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.