A brief art history of art, property and artwashing

This is a short article that aims to explain my arguments about artwashing.  It focuses on art's long-standing relationship to property, power and publicity.

Mephistopheles Flying, from Faust, lithograph, Eugène Delacroix, 1828

Mephistopheles Flying, from Faust, lithograph, Eugène Delacroix, 1828

A brief art history of art, property and artwashing

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.

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, however, many brands now employ the arts in this way.

· 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.

· 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.

· 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.

· 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.

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.