Bullying artists and the art of conversation


Line art depicting conversation

Fingers have been pointed from both sides of the arts sponsorship debate. There are the nine artists who boycotted the Sydney Biennale because it would be accepting money sourced from Transfield's morally repugnant contract to run the Manus Island detention centre. Meanwhile Federal Arts Minister George Brandis and other critics have described the artists as a 'lynch mob', suggesting the board of the Biennale had allowed itself to be 'bullied' by the artists when it decided to reject Transfield funding.

The fiasco has humiliated the much respected Belgiorno-Nettis family, who have been regarded as generous and principled supporters of the arts for many years. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull denounced the 'vicious ingratitude' of the boycotting artists and their supporters. Biennale board chair Luca Belgiorno-Nettis tended his resignation and said he and staff members had been 'vilified'.

Belgiorno-Nettis described the protests as 'naive'. Gabrielle de Vietri, the artist leading the Transfield campaign, said other companies profiting from the policy of offshore detention centres would also be scrutinised. Artists know that they need financial support but realise that accepting donor funds implies a certain acceptance in the public eye that common values exist between them and their sponsors. 

It is a fact that supporting the arts gives moral respectability to corporate entities such as banks and mining companies, which often have a reputation for greed and exploiting people and natural resources to improve their own bottom line. Most artists have a well developed sense of moral purpose that is integral to their work, and this can be compromised by their acceptance of funds from sponsors involved in morally dubious activities.

By definition artists are compromising their principles whenever they accept funds from business. Those who believe they can accept sponsorship and remain pure are, as Belgiorno-Nettis says, naive. If we accept this, we can focus on cultivating the best possible relationship between the artists and the sponsors. Crucial to this is the quality of the conversation that takes place between the two parties. 

Sponsors can start out with a preoccupation on how their 'investment' in an artist or arts event can help to improve their bottom line. But conversation with the artists can lead them to consider that their financial 'investment' can contribute to a better world for all by making the moral vision of the artists more far-reaching and sustainable. For their part, the artists can learn from the sponsors how to bring home their message and their work to a wider public.

Joanna Mendelssohn of the University of New South Wales alludes to the opportunity there is for conversation between artists and sponsors: 'The great value of visual arts events is that it is easy to have conversations while looking at art — opera and theatre tend to demand silence except at interval.'

The threats and name-calling of recent weeks have been a conversation killer, a setback for both artists and business. The artists were correct when they declared that the mandatory detention of asylum seekers was 'ethically indefensible' and consequently it was not fitting for them to be associated with Transfield. But it would have been better to have brought it up in the form of person to person informal conversation between artists and representatives of the sponsor. Artists could then withdraw if the conversation did not bear fruit.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street. 

Conversation image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Transfield, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Biennale, arts funding, George Brandis



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Existing comments

1. It is open to a Catholic in good conscience to hold that Australia's detention system is ethically defensible. Or have I missed a papal encyclical in the last little while? I thought 'creeping infallibility' was supposed to be a Bad Thing? 2. "...banks and mining companies, ... often have a reputation for greed and exploiting people and natural resources to improve their own bottom line."... A reputation frequently created ex nihilo or exaggerated with mendacity by the left ... including many in the artistic community. 3. "Most artists have a well developed sense of moral purpose that is integral to their work." Indeed they do. But often it can be corrupted by dubious political ideologies. See 2. 3. Running a successful business, small or large, involves as much creativity, patience and risk as any art. The entrepreneur is an artist whose work of wealth creation, like that of any painter or performer, benefits us all. Marx was wrong. Voluntary exchange is win-win not zero-sum. 4. Artists can be just as grasping, manipulative hypocritical and all round unprincipled as any businessman, journalist, academic or politician. 5. Are those artists who boycotted the Biennale still accepting funding from the Coalition regime? If so, why?
HH | 14 March 2014

Gee why all these calls for politeness. The Arts Hub called for same. Why do artists need to be so genteel. Imagine if Picasso went and had a nice face to face with the Academy as to whether he should start investigating Cubism! Why all this insistence on middle class civility? Contemporary art as it exists now is quite empty, it lives off the past radicalality of prior Modernism. It has commodified such. What is amazing is that the Australian art scene turned out to be so conservative when a few artists just voice quite mainstream concerns about Manus and detention after a murder! Also we have the most bullying and non transparent Government imaginable desperate to somehow improve their unprecedented bad polling and we are being asked by this article and many others to be polite! I mean really! This is the convulsion Australian art sorely needed. It is breathing some life into the corpse. The corpse doesn't deserve it but later we will all look back on this as definite milestone.
Scott Redford | 14 March 2014

A child with a good sense of humor and who knows how to talk his way out of a difficult situation will often manage well. As what they say Actions speak louder than words Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life, but define yourself. Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.Keep safe and protected bring protection with you at http://bit.ly/1nctEuL.
hyacinth | 15 March 2014

Mr Mullins asserts that "Most artists have a well developed sense of moral purpose ... ". This optimistic assessment implies personal knowledge of the 'moral purpose' of at least half the world's artists; probably not including luminaries such as Mr Koons or Mr Hirst. He states that a Ms Mendelssohn said that it's easier to converse while looking at visual art than it is in a theatre or opera audience. This statement of his is either apropos of nothing or suggests that the morally outraged artists and the Biennale sponsors should have so conversed, presumably at an exhibition or viewing. Were they to wear identifying armbands or 'hi-vis' vests? At any rate, surely the artists should have refused government funding rather than Transfield's. That company's subsidiary might, for all we know, be implementing the government's unconscionable policy more humanely than a rival would. In my view the Biennale board should have stared the artists down and Mr Brandis should not have been, as seems to be becoming his habit, so inflammatory. A sorry demonstration of folly all round, apparently.
J Vernau | 16 March 2014

Most artists may “have a well developed sense of moral purpose”, but is such purpose of any value and worthy of taxpayer or any other support? Multi-millionaire contemporary artists like Damien Hirst revel in ugliness and are lionized for producing “art” such as lumps of dead animals. In contrast, artists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt had sad lives but always painted beauty. As the Daily Mail commented, “For 1,000 years art has been one of our great civilising forces. Today pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all.” Christ said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” And Hans Urs von Balthasar demonstrated the interconnectedness of Truth, Beauty and Goodness: “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” So, no Beauty, no Truth, no Christ! Rather than support for the arts giving “moral respectability”, it often indicates ignorance and degeneracy.
Ross Howard | 17 March 2014

I suppose, given the fact that the Transfield contract to run the Manus Island detention centre was in the public arena, the artists involved in the boycott of the Sydney Biennale thought the only effective response they could make would be in the same arena. It appears to have worked. What effect a private dialogue with Transfield representatives would have had is a moot point.
Edward Fido | 19 March 2014


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