Across the nation and in all its representational media, there is a stark conflict on the matter of off-shore detention. There are those, of course, with ideas that exceed the terms of Good and Evil. But, for the sake of brevity, we’ll say there is one primary group that believes that detention is a fact of life that has nothing to do with “us” and another that believes it is a fact of corrupted Australian morality in which we are complicit.
This argument has played out in recent days among Australian artists around the Sydney Biennale taking sponsorship support from Transfield; a company that provides services at detention camps on Manus Island and on Nauru. At meetings in Sydney and in Melbourne, the matter of art’s responsibility to the society that sustains it has made for some fascinating and much frustrating talk. Echoing the ardent national debate — which is not really a debate right now so much as a reflex response to the horror of Manus — artists have divided themselves into the two halves of a single argument.
First proposed by Van Thanh Rudd, a boycott by artists of the Sydney Biennale for its funding by Transfield has been widely discussed.
There are many artists and arts workers who believe that Transfield’s money cannot be ethically taken. There are some others, including Biennale, who champion the autonomy of art.
RE: comments on BOS sponsors: BOS brings attn 2 the ideas & issues of our times – objectors only deny the legitimate voice of BOS artists
— Biennale of Sydney (@biennalesydney) February 6, 2014
At a public meeting at the College of Fine Arts in Sydney and one in central Melbourne this week, artists and refugee advocates gathered to talk through the matter of dirty money.
In a better and more theory-heavy version of the national debate accelerated by this week’s events at Manus Island, we see artists and activists on two sides. One conveniently holds the quaint Renaissance view that art is “above” the everyday. The other, and more considered, view resulted in the production of this letter penned by artists participating in the Biennale reminds that art is produced within the sphere of the everyday.
While both views can be ably defended, both of them have been critiqued by a handful of artists who see that one way or another, this is just art’s hopeless striving to make itself pure. Either in believing that purity is art’s “natural” state or in striving to cleanse itself from the perceived filth of Transfield, art just wants nothing to do with the dirty world.
This might seem like a bit of a syllogistic toss until you consider the consequences of each view as it might play out at Biennale; or how other boycotts have played out.
Artist Richard Bell recalls the sporting boycott that led him to produce the 2011 work A White Hero for Black Australia. This painting reproduces the famous Black Power salute made by athletes at the Mexico City Olympic Games. Bell, now 60 and himself a close observer of Australian Aboriginal radical politics, recalls the proposed participation boycott by Black athletes in 1968.
Bell, who has participated — with his customary disrespect — in Biennale on previous occasions, does not support this boycott and is glad Black athletes did not support the civil rights boycott in 1968.
They did not boycott and the result was “one of most iconic images in human history, that of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman on the victory dais.”
“They decided to participate inside the system,” he says. And the system was compromised.
Ian Milliss, artist and activist and a complicated fellow for whom we can find no single descriptor, sees participation within a system as an entirely legitimate site of protest. He finds an account of the artist as someone who cannot hijack capitalism but only be hijacked by it unnecessarily pessimistic. He finds an account of an art festival that can change the world unnecessarily optimistic.
“I tend to see a boycott as just a way of doing nothing and feeling good about yourself for it,” he says. Milliss, who has been following debate about the boycott and attended the public meeting in Sydney, says that the actions proposed are chiefly “about distancing artists from being magically contaminated.”
At the same meeting in Sydney this week, artist Jacquelene Drinkall felt a similar frustration. Drinkall, whose 2012 work saw her endeavour to burn a $20 note in front of a Transfield logo, sees the boycott as something that started off as a valuable discussion and quickly fell into a kind of orthodoxy.
“The great risk of the boycott idea, which has been so useful in pricking the conscience of the art world, is that it adds to that censorship,” she says.
Matthew Kiem, who wrote well and persuasively in The Conversation, is eager to point out that the boycott for which he is advocating is not a form of censorship. Rather, he explains, it is about providing a forum for those refugee voices rarely heard. In email, he suggested I link to a correspondence from the laudable organisation RISE. And it’s a great letter which offers us, as much of the boycott discussion has this week, a chance to think about the cold and rational mechanics of putting people in detention.
But what it does not do, as a boycott cannot do, is hold the real source of all this horror to account.
While Kiem and his colleagues write passionately and well about personal responsibility, they do not write about where responsibility ultimately lays for the horror in off-shore detention. And this is, certainly and demonstrably, with the Australian government.
The boycotters’ approach, as even its most radical critics agree, did spark conversation. And then doused it a day or two later with the talk which reflects the broader progressive response best summed-up in current social media catchcry “Not In My Name”. As though such a bromide can say anything more complex than “it wasn’t me” and “I didn’t do it”.
A boycott not only absolves the art world from responsibility, it situates the responsibility in a particular place. Just as the individual blames a lack of compassion for the horror of Manus Island — and this is a very common critique — the artist can blame Transfield.
But in this instant no one is talking about blaming the government who started the shonky dialogue about “border protection” twenty years ago and who, presumably, would step in to offer more of the dollars it already provides to Biennale.
The boycott, like the social-media protest, will work short-term just, as Milliss has it “to assuage art world feelings of powerlessness or horror”. It will allow artists to feel as though they have done something by doing nothing — not even installing a blank screen with the words “live feed from Manus Island” in a gallery from which they are absent.
In the large world outside art, people commonly mistake a symbolic action for a real one. They can be more easily forgiven for faith in the idea of unmistakable meanings. Artists, however, think a little harder than most when it comes to the instability of symbolic order. They know a gesture or a visual reference or a brush-stroke can be interpreted poorly. That artists suppose this symbolic act will have a social end they can control is evidence they have lost sight of the limits, and the great possibilities, of art.