Last week the arts came under attack. A warning was issued from the highest levels of the Abbott Government in a wide-ranging and strident denunciation of artists and freedom of expression. The attack was all the more disturbing because it came from a quarter where you might least expect it, indeed from the man charged with the duty of defending and developing the cultural life of the nation: the Minister for the Arts. And it came from an Attorney General who is the self-proclaimed defender of freedom of speech.
The Minister took aim at two targets: first, artists, and second the arts organisations who fund and develop them. He threatened the core of the practice of art, the right to freedom of expression and the autonomy of the artist to decide what to say and how to convey it.
The core of the Minister’s concerns lay in an attempt by artists, recognized by the Biennale, to assert their right to freedoms of expression and association by distancing themselves from sponsorship arrangements with a company that managed detention centres under the Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy. The artists felt that high calibre of the Biennale and the international respect in which they themselves were held were now being linked to an organisation that undertook work to which they morally objected.
Responding to this difficult situation, the artists voiced their concerns in a collective letter to the Biennale. They asserted their right to freedom of expression, to choose how their work would be communicated and understood and to reject the incorporation of their art into a broader project of legitimising what they regarded as disturbing practices in which this sponsor has been engaged. They also claimed their right to freedom of association, to choose how and with whom they would ally themselves and their works. Forty one artists signed this letter which said, in part: “We urge you to act in the interests of asylum seekers. Our interests as artists don’t merely concern our individual moral positions. We are concerned too with the ways cultural institutions deal with urgent social responsibilities. We expect the Biennale to acknowledge the voice of its audience and the artist community that is calling on the institution to act powerfully and immediately for justice ... “
Following this letter and at personal and often financial loss, several artists took the step of withdrawing their work from the exhibition and boycotting the Biennale. At first only a handful did so, but the number soon grew to five and kept on increasing. With the integrity of the Biennale under threat the board took action, announcing that it was moving to new sponsorship arrangements.
It should be no surprise that artists voiced their concerns at the Biennale sponsorship in that way. Artists are socially responsive creatures – they are often ethically charged and their ideas and engagement with the society, culture and politics around them are essential to their art.
The Brandis offensive
The Minister responded to this by directly threatening the funding for the Biennale on the basis that it had taken into account the wishes of the artists, their demands to express their opinions and to choose with whom they would associate their art. In a letter to the Australia Council he wrote
No doubt when renewal of the funding agreement beyond 2015 arises for consideration, the Australia Council will have regard to this episode and to the damage which the board of the Sydney Biennale has done.
Not content with his attempt to assert government control over artistic expression indirectly, the Minister also issued a secondary plan of more direct intervention. In an unprecedented move, overstepping the appropriate boundaries for ministerial action, he threatened to exercise direct power over Australia Council policy.
Yet the Australia Council was set up precisely to remove the politics from the arts funding. Brandis has form in this area, proposing to increase the power of the Minister to interfere in Board decisions via a legislative amendment when in Opposition.
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