The Status Quo Will No Longer Do! (The Corporate Takeover of Art & Artwashing, or Social Justice in a Cultural Democracy?)

I was kindly asked to talk alongside Labour MP Laura Pidcock, Jessie Jo Jacobs (Policy and Campaigns Officer, Northern TUC) and Ramona McCartney (National Officer for the People's Assembly) at the People's Assembly event, "In Place of Austerity", in Newcastle on 20th January 2018. It was an incredibly inspiring day! This is the transcript for my talk...

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For activist artist Jane Trowell of Platform London, ‘the corporate occupation of the arts is now a given’.

Art, now part of the UK Creative Industries, has been a key element for urban regeneration strategies for many years.

The government considers art in terms of outcomes. Artists as “outcome providers”.

Economic outcomes are ‘Employment’, ‘Inward Investment’, ‘Attracting a skilled workforce’, ‘Property values’, and ‘Visitor and residual spending’.

Social outcomes are ‘Increased social capital’, ‘Change in perception of area’, ‘Volunteering’, ‘Residents’ confidence’, ‘Community cohesion’, ‘Educational achievement’, ‘Improved health and wellbeing’, and ‘Crime reduction’.

Environmental outcomes are ‘Reuse of redundant buildings’, ‘Increased sense of public safety’, ‘Reduced vandalism’, and ‘Pride in place’ (Centre for Economics and Business Research, 2013, p. 88).

The state uses art and artists to deliver its agendas – neoliberal agendas.

There Is No Alternative. There Is No Alternative. There is no alternative to neoliberalism, they say.

We are all producers and consumers nowadays.

We are masters and slaves.

The lie of neoliberalism is that we can do whatever we want nowadays. That we are free to do whatever we want. We are not.

This is the exploitation of freedom. Liberation by subjugation.

We are told we can do what we want, be who we want but we cannot. We are forced to comply to subtle norms dressed as democratic choice. We are compelled to obey; to conform to civic norms – their norms. The norms of privileged white, middle-class, Christian, male, heterosexual, able-bodied people. The norms of our oppressors.

This is the soft violence of neoliberalism.

And this provides cover for those in power to carry out ever more blatant acts of accumulation by dispossession. Everything becomes capital. Corporate capital. The state become its agent. The enabler of theft. The partner of modern-day robber barons.

Art has always been a tool for the oppression of others. It is inherently linked to the development of the bourgeoisie. Yet it has been a symbol of power, status, wealth and property at least since civilisation began.

Art is the weapon of choice for soft power. State soft power and corporate soft power.

So, it is little wonder that art and artists are instrumentalised by the neoliberal state – by our state - to carry out ideological attacks on working-class people and marginalised and devastated communities.

It is a mask for austerity, workfare, localism and the dispossession of homes, social spaces, community facilities, jobs, on and on. Art becomes a veil for the theft of our hard-fought material gains and our strong, proud communities.

It is little wonder that art is used by corporations to sell things to us, convince us that they’re ethical when they’re clearly not, create a veneer of luxury that reminds us that, like art (at least their concept of art), some things just aren’t for us – they’re for them.

In these situations, art becomes artwashing.

Yet creativity is part of what makes us human. Call it art if you like. It is time to liberate our creativity from our oppressors as part of the liberation of our everyday lives from neoliberalism and an authoritarian and deeply elitist monoculture.

We are faced with the appointment of bourgeoise elites like Elisabeth Murdoch – Rupert’s daughter and heiress to his media empire – a “patron” of the arts who claims to want to use art to improve how children are educated, to improve opportunities for women in the arts, to make society better. The Tories have appointed her to Arts Council England's National Council! All the while, she’s raking in profits in shares from News Corp and from a raft of venture capitalist investments including online global betting platforms - from gambling - that use cryptocurrency to avoid local tax regulations.

The corporate takeover of the arts mirrors the corporate takeover of our everyday lives. We must oppose it.

Yet art is complicit in social cleansing and gentrification. It’s essential we acknowledge this. That we think and act ethically and that might mean making some tough decisions, sometimes turning down work. To understand the history of art and gentrification.

You see, some artists and arts organisations have always skirted the edges of gentrification.

Like pretty moths, they have happily fluttered around the naked flame of accumulation by dispossession, quietly spinning intricate little cocoons in decrepit capitalist disinvestment.

Precision migrants, they move on the favourable wind of financial investment, astutely drawn by the tiny new bright lights of frontier navigation beacons.

Intention is everything in this cyclical and cynical gentrification dance and artists can no longer play the role of innocent victim.

Some artists nibble away the decaying fabric of working-class community; part of a complex, multi-scalar global infrastructural web spun by transnational agents – property developers, investors, banks, big brand retailers, managed wealth funds, NGOs and the creative industries – using the fine silk state investment.

But, whilst there are few strings attached for corporate regeneration ‘partners’, the creative industries willingly trade funding and cultural status in exchange for increased state instrumentalisation, partial privatisation and new civic responsibilities.

And, cajoled by the state into ever-deepening relationships with the private sector, many arts organisations, artists, architects, etc. discovered new value in the intangible worlds of ‘community development’ and ‘community engagement’.

From community arts to placemaking, some artists coalesced under socially engaged art’s catch-all banner.  Quickly and quietly depoliticised, they became, I argue, Social Capital Artists: specialists in artwashing.

There are at least five forms of artwashing:

CORPORATE ARTWASHING involves big businesses using artwashing as a form of PR. Arts sponsorship, as activist Mel Evans pointed out, is about legitimising the corporate ‘social licence to operate’. A fundamental element for many businesses, it persuades the public to trust them (2015, pp. 70-84).

Specially commissioned ‘street art’ and even carefully sited art galleries are hallmarks of DEVELOPER-LED ARTWASHING, enabling developers like LondoNewcastle, to promote individuality, fashionability, luxury and even ‘edginess’ to clients.  ‘Arty’ pop-up box parks are another form of developer-led artwashing.

LOCAL AUTHORITY ARTWASHING uses art to rebrand communities THEY rebranded “failing” – part of a cultural rezoning. For example, Southwark Council’s film paints over the Heygate Estate, the Elephant and Castle shopping centre – over local people: housing estates obliterated; the faces of "Other" races literally painted over with white paint - whitewashed! And the council called this their "Cultural Vision". This is a racist vision. It is outrageous!

ARTS-LED ARTWASHING.  Like Bow Arts Trust and their work with property developers and housing associations.  They used artists and arts events to artwash the 100% social cleansing of Balfron Tower.  Balfron Social Club opposed the artwashing of this stolen council housing icon.

Lastly, COMMUNITY ARTWASHING.  Like the ‘story harvesting’ of people living in social housing on the Aylesbury estate by Sticking Together SE17 – a socially engaged art commission to examine the ‘civic role of the arts’ that didn’t talk about the estate’s impending demolition.  Or The People’s Bureau - commissioned by Tate Modern, Southwark council, the developers of Elephant and Castle shopping centre, etc.  The artists involved designated it as an ‘opportunity area’.

Or Assemble … The story goes that Granby 4 Streets CLT happened upon a crazy not-artist/ not-architect collective and began collaborating with them to do up ten houses in Toxteth, Liverpool which, against all understanding and expectations, somehow won the 2015 Turner Prize. That’s the story.  Yet the reality is very different.  Posh group of mainly ex-Cambridge graduates, Assemble, were commissioned by the Community Land Trust which has a board of senior arts figures and financial investors. They were paid to do the work; to produce designs. 

But the idea that the Turner Prize-winning regeneration project was led by a committed group of community members who had remained in Granby even after the devastation of New Labour’s Pathfinder programme, is unfortunately false.  Funding was provided by a secret private investor from Jersey.  

Community artwashing claims to ‘build’ or ‘grow’ social capital within ‘deficient’ communities using participation in arts activities as a façade for the simultaneous ‘harvesting’ of local people’s existing social capital.  Art is used as a way of building ‘trust’, and socially engaged artists are experts in embedding within communities and earning their trust.

Social capital obtained during community artwashing also serves to produce attractive photographs of often marginalised and excluded people being creative – the perfect way to sell an ‘up-and-coming’ area as ‘authentic’, creative and cool; a place where artists are working with communities, living amongst them and making art; a beacon for hipsters and other creatives.  

Often, when art attempts to engage communities or to ‘include’ those with low levels of cultural engagement, it not only Others and devalues their own cultures but it also disempowers them by attempting to replace their ways of being and living with those of middle-class culture.  It does this through the conservative, economic definitions of trust, networks and norms of bourgeois culture and neoliberalism which are inherent within social capital theory.

But many artists and activists use art in direct opposition to the oppressive art of artwashing. Just look at what’s happened at Elephant and Castle. Local people, art students, artists, activists and some Labour councillors defeated a plan by the London College of Communication – part of the world-famous University of the Arts London – and tax-avoiding, uber-privileged, high-flying property developers and big-time Tory donors Delancey to socially cleanse the shopping centre and surrounding community facilities and market traders.

A monopoly… Artwashing exploits working-class people’s hopes and dreams. It ‘harnesses’ them, hope by hope and dream by dream and turns them into saleable, commodified art.

Artwashing isn’t about corporate social responsibility.

Artwashing eats up the lives of those most in need.

Artwashing must be resisted.  It must be called out!

Artwashing exploits by deceit. It exploits people’s trust. Artwashing does not only intend to deceive, it also makes untruthful assertions. It is nothing short of a breach of trust.

Art is, perhaps, a mirror for society – a window into our lives, our selves. As a humanist and a socialist, I truly believe that it is not only time to organise and speak out against the injustices and soft violence of neoliberalism and oppressive Tory ideologies such as austerity, but that art can offer a way of producing acts of resistance, acts of refusal.

We must learn once more to stand up as individuals and self-organised collectives as say NO to power.

Because art that is instrumentalised and normalised as a tool for technocratic neoliberal governance or corporate exploitation subtly instils obedience, false consent, compliance and conformity upon its participants.  This, as is illustrated by key social psychologists, deprives individuals of their freedom to achieve self-realisation and relative autonomy; it kills creativity; it disempowers and alienates us.

For example, the works of psychoanalysts D.W. Winnicott and Erich Fromm reintroduce notions of playing, living creativity, the aesthetic experience as cultural experience, potential space, noncompliance, disobedience, self-realisation, and freedom into our ways of considering how art and creativity are part of everyday life and what that might mean about how we live creatively together.

The arts are essentially humanistic and social.  This is the moment to think of the arts as such rather than instrumentalise them in the name of conformity or financial gain, or reduce them to numbers and evidence-based functions in the positivist conceits of measurability and accountability.

It is clear that contrary to the idea that there is no alternative, there ARE ALTERNATIVES. Our alternatives. We must free ourselves of the neoliberal straightjacket if we are to decolonise our lives and demand social justice.

We must engage with, critique, challenge, resist and replace neoliberalism with a fairer, more just society. This is political. Everything is political. There are alternatives.

For example, Artists' Union England standing up to power by and standing up for artists trying to make ends meet in an increasingly competitive, precarious workplace; and calling for an end to the corporate takeover of the arts, beginning with the removal of Elisabeth Murdoch from her leading role at the Arts Council.

Or The World Transformed Movement for Cultural Democracy who are working on a radically redistributive new manifesto for cultural democracy. It has and continues to democratically source visions of alternatives and represents hope for everyone fair real fairness and equity. Perhaps even a beginning of the desperately necessary decolonisation of the arts (and indeed our everyday lives)?

And, of course, the many artists involved in self-organised grassroots actions as part of, not separate to, wider community actions and social justice movements. Some artists and arts students were involved in the grassroots campaign to reject the plans to gentrify and social cleanse the shopping centre at Elephant and Castle - plans by a coalition of tax-avoiding property developer and massive Tory donors, Delancey, world-famous art school Central Saint Martins, and Southwark Council (a (New) Labour council!) This is just one of many examples of positive action for grassroots social justice, for equity, for fair regeneration that benefits everyone, not just posh new incomers, cash-strapped councils and, most of all, tax-avoiding Tories!

You see, we can use art to get our own messages across. Messages of disagreement, dissent, disobedience and of alternatives.

We need to play them at their own game.

We must take back power.

We must use art as our own form of soft power - just like they do - but our messages; messages of resistance, refusal and hopefully radical alternatives.

We must take back the arts!

We must take back our cultures!

We must take back our lives!

Because...

The status quo will no longer do.

It’s time to stand up to austerity. It’s time to say NO to power!

Thanks.