The need to free ourselves from capitalism
Saturday, 27 November 2021 07:47

Another cog in the machine of capitalism: the right wing, corporate takeover of the arts

Published in Cultural Commentary

Mike Quille finds more evidence of the corporate takeover of the arts.

What is art for? Is it just another form of social control?

A crucial part of the ability of a class to politically dominate society, and to justify its economic exploitation of the labour of working people, is the imposition of a matching set of cultural values on that society – and that includes art.

It’s why the late John Berger said in Ways of Seeing that ‘The art of any period tends to serve the ideological interests of the ruling class’. The ruling class uses the state to influence and channel the arts in this direction, just as it uses the state to discipline the population and fight its wars, at home and abroad.

For the Tsars of pre-1917 Russia, state patronage of the arts was crucial. It funded and supported policies, activities and artefacts – in theatre, opera, music, art, statues and monuments – which expressed and instilled the cultural values of autocracy, hierarchy and social superiority. Along with the more forceful expressions of state power – police, courts, prisons, army –  state-sponsored art and culture (including religion) facilitated the exploitation of Russian peasants and workers. Court officials, relatives, friends and supporters of the Tsar were handsomely rewarded for implementing this policy, in the various cultural institutions that they controlled.

However, many writers, artists, dramatists and sculptors resented this elitist mission, and these undemocratic and opaque ways of legitimising injustice. That is why there was such an explosion of cultural creativity and imagination alongside the Russian Revolution, across all the arts. For the first time in human history, artists had large-scale, official backing from the Bolshevik state to support, enhance and help lead the creation of a new society and a better world for everyone.

Now fast forward 100 years, to Britain in the twenty first century. The neoliberal ideology which has dominated our culture for half a century is crumbling to pieces, like the statue of Ozymandias. The government is desperately trying to patch together support for its reactionary, oppressive policies. In amongst the chaos, conflicts and injustices of Brexit, Grenfell Tower, gender inequality, and sexual harassment, Arts Council England, which exists to provide public subsidy to cultural institutions, decides it needs new Council members.

So who do you think is appointed by the Tory government, in order to defend and promote the imposition of corporate, capitalist values in art and culture? Who might have the relevant qualifications and experience at privatising the arts, and preventing the creation and consumption of art from becoming a communal, anti-capitalist, politically liberating force?

Step forward Elisabeth Murdoch, the daughter of Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and promoter of a global, right-wing, union-busting, tax-avoiding corporate capitalist agenda.

She’s unlikely to face much opposition within ACE to promoting an elitist arts agenda. Historically, ACE has always been focused on channelling state subsidies for the arts to the well off, particularly in the London area. Funding per capita for the arts in London is 10 to 15 times the funding received elsewhere. The kind of expensive arts favoured by the rich and powerful, often precisely because they are badges of elitism, exclusivity and expense, are mostly on offer in London. They are heavily subsidised by ACE, from public funds off taxpayers and Lottery players in the rest of the country.

It is also unlikely that ACE will change its own elitist culture, as it is now chaired by Nicholas Serota, former director of the Tate for an overlong 28 years. On his departure, staff were asked to contribute towards the purchase of a new boat – for a man who introduced zero hours contracts, would not recognise trade unions, and privatised some of Tate’s staff. He is one of the main figures in the arts world facilitating the ongoing corporate capitalist takeover of the arts.

The new Blavatnik Building in Tate Modern, for example, was part-funded by and named after the Ukrainian billionaire Len Blavatnik, the UK’s richest man in 2015. Blavatnik is a Trump supporter and donor. He recently funded a £5m extension to the V and A (named Blavatnik Hall, of course), and in 2017 helped fund one of the most spectacular but politically biased art exhibitions that the Royal Academy has ever mounted, of Russian revolutionary art. It is of course a complete coincidence that Blavatnik made his fortune from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are more complete coincidences. While at Tate, Serota oversaw the appointment of Ms. Murdoch as a Tate Trustee from 2008 to 2016, and Chairman of the Tate Modern Advisory Council from 2009 to 2016. During that time, The Freelands Trust (founded and chaired by Ms. Murdoch, and endowed with the unethical dividends of the Murdoch media empire) gave hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Tate.

Furthermore, Serota’s wife, Teresa Gleadowe – who sits on the Freelands Foundation advisory committee, of course – runs the Cornubian Arts and Science Trust, which funds the Groundwork arts project in Cornwall. This project is also supported by – guess who? – the Freelands Trust, and the Arts Council.

Gleadowe is also chair of Nottingham Contemporary, a company which won this year’s £100,000 Freelands Award, as judged by a selection panel which included – you’ve guessed – Elisabeth Murdoch and Teresa Gleadowe. You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Of course no law has been broken by these nefarious, opaque and potentially corrupt entanglements. But is it any wonder that, just like Russia in 1917, so many artists, performers and others (including no doubt employees of the Arts Council) are unhappy on a scale of everything from unease to outrage?

The Artists’ Union England has said this:

‘Artists' Union England's public call to reverse the appointment of Elisabeth Murdoch to ACE National Council has been supported by artists, trade unionists and workers in the arts and cultural industries.  This appointment exposes what is becoming an endemic culture of privilege and power within the art world that needs challenging and changing. The message to DCMS and Nicholas Serota is clear, Elisabeth Murdoch is neither qualified nor suitable for such a position.’

And artist Alice Gale-Feeny, one of the many signatories to the petition against the appointment, said this:

‘The art world has lost its sense of authenticity, purpose and agency and instead become just another cog in the machine of capitalism. Please reconsider your decision.’

So let us return to the question: what is art for? Does it have to be just bread and circuses, an instrument of ideological deception, diversion? Does it have to be so unequally funded, and so inaccessible geographically and financially for most people? Does it have to be run by a clique of bureaucrats who follow the agenda of the corporate capitalist ruling class?

No, of course it doesn’t. The Russian poet Alexander Blok, writing about the political and cultural revolution of 1917, said this: 

'With all your body, all your heart and all your mind, listen to the Revolution.'

Alice and Alexander are surely right. Art and all the other cultural pursuits like sport, religion, eating and drinking etc. are naturally enjoyable, liberating activities, which bring us together to share and celebrate our common humanity.

We desperately need far more democratic, transparently managed arts and cultural activities, which are truly meaningful, accessible and affordable for everyone, everywhere in the country. It is part of the social wage – like health and education and welfare benefits, it is our right. All of us – artists and other cultural workers, leaders of arts institutions, the general public – need to join in the cultural struggle, and create an anti-capitalist cultural revolution for the many, not the few.

We need bread, and we need roses, too: because culture matters.

See Stephen Pritchard's blog here for more details on Ms. Murdoch's appointment.

Roadworks 1985
Saturday, 27 November 2021 07:47

A protest against injustice: the art of Mona Hatoum

Published in Visual Arts

Christine Lindey reviews an exhibiton by Mona Hatoum at Tate Modern, London.

Mona Hatoum manages the rare feat of creating art about politics and the human condition without dry didacticism, but with barbed wit, elegance and subtlety. And has done so for over four decades. Born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents, she became marooned in London by the 1975 Lebanese war, having recently arrived there to study art. She subsequently settled in London but retained a lifelong internationalist outlook.

Her work blossomed while studying on Stuart Brisley’s radical MA course at the Slade School of Art which stressed socio-political content and expanded the artist’s means of expression to include performance, installations, video, film and print media. In resistance to the sexist cultural climate of the late 1970s, budding women artists like Hatoum were particularly receptive to these new art forms, which freed them from the oppression of centuries-old, male-dominated traditions of painting and sculpture.

Hatoum’s work positively fizzes with the breadth of expression this opened up. Her rigorous but imaginative choice of the most apt forms, processes and materials to suit each work’s content led to installations, posters, sculptures, film, posters and documented performance art. The most mundane objects and materials of everyday life such as soap, light bulbs, sand, hair, kitchen implements and neon tubes are transformed into visual poetry whose meanings can be teased out by the viewers’ active engagement rather than passive consumption.

Some works relate to specific topical events. The early performance Roadworks of 1985 (above) was spurred by that year’s protests against the police’s racist implementation of Thatcher’s hated stop and search laws which erupted into riots in Brixton. Wearing a boiler suit, Hatoum attached the laces of Doc Martins boots to each of her bare feet and “walked” laboriously through Brixton market, each step hampered by the bulk of the heavy boots. Commonly worn by policemen and National Front skin-heads, the Doc Martins referred to their racist harassment of Brixton’s Afro-Caribbean community, while Hatoum’s dogged physical perseverance and moral courage in facing the banter and bafflement at her action by the market’s public testify to human resilience.

Present Tense of 1996 is a more subtle but equally specific political statement. The deceptively simple installation carpets the floor with a rectangle of small, cream blocks softly gleaming in the light. Closer examination reveals these to be 2,200 bars of handmade olive oil soap from Nablus, upon which a map of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord is marked out in tiny red glass beads as delicately as embroidered beadwork. That Israel has since then further encroached on Palestinian land rather than honouring this agreement, makes the continuing relevance of this instillation all the more poignant. Typical of most of Hatoum’s work, it initially seduces with sensory beauty only to provoke with the seriousness of the issues it raises.

Over My Dead Body was a poster displayed in 1988 on adverting hoardings in cities including Glasgow, Leeds and Derry. A toy soldier, wielding a gun threateningly, is ridiculed by being placed on Hatoum’s nose as she glares angrily back at him. Using a form which demands directness, Hatoum made this powerful, anti-militarist statement through humour and dramatic changes of scale.

Other works engage with socio-political injustice and oppression in more general ways, allowing for multi-layered associations, complexities and contradictions. Light Sentence, whose title reinforces its allusion to imprisonment, is a large installation made of galvanised, wire mesh lockers stacked taller than a human being, to form a three-sided rectangle inside a smallish, rectangular space. A single, bare light bulb travels through the mesh throwing intimidating, but visually alluring, moving shadows whose cage-like forms entrap the viewer into a dizzying disorientation.

Similar vertiginously conflicting emotions are elicited by Impenetrable, a visually stunning ethereal sculpture consisting of a large rectangle formed by delicate, parallel metal rods apparently free floating from each other, hovering in space without any visible means of support. Closer inspection reveals the slim rods to be barbed wire suspended from the ceiling on transparent fishing wires. Aesthetic attraction turns to repulsion then back again, the work’s unsettling elegance nudging us to take nothing for granted.

The contemporary artist’s dilemma is how to make meaningful statements in a society saturated with images reproduced ad infinitum. The form of much of Hatoum’s work defies reproduction, so stressing the importance of primary experience. With fertile imagination and open-mindedness, Hatoum invents ever varied forms through which to express progressive ideas and responses to the world with acute moral and political judgement, passion, humour and beauty.

Tate Modern’s intelligently and deftly curated exhibition does justice to this truly important living artist. As one of the most exciting exhibitions of contemporary art staged in London in a long time it is not to be missed. You won’t be disappointed.

See Until August 21 2016.