Sydney Biennale Hoo-Haa

March 24, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

©Simon Cowling©Simon Cowling A few weeks ago, certain artists who were invited to show in the Sydney Biennale got together and decided they could not in good conscience be involved with an event for which Transfield was the founding sponsor, to the tune of around $600,000 per year. As such, they told the Biennale Committee that they would pull out of the event unless Transfield withdrew their sponsorship. Senator George Brandis, the Liberal Minister for the Arts and the Attorney General, was swift to condemn the artist's action. He has signalled a significant shake-up of arts funding to avoid political "blackballing" in the wake of what he describes as the "shameful" decision by the Biennale of Sydney to reject private sponsorship from Transfield - Chris Kenny, The Australian, March 13.

Why? In my view this is a predictable, knee-jerk reaction from a reactionary jerk. I'm not going to argue the merits or otherwise of the artists' decision; its a minefield, and whether one supports their stance or not, they surely have a right to protest in whatever way they can against what they see as unacceptable human rights abuses by a large corporation. Yes, they are shooting themselves in the foot in many ways; it would be very difficult to find almost any large corporate sponsor today which would scrub up as blameless in any number of areas where it could be taken to task. Whether it is discrimination, sexism, slavery, eco-destruction or just being plain greedy arseholes, big companies almost by definition will end up treading on one or several toes.

But back to Brandis. He is 'appalled" at the Biennale's decision to cave in to the demands of the artists and has threatened that their future funding from the government will "have regard to this episode and to the damage it has done". I cannot see how Brandis can take such an arrogant, heavy handed approach - whatever way you cut this cake, he is clearly sending the message that artists have no right to reject the source of their patronage if they feel conscience driven to do so. And yet this is the same man who just today has stated that people have a right to be bigots and that is why he and the liberal government want to remove sections of the anti-discrimination act that makes racial slurs an offence. Great. So we have a minster FOR the Arts who wants to legislate against artists taking political action against perceived unacceptable corporate practices but will make  it quite OK for them to call someone a nigger. The man is a menace.

I said earlier in the piece that the decision by the Biennale artists to demand Transfield withdraw its sponsorship was a minefield. It is. By doing so they have certainly made it harder for artists to obtain corporate funding in general, but sadly it is and always has been a fact of society that great art has always needed generous patronage to survive, wherever that patronage may have come from. One of the most generous patrons of the Renaissance period was the infamous Borgia family; they were regarded as one of the most dangerous families of the period, with many crimes committed in the pursuit of power. I suspect that had the Biennale artists told the Borgias where to shove their golden ducats they may well have ended up with their throats cut... no doubt with Senator Brandis cheering from the sidelines.


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