The perils of artivism
No space for art: how the ICA has been using public generosity to promote political activism
This week saw erosion of the public-funding model of the arts advance dramatically. The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London opened a display called War Inna Babylon: The Community’s Struggle For Truths and Rights (closes 26 September). According to the ICA, the display consists of documentary material relating to black community-police relations in London and “film screenings, community educational groups, talks, cultural events, performances, and a digital presentation focusing on the interrelation between artificial intelligence (AI) and racism”. However, no art will be displayed.
The ICA knows that it can break the rules and not face consequences
Despite being founded to present visual art, the ICA has realised it can now ditch the encumbrance of fine art in order to act as a platform for artivism (social activism pursued through art). Staff invite community groups, art collectives (in this case, Forensic Architecture) and artivists to present left-wing causes, diverting limited resources earmarked for the arts. Despite this activity contravening its founding Memorandum of Association and the Charities Commission of England’s regulations forbidding Registered Charities from acting politically, the ICA knows that it can break the rules and not face consequences.
As I explained in an interview with New Culture Forum, when I alerted the CCE and the Department of Culture to another event in 2018 — a speaking event for Chelsea Manning, gender-issues and national-security commentator — I received non-responses from authorities. Despite having made representations regarding War Inna Babylon, there is no reason to expect rules will be enforced. When challenged, the ICA claimed this display offered contextualisation of current concerns of artists.
However, the tide of public opinion may be turning. The Daily Telegraph published an article highlighting the abuse of trust of the ICA collecting £878,000 in public funding for the arts, which has partly diverted into political activism. Press and social media coverage exposed some tacit institutional support for the 2020 wave of iconoclasm, cementing the view that senior staff in arts administration seem to have a disdain for popular sentiment. (Including the director of the British Museum publicly shaming founder Sir Hans Sloane.) Patience is wearing thin with artivism that uses public generosity to lecture visitors on their presumed racism and privilege.
Activist curatorship and artistic production are promoted at university. Two members of Forensic Architecture, a group dedicated to presenting documentation of politically significant real-world events have written a justification of artivism. Investigative Aesthetics (Verso, 2021) by Eyal Weizman and Matthew Fuller (a lecturer at Goldsmiths, which has an influential art department) advances the idea of quasi-scientific methods of exposing injustice. Perpetrators of this are right-wing extremists and the US armed forces. No left-instigated act of violence is mentioned. Reading the book, one gets the impression of crack squad of artivists adopting criminal forensics to combat rightists and capitalists worldwide.
Patience is wearing thin with artivism that uses public generosity to lecture visitors on their presumed privilege
An event which will once again foreground artivism will be the exhibition by five art collectives for the 2021 Turner Prize. These specialise in social issues; none produce art in any conventional sense. Art collectives (in their modern form) came from feminist co-operatives in Los Angeles and New York in the late 1960s — a parallel to communes of hippies and draft-dodgers. There was a twin emphasis on anonymous community effort and radical counter-culture politics. But it is the Post-Modern age — when anything can be art — that has led to doors have been thrown open to collectives. Invited in by curators and directors driven by a desire to show political commitment, practitioners of artivism now have access to hitherto unprecedented opportunities. If anything can be art then who is to say that food education, musical gigs, vox-pop interviews, documentation of residential care and interactive events — all activities undertaken by Turner Prize-nominated art collectives — are not art?
The problem is that utilitarian arguments have long been accepted by administrators, politicians, charities, curators and artists, thus opening a critical route to resources. For decades, public art has been prescribed as a bromide for ills such as social exclusion, community disharmony, economic recession, industrial decline, dearth of tourism and mental distress. Venue administrators have been primed to engage with so-called marginalised groups as a condition of receiving public funds. Given how difficult it is to get mass audiences to respond to Gainsborough and Canaletto, eye-catching participatory events appeal. So, when art collectives offer to stage interactive events, museum administrators eagerly accept.
However, if this model is accepted, it will inevitably drive out as “socially useless” watercolour landscapes, abstract sculpture, still-lifes and quiet art that invites meditative contemplation. In other words, most of that which we recognise as art. With art venues lining up to take a stint as vaccination centres, wellness centres and places “to address racism”, where is the space for art? Once one accepts that art must be useful, then art that is appreciated for its aesthetic qualities becomes a burden, moreover one to which attachment is seen as reactionary sentimentalism freighted with white racism and elitist snobbery.
Public money for artivism is neither legal nor ethical
Public arts funding relies on the consensus that while some arts (especially niche disciplines, such as ballet, opera and classical music) may not be consumed by all, they are at least viewed as art worthy of support. There is no such consensus for divisive (even abusive) polemical non-art hosted by arts venues. Parasitisation of arts funding by artivists and art collectives puts in danger the funding model to which it is adapted. Woke corporations and millionaires are ready to fund artivism. Let them build venues and pay artivists. Public money for artivism is neither legal nor ethical. Artivism threatens to extinguish the art museum as we know it.
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