Mike Quille traces the links between corporate sponsorship and the distortion of history and art, in two recent exhibitions.
How do the ruling classes manipulate art and culture to secure political consent for oppression and exploitation? Two exhibitions on the 1917 Revolution in Russia go some way to providing an answer.
Most historians of Russian history in 1917 accept that both the February and October Revolutions in 1917 were both clear improvements on the Tsarist autocracy that preceded them.
Most cultural historians also recognise the explosion of creativity and the widespread democratisation of culture which followed the October Revolution. Art and cultural activities suddenly became exciting, accessible and relevant to many ordinary Russians.
But these are uncomfortable facts for our current rulers, who must crush any hopes for political or cultural progress if they are to stay on top. And there are two ways they can undermine those facts and hopes. One is to construct a biased and misleading narrative which ignores historical evidence and downplays artists’ support for the Revolution. This is the strategy which was followed in the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy, in its openly one-sided and distorted presentation of the politics and art of the Revolution.
The second way is to create a monumental fudge which obscures the real historical and cultural achievements of 1917, through a kind of chaotic eclecticism. This is the strategy followed by the British Library in its current exhibition of ‘a wide range of objects’ and in the mistaken, banal and often meaningless ‘guided tour’ offered by its curator in the Morning Star recently.
Let me take three examples from the curator’s article. The first is this statement:
‘Today, people are not so much concerned about the faults of capitalist society but are trying to find their way through the new challenges of the global world.’
How on earth anyone can write this in the middle of an election campaign in which the Labour Party are quite clearly trying to address the faults of a capitalist society which concern us all, is beyond belief.
The second is the individualistic focus on the ‘personal stories’ of those involved, and reliance on the ‘individual interpretations’ of visitors to the exhibition, rather than providing a broader historically-based understanding of Russian history, which is left for ‘academics to analyse’. Frankly, this is a cop-out, because curatorial practice, including the type of contextual and supporting material supplied, is bound to influence visitors’ perceptions.
It is also disingenuous, because the curators do have a message. They believe that the exhibition ‘can convey a simple idea that violence can only create more violence in response’. This is sloppy and simplistic thinking.
History is full of instances where individuals and classes have violently seized control of commonly held resources, and have been unwilling to give them up peacefully. They have had to be challenged, defeated and restrained by force as well as by peaceful argument, in order that most people can have a fair share of the earth’s resources. Of course peaceful persuasion is best, but what alternative is there to force if that doesn’t work to end exploitation? Would slaves, peasants and serfs have ever been freed without their violent, illegal rebellions?
The ‘violence breeds violence’ message conceals a defeatist political agenda. When the law itself is nothing more than a codification of unjust and oppressive social and economic relationships, it has to be challenged and changed by every means at our disposal.
Coincidentally – or perhaps not so coincidentally – both exhibitions have been sponsored by the Blavatnik Foundation. This foundation is the beneficiary of Britain’s second richest man, Leonard Blavatnik, who made a huge fortune after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the accompanying legalised robbery by private individuals and corporations of the wealth built up by the Russian people since 1917.
So money stolen from the Russian people is used to fund cultural exhibitions which – guess what? – distort the truth about Russian history. That is how dominant classes manipulate art and culture to secure consent for exploitation and oppression.
Have there ever been more obvious examples of the increasing corruption of our cultural institutions by corporate capital, masquerading as philanthropic or charitable foundations? A key demand of any progressive arts and culture policy must now be the complete abolition of private sponsorship of our common culture and heritage.
This article is also published in the Morning Star.
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.