Making them wrong so we can be right
Post by Dick Letts, March 24th, 2014

Some artists have blown the whistle. A goodly part of the arts world, seeing the possibility of loss of funds, is busy saying they are wrong. The following view is perhaps not forensic enough, a bit blurred, but ‘blurred’ has its own truth.

The Belgiorno-Nettis family is undoubtedly one of the great supporters of Australian arts, especially visual arts. The source of its wealth is a corporation called Transfield. Transfield has won a $1.2 billion contract to provide services to the asylum-seeker camps on Manus and Nauru. The two camps have been supported by both Labor and the Coalition as a strategy to deter asylum seekers from travelling to Australia by boat. The method is to treat them cruelly and make that known in the asylum-seeker world. According to both parties, it is working. That is the policy Transfield is buying into. If in its tender it stated that its objective was to make life rich and enjoyable for the asylum-seekers, would it have been awarded the contract?

Among the arts activities sponsored by Transfield was, until the present blow-up, the Sydney Biennale. A number of artists scheduled to be shown in the Biennale announced that now Transfield has been awarded the Manus/Nauru contract and that the Biennale would therefore be receiving funds earned from that contract, that they would withdraw their works. They acted, in a way, as whistle-blowers. As with most whistle-blowers, there is unlikely to be any benefit to them. Their works will not be shown, whatever financial advantage may have existed will be lost, they will be regarded by some in the future as risks to be avoided.

But they will have taken a moral stand when most of the country seems willing to dive to the bottom with our glorious leaders.

We, some of us anyway, like to claim that the arts are home to, express the spirit of the country, hold our moral compass. Artists can see and express truths before the world at large awakens to them.

But most artists, like most citizens, go along, perhaps mutter to their friends, do not even give voice through their artworks.

And many of us, uncomfortable because the protesting artists are doing what we should be doing, find reasons that they are wrong.

Or silly, or naïve. Or unrealistic. Or ignorant.

Some point out that the actual Transfield company has no-one on the Board of another Transfield company that won the contract, holds only 12% of the shares. It had no say in the matter. (That’s still 12% of the profit from a $1.2 billion contract. If the Transfield holding company took the same moral position as the artists, it could sell its shares.)

The Director of the Art Gallery of NSW, interviewed by Arts Hub, says it’s all very complex. Others say that profits from suspect activities are redeemed if donated to the arts; at least some good comes of them.

Still others say the artists’ stand changes nothing. Transfield still will work the contract, the Biennale will continue, the government’s policy will be pursued.

The Belgiorno-Nettis family has withdrawn its 6% funding of the Biennale instead of selling its shares. Well, that leaves the Biennale free to invite the protesting artists back and for them to return. That hasn’t happened.

When I wrote at the outset that there is some merit in the blurred vision, I was thinking of how we can become enmeshed in all the yes-buts, the did-you-realise, the twists and turns that finally deter us from doing anything.

Our artists perceived that they would benefit from money earned from cruel treatment of already traumatised people and they said no. They said no, publicly, when most of us go along with it or grumble to each other. Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, who is probably a very nice and moral man, heard “no” perhaps for the first time ever from normally grateful artists.

Changes nothing? I don’t think so. Hopefully it has started something. Hopefully others will be inspired to take a stand for human kindness and against a government that has lost its morality.

POSTSCRIPT. By the way, according to press report, it costs $900 per day to keep each asylum seeker miserable in those camps. That is almost beyond comment.

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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