Stephen Pritchard

Stephen Pritchard

Stephen Pritchard is a final-year PhD researcher at Northumbria University exploring how activist art and radical social praxis might create spaces for acts of resistance and liberation.

 "Culture is BAE Systems Britain", appropriated government overseas advertising image, Stephen Pritchard, 2018.
Tuesday, 06 March 2018 17:12

The Great North Exhibition and BAE

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stephen Pritchard protests with a blog against the involvement of BAE Systems in the Great Exhibition of the North, and Keith Armstrong protests with a poem.

This blog is a brief response to the artwashing of the Great Exhibition of the North, particularly the inclusion of BAE Systems as a "premier partner" of the event, which is billed as the UK's biggest event for 2018. There's a campaign to force event organisers to remove BAE Systems from the list of sponsors and I'm a member, but I want to consider the following questions in relation to the scandal: a) Who really organises the exhibition? b) Where is the money coming from? c) Who decides on sponsors? I suggest the arts community in the North East may have had little, if any choice in the decision to brand the event with a weapons manufacturer with a terrible reputation.

Just what on earth is going on with the Great Exhibition of the North? An event dreamt up by the Tories to showcase their outlandish vision of the Northern Powerhouse has become the site of artwashing on an epic scale! The biggest cultural event on the UK calendar this year, the exhibition has revealed its three "premier partners" - each of which will benefit significantly from massive media exposure across the UK and around the world. It was bad enough to find that two of the three exclusive partners - Virgin and Accenture - are renowned tax-avoiders and well-versed in exploiting and privatising our public services, but to find that weapons manufacturer BAE Systems are set to benefit from their association with the Great Exhibition of the event left me absolutely dumfounded!

I mean, the decision to accept sponsorship from BAE Systems simply beggars belief. The company has made billions from the sale of weapons and mass surveillance technologies to oppressive regimes and has been widely criticised for doing so. Its weapons have been used by Saudi Arabia to kill innocent men, women and children in Yemen. The company's weapons have also been used by Israel against innocent Palestinian families. How can exhibition organisers legitimately defend their decision to attach such a brand to the event? Are artists and organisations involved in the event aware that their names are being used by BAE Systems to sanitise their image as symbols of their commitment to corporate social responsibility? This is artwashing on a grand scale: the artwashing of the North of England - its communities, its artists, its people. It is absolutely outrageous!

Some artists have already withdrawn. I am part of a group of artists and arts professionals calling for the Great Exhibition of the North to #dropBAE. Our petition had almost 800 signatories at the time of writing this blog. It is deeply unethical to have BAE’s name associated with the exhibition and it taints the proud cultures and heritage of the people of Newcastle and Gateshead and, indeed, the North. Artwashing works by using brand association with arts events, like the Great Exhibition of the North, to create what appears to be a caring image to the general public. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a PR exercise in false claims of "corporate social responsibility" to disguise unsavoury corporate activities - in this case the wholesale export of arms and advanced surveillance equipment that murder people and spy on them. BAE Systems are the antithesis of social justice. Their products kill innocent people and take away human rights.

So why would anyone want to associate such an important festival of arts, heritage, culture and creativity with a producer of mass destruction and control? It is all too easy to blame the organisers - the NewcastleGateshead Initiative - or the arts organisations, or the artists, or the other board members, for that matter. We must remember that this event is primarily paid for by the Tories - by the UK government. The Great Exhibition of the North is a government initiative. And BAE Systems are a tax-payer subsidised company. So is it really that surprising that they were chosen to benefit from this festival? They employ many people in the North East. For the Tories, that's a "no-brainer". They wouldn't think twice about ethics or about brand identity. This is just a vehicle for their own Conservative notions of "the North" and neoliberal enterprise.

So this is a political issue. The artwashing of BAE Systems at the Great Exhibition of the North is a political issue. It is another example of the state-supported corporate takeover of the arts, just like the recent appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to the national council of Arts Council England.

I would not be at all surprised to learn that the DCMS and Government Office forced exhibition organisers and participants to accept the prominent branding of BAE Systems. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that BAE Systems had contributed little, if anything in terms of financial sponsorship. I wouldn't be surprised if all the sponsors were selected by the Tories. And all this in a part of the country firmly committed to the principles of community, hard work, and solidarity: a Labour heartland. THEY are trying to tear out our hearts and turn the North East into a sales event for weapons and tax-avoidance. Artists are once again used as pawns, with precarity used against them at every opportunity.

We must say no! Please sign the petition now.

Great North Exhibition 2018 from Great Northern on VimeoThis article is republished from Stephen Pritchard's blog.

55 Degrees North

by Keith Armstrong

They're going to illuminate Scotswood,
make missile entrepreneurs in Elswick.
Someone's set fire to our Arts reporter,
it's another Cultural Initiative.
Sting's buying the Civic Centre,
they're filling the Great North with tanks.
The Sage is changing its name to BAE,
Shane's pissed on the Royal conductor.
They're floating quangos down the Tyne,
the bonfire will be at Shields.
They're bringing tourists to witness miracles,
the Chief Executive will strip for money.
They're blowing up the Castle Keep
to build an installation.
They're giving the locals more top down Art,
it's something to silence our kids with.
They're taking live theatre to the cemetery,
the vicar will write an Arts Council poem.
Steve Cram's taken up painting
to stop his nose from running.
The river will be made into an ice rink,
we can play with our boats in the bath.
Let this Great Nation bomb the Middle East,
they're making a museum of our politics.
Stuffing glass cases with old principles,
the head hunters are out and about.
It's cultivated jobs for the boys and the girls,
they're putting the Arts into centres.
Drain the music from our souls,
we have to be grateful to be patronised.
Their self righteousness grins from on high,
let the bombs fly and rockets rip.
We can enjoy some more tamed Art,
say cheerio to your history.
They've wrapped it up in moth balls,
thank God for the boys from the south.
They've saved us from self government,
we've missed out on the Joy Parade.
This City of Culture got lost in the end,
the Angel glowers over us though.
Thanks again City Fathers,
your office blocks look uglier each day.
You've reinvented our culture for us,
you've rendered it meaningless.
Guts ripped out,
we touch our forelock to your glorious Lords.
From the orifice of the House of Commons
leaks the corrupt emptiness of your Tory manifesto.
The aching past of the working man
has become the death of England.
Let us hail you from NewcastleGateshead,
a city you made up for yourselves.
Let us watch your empty schemes plummet,
let us learn to dance in community again.
We are Geordies naked with a beautiful anger to burn.

 

Time to take art back from the capitalists: a brief history of art and artwashing
Thursday, 15 February 2018 11:08

Time to take art back from the capitalists: a brief history of art and artwashing

Published in Cultural Commentary

Stephen Pritchard outlines a brief history of art, property and artwashing, and calls on us to take art back from the capitalists – in all their guises.

Art has always been a form of property. During the Renaissance, art was the property of Royalty, the nobility and the church. It was a symbol of property, of ownership, status, influence, power, wealth. The advent of oil painting reinforced art’s status as an object to be owned. Gilding and gold framing paintings hung on wealthy people’s walls – sometimes entirely covering them. Artists were commissioned by their rich patrons to produce more and more art: portraits, landscapes, busts, sculptures, etc. all reinforcing the image of power and wealth and ownership. Art and artists became the property of the rich. Interior decoration reflecting external decoration, all serving to cement the status of patrons and the servitude of artists. Art became something to buy, to own, to sell. Artists struggled to make a living as the rich exploited their skills and their labour in return for meagre pickings.

SP thomas gainsborough mr and mrs andrews 1749 1

Thomas Gainsborough, Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750

Even the relatively elevated status of artists, increasing slowly from the late 19th century to now, did nothing to change the status of art objects as symbols of property, ownership, wealth and power. Appropriation of objects as art objects failed to change the status quo. The establishment has always been quick to appropriate even the appropriation of objects as art. Art as process rather than product attempted to avoid recuperation by the art market and by those who sought to instrumentalise art for economic and social agendas. It too failed. Processes can also be subsumed by the art world as art. They are ready-made for instrumentalisation. And art also became a means of reproduction of images and desires that made it the perfect tool for publicity – for advertising, marketing, media, self-promotion and, ultimately, as a way of reinforcing state propaganda and corporate “social responsibility” agendas.

Art has always been used as a veneer for property – for capital. It’s development perfectly mirrors the development of capitalism and, indeed, the complexities of neoliberalism. Art’s development also reflects the development of empires, the division of labour, free market economics, social “improvement” and “inclusion” agendas, individualism, etc., etc. This is, of course, a brief overview of art that ignores alternative histories, radical uses of art that avoided appropriation, amateur and “outsider” art, creativity which is not classed by experts as art, Sholette’s notion of dark matter, etc. It is also a picture of the development of art as property that is most closely mapped by visual art and, more recently, by participatory and socially engaged forms of art. My approach to arguing that art always was and is more now than ever an object or product that represents wealth, power and property – in short, capital – is firmly based on the work of people like Walter Benjamin and John Berger. It is rooted in an understanding of art as a social product, and as representing social relations and individual relationships.

And it is this understanding that leads me to consider how art is today used to artwash a myriad of different property relations by a broad cohort of capitalists – from state to corporations, property developers to NGOs, advertising agencies to big arts organisations and cultural festivals and competitions. Artwashing seems like a catch-all term. A cheap hook to hang complexity on. It is! But artwashing is a complex deception. Artwashing does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions. Artwashing is nothing short of a breach of trust. Artwashing uses art to smooth and gloss over capitalism – it hides capitalism’s primitive aggression and acts of oppression that underwrites accumulation of capital by dispossession. Artwashing hides truths with false imagery and misleading or partial narratives. Artwashing can function as advertisement, “social licence”, public relations tool, and a means of pacifying local communities. Artwashing cleanses grimy, exploitative property relations and power.

Artwashing is used in the service of tangible capital and intangible capital. I have identified how it functions in at least five forms:

Corporate artwashing - corporations such as BP and Shell use artwashing as a form of sponsorship and PR, and many other brands now employ the arts in this way.

SP bp and shell 2

Developer-led artwashing – property developers open their own galleries, cover their developments with specially commissioned public art, street art, etc., and build entire “cultural quarters” that function to advertise areas as “up-and-coming” places.

SP street art

'Passionate about more than property': LondoNewcastle's Street Art Programme, 'allowing London's creative community to express and showcase their passion for art'

Government-led artwashing – state and local authorities use art to reinforce social agendas, notions of social and civic engagement, and to promote major regeneration programmes, creative visions and cultural competitions, etc.

SP art and regeneration 2

Arts-led artwashing – arts organisations and artists’ studios use artists’ labour and properties (including ex-public buildings like libraries, etc.) to make claims about economic and social benefits for everyone in the neighbourhood, when, in fact, the benefits only really extend to artists, arts professionals and board members. Interestingly, many arts organisations have board members from across the spectrum of property and capital and it is impossible to put their vested interests to one side when considering how and why they are involved in arts-led regeneration.

SP shipping containers

 Community artwashing - Artists become Social Capital Artists: the harvesters and monetisers of the intangible elements of people’s lives and the bonds and ties that once held vulnerable communities together. Once their social capital has been sifted, it is used as corporate PR and case studies for arts funders and the state; used as evidence of community engagement and consultation by local councils and property developers alike, validating the displacement of the very people who, by taking part in these ‘creative engagement processes’, gave their social capital away for free. This is the most divisive and pernicious form of artwashing and the most flagrant abuse of trust.

SP community led artwashing

So, today, artwashing takes forms as seemingly (but perhaps not actually) diverse as the movement of art galleries into Boyle Heights in LA, the take-over of libraries by V22 in London, the use of artists as live/ work property guardians by Bow Arts Trust and Poplar Harca in Balfron Tower in London, the use of “not-artists” to garner media attention for Granby 4 Streets CLT in Liverpool by “surprisingly” winning the Turner Prize, the use of artists as part of Creative City strategies in Hamburg and the Fjord City, the use of school children by property developers to document the demise of their own council housing and turn their art into advertising hoardings that hide the luxury properties replacing what was once their homes. On and on and on. The London Borough of Culture competition is another example. Glasgow City Council’s artist in empty properties scheme is another. On and on.

Artwashing is complex and has a multitude of applications. It is growing both as a practice and a term of opposition because our society, governments and corporations are so thoroughly invested in property that they are desperate to use art as a property to hide their insatiable lust for property. Art has cast-iron ties to capital – to capitalism.

Understanding and opposing artwashing is crucial to the urgent need to explode the notions that art is benign and serves as a “public good”. It is a way of opening up a debate that can unravel and rethink art’s insipient relationship to capital and neoliberal governance. Artwashing gives art a bad name. Art can, and mostly is, a way of freely expressing our personal experiences and feelings.

It is time we took art back from the capitalists – in all their guises.

This article was first published in Stephen's highly recommended blog, Colouring in Culture.