Monday, March 24, 2014

The Brandis doctrine

Not knowing where to start, I’ll start from this. The famous portrait of Federico da Montefeltro painted by Piero della Francesca around the year 1470.

The portrait is part of a diptych, with Federico looking at his spouse, Battista Sforza, who stands opposite, but the actual reason for the unusual direction of the profile is that the right half of Federico’s face had been horribly disfigured in a tournament.

Federico, to whom the Duchy of Urbino owes its single historical moment of splendour, was one of the great art patrons of the Renaissance. He was also a condottiero, a soldier of fortune. While the House of Medici owed its immense wealth first to textile trading and then to banking – an activity intimately connected to warfare – Federico was one step closer to the battlefield still. The masterpieces of Laurana, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Piero della Francesca, Paolo Uccello, as well as the Duke’s own magnificent 'little study', were traded for in the blood of his soldiers.

Transfield Services is an operations, maintenance and construction services business, operating globally in the resources, energy, industrial, infrastructure, property and defence sectors. In New Zealand, it’s building the ultra fast broadband network and helps run Carter Holt Harvey’s Tasman Mill in Kawerau. In Australia, among very many other things, it has been contracted first by Labor, then by the Liberals to provide ‘garrison and welfare services’ to the refugee detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru, and is thus profiting directly – to the tune of AUD1.22 billion over 20 months – from policing one of the West’s racist frontiers.

The company also boasts a proud tradition of arts patronage, including a four-decade association with the Sydney Biennale that ended this year after nine artists withdrew from the event in protest of Transfield’s sponsorship. As part of the fallout, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis – executive director of Transfield and company co-founder along with his brother Franco – resigned his chairmanship of the Biennale board. Both brothers voiced strong opinions as to the spurious merits of the boycott, and insisted that the company does good work in the detention centres (or, in Franco Belgiorno-Nettis’ words, provides ‘engaged service delivery’).

One could speak of the success of the boycott, notably in relation to prospects of the BDS campaign, but I’m interested today in the nexus of capitalism and the arts, and the rare occasions in which it becomes awkwardly transparent.

Transfield’s long-standing association with a major art event reminds us that one of the principal functions of contemporary art, as it was at the time of Federico da Montefeltro or Lorenzo il Magnifico, is to confer prestige upon the powerful – a prestige that often translates back into more power. In this country, Alan Gibbs assembled a large and spectacular private art collection by profiteering from the privatisation of state assets, and still he gets praised for occasionally allowing members of the public to see it. This is what’s normal. What is less normal is for the violence that underlies the accumulation of capital to become visible and disrupt the nexus. When this happens, we can expect critics to be reminded of their subservient role, like when Tao Wells dared to use public money for an art installation in praise of the unemployed life. The violence, in this case, was metaphorical, but only just. And as our then acting Social Development Minister (who also happened to be the Minister of Justice) and our leading weekly magazine issued vague threats to the public funding body for overstepping the boundaries of propriety, so too in Australia did the Arts Minister (who also happens to be the Attorney General) ask the national arts council to develop a policy that would prevent organisations from turning down private money ‘unreasonably’, or lose their federal funding.

I would be interested in a definition of what might be ‘reasonable’, if not a private company’s involvement in a programme of state persecution and violence. But as Senator Brandis himself clarified, what he meant by ‘unreasonably’ is ‘on political grounds’. His was therefore a direct assault on the right to criticism traditionally afforded by liberal democracies to a select few individuals, namely well-regarded artists and tenured academics. A perceived independence that in turns assists sometimes in obfuscating how those institutions – the arts world, universities – are crucial to the legitimacy of the state, and to the myth of a society in which everyone is free to speak their mind.

I’m as guilty as the next left-wing blogger type of using the word ‘neoliberal’ in vague fashion, to denote the things that are especially dire about the current stage of capitalism. But it seems to me that if we still find proper neoliberalism anywhere, it’s precisely here, in the dismissal of those cherished liberal fictions, for they are no longer necessary or useful. When politicians pass laws to make protests or boycotts illegal; when they dismiss the value of an education in the humanities; when they declare that publicly funded organisations shouldn’t be free to criticise the government; above all, when they state, like Senator Brandis did, that we must take the money. ‘What we can’t have in this country is a culture in which arts companies and arts administrators are not encouraging private philanthropy,’ he said. We just can’t have it. We won’t. And encouraging – that is to say, courting – private philanthropy is another service we provide to wealthy magnates and corporations, as well as a tangible sign of our grateful servitude. We bow still before the mighty Duke.

Obliquely, the injunction to take the money reminds me of the magazine editor’s plea to the nation’s writers to stop giving away their work for free, which came in the midst of the continuing collapse of freelance rates and the vanishing of salaried writing jobs. It is singularly ironic that writers and artists should be berated for withdrawing their labour just as their work becomes less valued and more insecure, but it’s not without a certain grim logic. You are only as good as the work you do as measured by the marketplace, and never for its social value. To operate outside or interfere with the mechanisms of this marketisation, or begrudge the role of business, places you outside of the public sphere. For that choice you must be punished.

But I don’t want to end on a dismal note. The boycott, after all, was a success. Of the nine artists who made it possible, I feel that we should salute in particular the two who didn’t enter their works again after Transfield withdrew. They are Gabrielle de Vietri and Charlie Sofo. They felt, it seems, that their campaign had only just begun.


Unknown said...

Gio; You are only as good as the work you do as measured by the marketplace, and never for its social value.

Or indeed be of no value at all.

Matt said...

Read with this post in mind, this paragraph from an AFR interview with Brandis takes on a new inflection:

"[Brandis is] part counsellor to the Prime ­Minister, part political enforcer and part Renaissance man as arts minister – not to be confused with his assumed role ... as ­cultural warrior."

Ben Wilson said...

I feel everything about this post, every day. Essentially, I'd love to give away the tedious technical life that employed me, and probably will in the future, in order to engage more with writing. But I simply do not believe I could remotely afford it. The world has lost me as an artist. I may never have been a good artist, but probably no one will ever know.

I had an interesting conversation on these lines with my business partner somewhere around 7 years ago. I pointed out to him that our current economic organization does not maximize the potential of the people in it, that very few people end up working in something they love. Quite the opposite, most people end up doing things they don't like for most of their day and the rest of the day telling themselves it isn't so bad, or just distracting themselves. All because they've got to pay the bills.

He disagreed, said he loved his work and had done very well from it (he's a millionaire from writing email software). But we've known each other since childhood, had been great friend for 25 years, so he couldn't bullshit me about this. I asked him "if money had been no object at all, from a young age, what would you have done?", to which he had to answer honestly, because he knew that I knew the answer: "I'd have written computer games". He is an absolute game nut. At our very first meeting, aged 14, he handed me a game he'd written. He has done dozens since then, just for fun. He topped the NZ Playstation trophy board for years. So I concluded "There, you see, the system has even fucked you up. Despite the millions, you haven't spent the time doing what you like at all". To which he answered from the purest playbook of neoliberalism "Yeah, well, then there's reality. There's no money in writing games for young guys in this country. It's too risky".

We've since parted ways, business-wise, although remaining as amicable as is possible under such circumstances. I had a call from him late last year. It was weird. It turned out he's enrolled himself in a degree in computer game writing. He told me all about it, seemed to be really loving it. This was a massive revelation to him, that such a course could be so enjoyable (he dropped out of high school at 17 and never looked twice at education since).

So there he is, now a member of the privileged wealthy. What does he really want to do with all that money? Exactly what he could have been doing 20 years earlier, had he not felt forced by economic circumstances to chase the almighty dollar. He might have written some amazing stuff - certainly what he did write that I saw was pretty bloody good, and those were spare time projects.

As for me, the chances of my writing my magnum opus grow slimmer every year. Even if I was going to, the dictates of income have already steered me very much towards the kind of writing that can, at least, make reasonable money - trashy fiction. All of the story plans I ever had were of that ilk, with the long term plan that such writing would only be a means to an end, to be able to then have the financial security to write something meaningful afterward. Meaningful to me, that is. Even my dreams had a strong thread of neoliberal austerity in them.

Sorry for the long waffle. I shouldn't be doing this, should be studying my partial derivatives. Except they're boring. I'm almost dreading that I'll end up in a job using them.

Unknown said...

Thought-provoking as usual, but is all private money automatically "tainted" and is all public money spent in support of the arts well spent? I love opera, but I feel somewhat guilty everytime I go that, although the prices I pay for tickets are already outrageous, theatres are in fact subsidised by the state, which could with that same money build one more hospital, provide more welfare, or what have you.... in some way, I feel more at ease going to the opera in the US, because then my "guilty" pleasure is not tinged by the deep knowledge of how that money could be better spent for the public good.

Lyndon said...

''Never again in Australia will we have a situation in which a person may be taken to court for expressing a political opinion,'' Senator Brandis said...

... but apparently only if it's racist.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Matt: Hah! Yes, quite.

Ben: From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Including their need to practice art, or write, or design computer games. I have read more than one piece lately about the toxic nature of the advice "do what you love", and it makes me mad every time.

Nicola: I wouldn't say public money is untainted, of course. If you get rid of Transfield, the principal founder of the Biennale may well be the federal government, ie the people who contracted Transfield to run the camps. Of course boycotting the state is a different strategic proposition, but not an altogether impossible one (there are Israeli BDS campaigners, and Australian political activists who campaign for international sanctions against Australia). I'm not sure about your example, though. I would say that opera is only marginally less essential than hospitals and schools. If we tax those philanthropic corporations more maybe we'll be able to fund it alongside those other services. Quite aside from the fact that funding the arts has an economic return.

Lyndon: yes, the decriminalisation of racism is a good one. I had heard Abbott speak about it but not Brandis - although being the AG of course he would have.

Brooke Mitchell said...

You might be aware of this, but this conversation reminds me of The Escape from Woomera video game.

It's not often you see the extensive links between art and warfare so skillfully deployed.

Giovanni Tiso said...

This is utterly fascinating and I knew nothing about it. Thank you.

Scott said...

Hi Ben,

would it be impossible to combine writing with your present job and lifestyle? It's a sad fact that most of NZ's writers have irksome day jobs. The Herald recently ran a story on Bob Orr, a very fine poet who has spent his life working with tugboats. Ron Silliman, one of the US's best-known poets, has worked as a computer programmer for decades. I know of a writer who recently chucked in teaching Creative Writing to become a gardener. Come to think of it, two of Britain's finest contemporary writers, Iain Sinclair and Alice Oswald, have done long stints as gardeners.

If you're short of time, why not write short works, or episodic longer works. William Carlos Williams wrote the poems in Kora in Hell one at a time, at the end of long days of doctoring. The episodic feel of JG Ballard's late '60s work comes not from a simple desire to experiment but from the fact that the great man and solo Dad was trying to crank out a couple of paragraphs at a time while his kids watched Blue Peter.

And if you ever start feeling too sorry for yourself, just think about the boys and girls of the Sealaka Club in Nuku'alofa, who sometimes literally go hungry for their art: (mind you, they don't have to work and get cheap narcotics every night...)

Unknown said...

This is, on many levels - an essay on value.
There is an attempt at present to garner funds to preserve a floor of a house McCahon lived in at Muriwai. It has paint splashes coating it's boards.

Ben Wilson said...

@Scott, the main problem is that my day job, when I had one, was extremely mentally draining. No mental energy left at the end of the day. And yes, getting into writing by doing it in your spare time around a day job is pretty much the only model that works for anyone except the idle rich. My point is that this very fact is a consequence of our economic organization.

Certainly I've given up rather softly by comparison to lots of authors. But I'm not sure that the common thread in most authors lives being poverty and family strife through the necessity of putting writing ahead of either paid work or time spent with family is a good thing. Neither are prices I'm prepared to pay.

Scott said...

Hi Ben,

I remember Roger Horrocks, the extremely busy founder of the U of A's Film and TV Studies department, saying he tried to write one line of poetry on the bus each day. How about that?

Horrocks' book of bus poems is a minor classic of NZ lit...

Giovanni Tiso said...

That's fantastic!