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Crikey Says

Mar 10, 2014

Crikey says: the artists' boycott that could backfire

The Catholics are in the stand: Crikey is at the royal commission. The Chinese property invasion that isn't. And why Chinese steel could shape the Australian economy. The self-interested case from media on regulation. Slow progress to reform in Bangladesh's garment trade. Damien Kingsbury on the Russian chess game. And asking interns to pay for work.


“This is bad for the arts, bad for art funding and bad for the artists.”

So says investor and philanthropist Mark Carnegie (in The Australian Financial Review) of the decision by the Biennale of Sydney to dump sponsorship partner Transfield Holdings after weeks of pressure and boycott threats from artists. It’s hard to disagree.

A group of vocal artists and activists got their victory on Friday when the Biennale severed its decades-old ties with the group, forcing Transfield boss Luca Belgiorno-Nettis out of the Biennale chairmanship. Why the fuss? Because Transfield Holdings has a 12% stake in Transfield Services, which won a contract to operate the Manus Island detention centre. In his statement, Belgiorno-Nettis noted:

“Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of ‘blood on your hands’. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naive and offensive …”

Naive would certainly describe many campaigners, who are seemingly happy to exhibit work in exhibitions funded by governments that legislate offshore processing but not from the businesses legitimately contracted to carry it out. Not to mention the litany of other corporate backers with their own less-than-holy pursuits.

And as Carnegie notes, the arts community isn’t in a position to be picky with its benefactors. The Belgiorno-Nettis family are generous supporters of the arts; others will now think twice about putting their money on the table.

Artists had a much more powerful platform to protest: take the cash of the company they hate and inspire protest on the canvass. Instead they’ve hurt an important exhibition, set back an already poor culture of corporate philanthropy in Australia, and demonstrated the sort of righteous hypocrisy that damns the Left and so many of its causes.


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14 thoughts on “Crikey says: the artists’ boycott that could backfire

  1. paddy

    I’m actually quite surprised at the number of voices (ones I normally respect) saying take the money and shut up.
    [the arts community isn’t in a position to be picky with its benefactors.]

    That way madness lies.

    I always *try* to be picky about who I support. The artists and activists who called for the boycott are entitled to do the same.
    Sadly, in the mad unequal world of today, philanthropy is more often than not, the first refuge of the scoundrel.

  2. Wynn

    I’ve become quite bored with Crikey telling me about the various failures of “the Left”.

  3. CML

    Summing up this editorial in one word? BULLSH=T!!!

    Artists having anything to do with ‘tainted’ money is behaving as badly as those who offer it. They (artists) will just have to find more creative ways of exhibiting their art! Preferably without said benefactors or the government, as the policies they both engage in regarding refugees are beyond the pail!!

  4. swany

    Who cares if your dubious assessment says it will backfire – for who? Its the right thing to do. Keep up these editorials circkey – and I’ll take my subscription elsewhere. Clearly the editorial team seems to have joined the conga line of suckholes, and is more intent on preserving and enhancing the privileged elites (using ‘rational’ and ‘balanced’ and ‘nuanced’ arguments) than defending human rights. Real journalism = standing up power, not defending it.

  5. pierre

    Sorry Crikey, but as a performing, not visual artist, I applaud the stance taken by these artists. One commentator says: Take the money & shove it back in their faces with your Art! . . hmmm? Ethical positions need to be taken to assert – Not In My Name, & I believe this is one such laudable attempt? x0x

  6. AR

    Paddy – I agree that if one does not scutinise ALL aspects of ones life, esp the financing of bien pissant frippery such as this, then there is no chance of influencing essential aspects which are more vital.
    Crikey must be so proud to be echoing this morning’s shoutjocks.
    Would great art have been created without the patronage of the Borgias & the felonious popes throughout the age?
    Bloody oath and all the better for it.
    If an artist isn’t prepared to starve in a garret then they aren’t serious.
    Anyone remember pub rock? Compare its energy & vitality to what came afterwardds once the breadheads & trimmers got their filthy paws on music.

  7. David Hand

    It’s an artist’s right to be penniless. It seems to be part of the art world’s psyche that earning a living is optional.

    What depresses me is that the art world will be the first to campaign to dip its hand into my pocket to fund its fairly narrow minded world view.

    It has always puzzled me that art presents itself as a cutting edge part of our society, pushing boundaries and challenging society’s paradigms when it is in fact one of the most restrictive, narrow minded authoritarian subsets of our community. This fiasco is a worked example.

    The right outcome for here would be for Bienniale to heroically battle on for a year or so while Crikey publishes tearful wrist slashing stories about why the rest of the community is evil.

    They can then go under. I’m not expecting the “artists” who brought this about to lend a hand.

  8. drmick

    Paddy I think we have discovered the problem. Principles. Ethics; Morals. These are empty words to Crikey and news corpse; but some people still have them; and they believe in them; No matter how misguided they may be to some. These strange people actually believe in something. It wont be long before casting pearls before swine will only occur at street level, because the swine will own everything else anyway.

  9. David Hand

    Thank you doctor. You’ve delivered a perfect worked example of the point I am making.

  10. Blair Martin

    Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is the one who is naive and offensive. Always hurts when your privilege is kicked.

    As for Crikey? Did you get Chris Kenny’s intern in to write the editorial today?

  11. Neil Longman

    I’m old enough to remember when artists used to protest through their art. Ken Loach, Joan Littlewood, Theatre de L’Odéon, Milan Kundera and the songs of the Vietnam War.

    They followed in the footsteps of Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Bertolt Brecht, Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse.

    Are contemporary Australian artists just lazy, sitting behind computer screens signing e-petitions? Perhaps they need to take a leaf out of artists such as the Belarus Free Theatre and get creative.

  12. seriously?

    None of the contributors have answered how to reconcile the “principled stand” against the Transfield money but artists / arts groups still being prepared to accept money from the government that pushes offshore detention centres that are despised? Do they boycott every event etc for the next 3+ years that has any federal money attached to it?

  13. JohnB

    So public self-flagellation is now high art.

    Luca Belgiorno-Nettis may be (and probably is) a man of many talents and facets. He is not a director or executive manager of Transfield Services Ltd, the company which has very recently contracted to do work at Manus Island.

    The shared name, Transfield, is an echo of the fact that Luca’s father was one of the founders of the original Transfield, which is pretty much just a memory these days.

    It is certainly the right of individual artists to boycott an event for any or no reason. The boycott of Biennale appears very much to be a case of the latter, rather than the former. However, as I said, it is the right of artists to sit, shivering and starving in the dark for principal’s sake. Or for no real reason at all.

    The reality is that the Manus Islands gulag is worthy of opposition. As is also the action of politicians, Labor and Liberal, that set the place up. But why the silly hue and cry about Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who has no role in this drama?

  14. AR

    I hope that many heard Luca Belgiorno-Nettis on RN’s Art show this morning – equivocating & prevaricating and casting nasturtiums far & wide, accusing the protesters of defamation & terrorism & guerrilla tactics until even Michael Cathcart (nobody’s idea of a forensic interviewer)had to pull him up. He asked whether, given his father’s background of arriving traumatised & penniless far from his homeland, he didn’t feel some empathy and somehow that seemed to register and he, kinda-sorta, agreed that indefinite detention condition was , y’know, not ideal but could not/would not make the association about making money from such naughtiness.


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