Short ‘provocation’ on art and the ethics of corporate sponsorship

Delivered at a symposium titled “Take the Money and Run” organised by Platform and ArtsAdmin held at Toynbee Hall, London 29 January 2015

Marxism differentiates between revolutionary political movement and reformist social democracy. It’s a useful distinction. The campaign for ‘fair wages’ in the C19th was rejected by Marx as a social democratic means of preserving the existing class rule. While acknowledging that workers would benefit from the small increase in wages determined to be ‘fair’, Marx said the workers movement should reject the policy and demand nothing short of the abolition of the wage system. He compared the campaign for fair wages to a hypothetical campaign to reform slavery rather than abolish it.

Marx was not opposed to trade unions demanding higher wages. The class war is expressed through the struggle over wages, he said. So, Marxists are fully committed to the struggle over wages and dismissive of political parties that call for fairer wages or restrict themselves to policies of the redistribution of wealth. Politically, therefore, Marxists like me find themselves supporting political movements that we also criticise. What’s more, we tend to find ourselves among political activists who are far more enthusiastic about a particular protest than we are because they do not share the nagging feeling that this protest, equivalent to the struggle over wages, is both an expression of genuine political antagonisms and a mechanism for containing those antagonisms within the wage system itself.

I want to explain how the political campaign for the ethical corporate sponsorship of art leaves a Marxist like me with mixed feelings.

Thirty years of conspicuous apathy and professional cynicism in the artworld appear to have come to a glorious end. Political protest has reasserted itself in public acts of dissent, direct action and speaking truth to power. Although art’s apparatus has been subject to scrutiny by artists on and off since the formation of institution critique in the 1970s, the current mode of art’s political critique has become more general and more activist. Individual artists and art groups have withdrawn from exhibitions for various reasons in the past, but the current spate of art boycotts is rooted in a genuine political turn.

At the heart of this new politicisation of art is a critique of art’s institutions that extends the agenda of institutional critique into a fully fledged confrontation with art’s institutions and their corporate funders. And one of the principal tools of this confrontation is the art boycott. Even when activists do not actually boycott museums, the new political campaigns that put direct pressure on art’s institutions are guided, it seems to me, by the logic of the boycott.

The art boycott has established itself as a political device for calling institutions, corporations and the state to account. If art institutions are the perfect medium for ideology (in which material practices are displaced with high ideals), the art boycott confronts the ideology with the social reality that it misrepresents. Art’s new era of protest is a genuinely politicising historical event. Protest is beautiful, but if the politics of protest does not lead to a revolutionary movement then it becomes nothing more than a series of campaigns to preserve capitalism by softening its rough edges.

The political revival of the boycott in recent years feels like the reassertion of popular political activism but it belongs to the tradition of consumer activism. Iris Marion Young has charted how ethical consumers, initially students, developed in the late-1990s, as a form of political activism. The key idea, here, is that ‘a transnational system of interdependence and dense economic interaction’ is the objective ground of an expansive moral responsibility. Students in American Universities were successful in campaigning against official University clothing being produced in sweatshops and this success led to an expansion of the agenda, targeting the likes of Nike, and an expansion of the political constituency of the protest against unethical corporations.

This sense of ethical responsibility pervades the new tendency in art boycotting and the revival of the political boycott which share is a new impetus that the consumer boycott lacked. The political landscape was redrawn by the Arab Spring of 2011 ushering in new modes of political organization across Europe and America, especially through the implementation of new techniques for political activism.

The boycotting tendency in art resembles the industrial strike and borrows its techniques from the consumer boycott, but it derives its momentum from the occupy movement, despite the fact that boycotts withdraw from sites rather than take them over. Informed and spurred on by the Italian Autonomia movement’s promotion of withdrawal, the boycott today is no longer principally associated with the withdrawal of labour but the ‘block’ gesture, one of the General Assembly hand signals used in consensual discussions.

Noam Chomsky is not wrong to say that “the Occupy movement is the first real, major popular reaction that could avert” the effects of neoliberalism and globalisation that have been hegemonic for over 30 years. However, Zizek declares at the same time that the ‘great revival of protest’ after the Arab Spring consists ‘not [of] proletarian protests, but protest against the threat of being reduced to proletarian status’. If there is an element of truth to Zizek’s class analysis of the revival of protest, then it is a carrier of conformism and complicity even while it stands up against governments, corporations and institutions.

The problem with boycotting a biennial or other art institution in regard to a particular issue (oil, arms dealers, gay rights, gentrification etc) is that it implies that the institution under normal circumstances is ok. What happens when the corporate sponsor that fails the vetting process of consumer responsibility is successfully ousted from the art institution? Does another, slightly less objectionable corporate sponsor take its place? What kind of corporation is politically acceptable? Banks, supermarkets, car manufacturers, fashion brands, agribusinessnesses, global coffee chains? Or, are we thinking of ethical banks, ethical car corporations, ethical fashion brands, and so on? My view is that no capitalist organisation can possibly be politically or ethically acceptable so long as its existence depends entirely on exploitation. As such, I find it impossible to get behind any campaign against this or that corporate sponsor. I want the abolition of corporate sponsorship for the arts. Actually I would extend this to a ban on all advertising, too, but that’s another provocation for another day.

What is neglected in the contemporary short-circuiting of options for art’s relationship to big business, is the full range of the non-economic, in which we can discern three antagonisms: (1) the confrontation between the economic and the non-economic, (2) the employment of political mechanisms rather than market mechanisms for arriving at collective decisions, and (3) the substitution of consumer preference with discourses of value.

We can begin to build an alternative to the neoliberal hegemony only by developing conceptions of the non-economic and citizen sovereignty in a ‘political economy of labour’ instead of the ‘political economy of capital’. We must resist ‘economics imperialism’ and develop processes of de-commodification, as well as rid the public sphere of those who occupy it by virtue of renting advertising space. Hardt and Negri’s concept of the Common Wealth and the commons belongs to this reconstitution of economic relations and David Harvey’s concept of the ‘cultural and intellectual commons’ is important because it combines art and science under a unified description of ‘what should be common knowledge open to all’. Walter Benjamin’s dashed hopes about how culture might be reconfigured as a result of the introduction of technologies of mechanical reproduction must now be reinterpreted as a collision between capital and anti-capital, not as the utopian content of technology but the revolutionary promise of non-capitalist social relations.
I hope it is clear that I am not advocating the allegedly Marxist policy of the Stalinists that cultural questions have to wait until after the political revolution. The Marxist distinction between revolutionary movements and reformist social democracy ask us, rather, to ask whether our political activism in art serves to preserve the bourgeois apparatus of art or leads towards a revolution in the art system itself.


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