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Naked Censorship

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An era of cuts. That’s what we’re in right now. Austerity is the dish of the day. You don’t smell austerity until it hits you, but artists have had their serving of it pretty much pushed under their noses. Some feel it more than others and we have all been well trained in ‘scraping through’ but still, it hurts.

When the government runs away from its responsibility to fund culture or public services, it does so shouting over its shoulder. ‘Just get volunteers to run it! They don’t cost anything! And, remember, if that goes tits up, find some rich person to sponsor you! Here’s my rich friend’s phone number on a small piece of paper for you…!’ But of course the paper gets swept away in the gust of wind that has been stirred up in its wake as it sprints away with greedy excitement in its eyes.

But what else to do? The dust settles and, trustingly, poor citizens turn to the rich. ‘More, please.’

Private sponsorship for the arts is the alleged, serious alternative to government funding. And by that I mean corporate sponsorship. Rich individuals, although not as hard hit by the financial crisis as the masses, have had their generous spirits knocked a little.  Corporate sponsors already provide a massive income for the arts, especially in London where West End theatres are the face of the industry for most of the capital’s population, but for the smaller contemporary arts scene, sponsorship (or philanthropy as those giving it like it to be referred to as) is a relatively new phenomenon and it is still hard to come by. I have serious doubts as to whether it is ever going to be a decent option for artists in need of cash. Not only do creative types who don’t promise to run mega media campaigns have little to woo potential sponsors with, but those who do are given the money on conditions which dramatically limit the form and content that the art will take.

I recently was employed by The Place to blog about an exhibition that they were producing at Bloomberg SPACE. Bloomberg is a financial software, media and data company with and estimated revenue of $6.9billion and which employs 15,000 people worldwide. It’s massive. The Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg owns 85% of it. Geez. The Place is tiny in comparison, so understandably, when Bloomberg offered The Place money a few years ago it was an opportunity not to be missed, and they have had a fruitful relationship since. Over the years Bloomberg has sponsored The Place Prize and just last week commissioned this exhibition at Bloomberg SPACE, a gallery based at their offices in London’s Finsbury square.

My brush with Bloomberg however, was not so rosy.

Bloomberg SPACE in Finsbury Square… Finsbury Square… Come on dancers, I know we’re not a political bunch but it rings a bell, right? Finsbury Square is home to the less publicised half of the Occupy protest, the global protest which began on Wall Street, condemning the rich, powerful minority for keeping the imbalance of wealth at such an extreme level. It is a protest which has been much picked upon by the media but which the-powers-that-be have struggled to undermine. There is little to argue against the cause of Occupy and the critical press have desperately resorted to complaining that a few tents in the city could trip up a few innocent passing pigeons.

Anyway, what’s the link, other than location, between Occupy and the exhibition at Bloomberg? Well, the global link is that Mayor Bloomberg has been handling the protests in New York with a notoriously rough hand and a banner in Finsbury Square facing Bloomberg’s office reads ‘Mayor Bloomberg Resign’. The personal link (the bit that was pushed under my nose) is that I was barred from mentioning the protest in my documentation of the exhibition at Bloomberg SPACE. Not at all surprising and, in fact, not that damaging to the content of my blog (I was only going to mention it in passing, it being so on the doorstep of the gallery, and I was happy to focus on my ‘journalistic’ report being purely about the work of the artists) but wholly disturbing.

It wasn’t only I that was banned from mentioning Occupy, the artists were too. This being the crux: THE ARTISTS WERE BANNED FROM MENTIONING IT. No matter what ‘it’ is, artists should never have to operate in an environment which is shaped by censorship. I cannot even begin to predict what conditions the philanthropists of the future will place on my head and the heads of other artists longing to taste their money. Every company, especially one that wants to stay rich, has vested interests.

Maybe the Occupy link is unusual, a one-off. Yes, maybe, but the limitations put upon the artists at Bloomberg SPACE were not only those related to the political climate. Nudity was banned… yes. How, I repeat how, is an art form which is the body supposed to feel supported by money from a corporation which denies it the ability to show the body? What is most strange about this condition is that it doesn’t feel strange. Banning nudity seems perfectly normal, especially when wandering through the towering office blocks in the city teeming with suited and booted smart folk. It makes me wonder what other censorship exists in the art world that I don’t even notice. Rules that have become par for the course, or barriers that settle silently into place according to the creative environment that I am working in.

Bloomberg SPACE consider themselves to be an art gallery. I do not. Nor do some of the artists and choreographers I spoke to during the course of the exhibition. The gallery is a corporate accessory. An add on to the business which will raise its profile. Not their profile amongst the art circles (they obviously don’t give a willy’s wink about art) but amongst their own crowd and their own clients.

Talking to some of the artists before the exhibition, the idea of working to a brief held some interest for them, but it is not a long term ideal. A one-off commission is fine, but if most money for the arts in the future is expected to come from private sponsors then we are going to face an increasingly tepid art scene. Of course, all funding, be in state or private, comes with conditions, but a brief from the arts council which might encourage inclusion or an educational dimension to work does not need to, and does not intend to, undermine the content of the artist’s work. Their conditions exist in an attempt to expand the arts scene within the community and to keep the arts as an accessible field. An institution such as The Place can work creatively with such criteria. They have similar aspirations and can work with their expertise to deal with the money once it is in their hands. A corporation like Bloomberg, however, does not make it easy for The Place to operate on its own terms. They don’t even really trust The Place to handle it the sum of money, instead they buy their curatorial services and artistic network and keep the artists, like handbag Chihuahuas, inside their glass walls, muzzled and on leashes for the world to see and be delighted by.

Awww, cute little artists. Can I buy one?

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