(ICA Website)

How artivism captured the ICA

If the Institute of Contemporary Arts wants to be in the vanguard of “social justice” activism should it retain its charitable status?

Artillery Row

Journalists get a slew of press releases every day, with press departments of arts venues seeking coverage to compensate for public lockdown. One must-read staple are the ICA’s daily list of recommendations, including music, cinema, books, talks and less orthodox material. One email links to a discussion on “what autonomous, feminist healthcare could be now” (ICA Press Release 25 March 2020); another link “explores the imaginaries created by [homosexual] public sex” (ICA Press Release 11 April 2020). Other recommendations promote queer visibility, transactivism, eco-activism, anarchism, anti-capitalism, anti-racist action, migration advocacy, anti-colonialism, radical feminism and other progressive causes. Not a single item among the hundreds sent is even mildly conservative.

Promoting anal sex and polyamory to fight Nazism is just another day’s work for the ICA’s press department.

Staff of a publicly-funded arts venue see nothing improper about using emails to advance political causes. Promoting anal sex and polyamory to fight Nazism is just another day’s work for the ICA’s press department. Enter the sphere of publicly-funded fine art, where directors declare themselves activists, deem the public in need of moral tutelage and are intent on transforming museums and galleries into engines of social change. It is a field populated by firebrand curators, timid administrators, ignorant ministers and millionaires with saviour complexes.

In the 1970s, Post-Modernism first questioned – then entirely erased – the line between life and art. Art could be socially engaged but (in a Post-Modernist landscape) protest could also be art. “Artivism” is political activism via art. Leading proponent Tania Breguera prefers the term “useful art”. It is accepted by venues and art schools, legitimised by academics and the art press. Post-Modernism’s rise meant administrators could open their doors to activity that no longer needed to be judged art at all.

Museums and public galleries have grown dependent on Arts Council of England grants. Grants are now given on the understanding that there is a duty to promote “marginalised” creators (and serve “marginalised” audiences), judged by race, sexual orientation and so forth. Artistic merit is secondary to this, if it is considered at all. ACE stated in 2018: “This year for the first time, museums have also been required to evidence how they are contributing to making the Creative Case for Diversity.” It is no longer permissible for recipient venues to programme and recruit solely on merit; instead, identity politics is integrated into policy and management, upon forfeiture of funding.

Far from instilling morale, as it once did, nowadays ACE undermines morale. It hammers home the British population’s inherited culpability for colonialism, racism and sexism. ACE recently tendered for a plan to “decolonise” museums, placing this unelected unaccountable body in a quasi-legislative role of determining ethical standards of public collections. ACE is the embodiment of the managerial elite, the ruling class which dominates all sections of society and uses tax to subsidise its xenophilic cultural consumption. This group harbours a deep distain for the pillars of tradition: religion, nation, family. Whilst being politically liberal, this elite is contemptuous of the white working class, which it considers dangerous, unruly and bigoted.

Far from instilling morale, as it once did, nowadays ACE undermines morale.

Within our museums a massive campaign legitimising identity politics is taking place. Much of it is perfectly legal and happening in plain sight; it is recorded in charity annual reports and celebrated at conferences. Few people – even insiders – understand the extent and speed of changes occurring incrementally within institutions that (from the outside) look augustly impregnable. There has been tacit approval by successive governments that have viewed art as a social and economic panacea, one that aids mental health and regenerates post-industrial districts. This depressingly utilitarian outlook on art coincides with activist stipulations that art must advance progressivist social aims.

What forms does artivism take?

On 31 January, the ICA staged a “queer techno rave” with the display of gay pornography. Recipients of recent press releases will be unsurprised to learn that in recent years the ICA has hosted talks on queer and postcolonial theory and events by Black Quantum Futurism (which “centre[d] Black gender non-conforming, non-binary, trans and femme audiences and […] engage[d] the research and practices of a pioneering group of pleasure activists, speculative writers, dance innovators, visual artists and vegan soul food chefs;”) and Fugitive Feminism (a “five-day convening of artists, activists and academics focuses on contemporary Black feminist politics, examining the impossibility of Black women’s claims to womanhood and the new spaces that are created by a politics of refusal”).

Perhaps arts venues have a duty to support fringe content. Yet if that were the case, where are the white ethno-nationalists and conspiracy theorists in the ICA’s programme? What about mainstream conservative issues, such as support for Brexit and Christianity or antipathy towards globalism, cosmopolitanism and pronoun policing? Which contemporary-arts venues are sympathetic to those viewpoints?

The Museums Association (MA), which sets best practice standards for museums, could be assumed to uphold Enlightenment principles of museums. In actuality, it is an organisation that promotes curation as viable political activity. It is “passionate about delivering diversity and equality”. The 2019 MA manifesto states: “[Museums should] use their collections and knowledge in innovative ways to help us understand, debate, and challenge the major issues that we face, such as inequality, technological change and climate crisis.” This year the MA promoted a conference video on how the association “can mobilise and prepare the next generation of activist museum leaders”.

Where are the white ethno-nationalists and conspiracy theorists in the ICA’s programme?

The June 2019 issue of the MA newsletter contained a text by Alistair Hudson, Director of Manchester City and Whitworth Galleries. In it, he explained how a £75,000 grant from two arts-activist organisations Outset Partners and Arte Util would be used to alter the museums’ missions. “Using a methodology that sees art not as a set of objects, but a process and tool for social change, our museums will radically transform their core protocols by redrawing relationships with local constituent groups, creating an agency to inform the museums’ collecting, curating and presenting” (Museums Association Newsletter, June 2019).

Two of Arte Util’s eight stated aims are to “propose new uses for art within society” and “replace authors with initiators and spectators with users”. This is code for, respectively, adoption of artivism and establishment of political-art collectives. “Arte Util projects’ primary objective remains concrete social transformation,” according to an internal report.

However, new challenges (one narrative, one legal) have emerged, which could destabilise the status quo.

Firstly, dissent is gradually becoming more vocal. Why should an elite clique have an unbreakable grip on arts funding and programming? The monoculture of progressivism – with its mantras of diversity, multiculturalism and collective shame – is apparent in ACE statements. A recent report by Arts Professional documented a culture of fearful conformity in the arts, where grant recipients cannot express opinions if they deviate from ACE’s agenda. “Workers in the arts who share controversial opinions risk being professionally ostracised,” said an anonymous insider. Supporters of Brexit believe their livelihoods are at risk if they speak openly.

The legal challenge relates to tax status. Many art venues rely on tax-exempt status as Registered Charities. The Charity Commission of England’s regulations state: “Political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes.” This means that artivism directly imperils the tax-free status that venues depend upon. Complaints have been made to the Charity Commission. Organisations committed to artivism risk losing their charitable status – if the Charity Commission follows its own rules..

In March, I published a call for withdrawal of public funding of the ICA:

“I do not call for the ICA to be closed; I call for it to be held responsible for its actions. There are social-justice campaign groups, “woke” corporations and scions of millionaires wishing to expiate family guilt by backing progressive causes. Let them fund the ICA. Grant the ICA staff their wishes and allow the ICA to become an entirely independent social activism centre no longer bound by the flimsy charade of public service or arts provision. Cut it loose. If the ICA wishes to become a centre for queer techno raves, pornography displays, social agitation and race protest, let it be free to do so. All I say is, not on our dime.”

Universities, quangos, lobbyists and art journals have given activists platforms and positions of power within an arts sector rendered vulnerable to cultural entryism. Enablers have unleashed into the arts individuals brimming with indignation. These individuals feel no duty of service towards institutions, which they deem built on exploitation. Public service and majority consensus are antiquated notions compared to the commitment transform our institutions as their moral crusade.

This is unsustainable. Rampant gatekeeping in the arts has diminished variety, reduced public trust and degraded institutions. Venues now serve unaccountable lobbying groups and pander to fringe politics. ACE enforces the monoculture of the managerial elite. It has reached a stage when even itinerant Secretaries of State for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (no less than nine Secretaries in the past nine years) cannot avoid seeing this.

The arts must choose: political causes or public funding. If venues receive money from political campaigners, they must forfeit public funding and tax-free charity status. Political intimidation in the arts must not continue.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover