BLANK the money and BLANK: Part One

Posted by: Harry Giles on Apr 10, 2015

BLANK the money and BLANK | Part One: Boycotts, Consumerism and Ethical Fundraising
Artist Harry Giles blogs in response to Take the Money and Run, the day-long event on ethics, funding and art.

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? In this first part, I'll look at boycotts and ethical fundraising; in part two, I'll look at the problems of corporate and state sponsorship, and in part three I'll suggest some answers for how we might deal with 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.

Harry Giles is a performer, poet and general doer of things. www.harrygiles.org

Image: “where are we now / no money no art”, from Flickr user aestheticsofcrisis, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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