for and organised with those on the receiving end of oppression: boycott must always be more about solidarity with those struggling than individual moral worth. When you boycott, organise with others, and turn it into an extraordinary event. You’ll always need to have arguments ready to turn away the easy charge of hypocrisy, but boycott can be one of the biggest ways to shift public perception.
Fuck the Money and Build. The only people who we can really trust, who really need to be able to trust, are each other. Artists, activists and all the people struggling in oppressive systems need to be able to build their own systems of support and mutual aid. A sector of atomised artists each struggling over numbing funding applications and neurotic sponsorship bids is no good for anyone, or for art. We need independently-funded arts and social centres. We need workers co-ops. We need to be honest with each other about money. We need more radical unions. We need to make money off cheap tickets, cheap drinks, cheap food and use it to pay each other. We need to learn how to build autonomous systems of support. We need to look after each other.
This article was written as part of a commission with Artsadmin to explore arts funding through attending events, critical thought, writing and a new artwork. All opinions, however, are purely my own and not necessarily those of anyone in the organisation. It was originally published at http://www.artsadmin.co.uk/artsonline/
Images: “where are we now / no money no art”, from Flickr user aestheticsofcrisis, “money is destroying art and culture”, from Flickr user acb, both licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license, and still from “The K-Foundation Burn a Million Quid” from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_K-Foundation_Burn_a_Million_Quid.jpg for licensing.