Artists have won their boycott of the Biennale. Transfield Holdings is no longer giving money to the event, and the Chairman has resigned. Woohoo! Now they can show their art without worrying that next to it there will be the name of a company which is connected to another company that runs detention centres. That's if there's enough money for the event to go ahead. The Attorney-General George Brandis asked the Australia Council to develop a policy to deny funding to artists who refuse corporate support, which has been described by Labor and the Greens as "politicising arts funding". A statement which itself politicises arts funding.
Transfield was awarded a contract to run the Nauru detention centre in February last year, and the Biennale still went ahead. Since then, there's a new Government, an asylum seeker died, and Transfield has taken over the Manus Island centre. If Transfield is inherently evil by running detention centres this year, then why weren't they so evil last year?
Ultimately it's the Government's policies that the artists are opposed to, but they haven't refused funding from the Government. Could they have picked the wrong enemy?
The harsh reality is that without dirty money from companies that pollute, exploit and slowly choke regular people to death, there would be no art. If one of these protesting artists get an exhibition in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, it will probably have a big Rio Tinto sign next to it. Indigenous artists will hang their works alongside a BHP sign in Adelaide next year. If your art is shown in a major gallery in Australia, it's likely to be close to one of the purchases made under the Philip Morris Arts Grant. Philip Morris is the biggest supporter of dance in the US. But where would we be without contemporary dance?
One of the annoying things about being an artist is that if you're actually good, it's likely normal people won't be interested in looking at your art until you're dead or at least really old, unless you make an effort to get commercial. The Louvre generated 94 million euros in revenue in 2011 in large part because of tourists who went to see the Mona Lisa. Who knows, maybe in a hundred years people will be lining up to see an interactive text-based installation by a current COFA student. We might call it pretentious crap now, but maybe Da Vinci had his critics back in the day. In the end, not enough regular people are interested in seeing contemporary Australian art for an exhibition to be commercially viable on its own. Artists need money to be able to show and sell their work while they're young enough to enjoy the proceeds.
Michelangelo was a rich artist, not just because he was good at painting and stuff. He, along with a hoard of other famous artists, was pretty much owned by the Medici family, which is known for both starting the banking industry as well as buying out the Vatican, installing relatives as popes and buying their way through marriage into the powerful royal families across Europe. Yes, he took money from a corrupt organisation, and he managed to live with himself.
What if artists had refused to take money from the Catholic Church, or from exploitative industry barons who collected art while they weren't busy putting kids to work in factories? Many of the great paintings from the renaissance were commissions by royal families – yes, people who worked their peasants to the bone while living in luxury. Poor, marginalised and exploited people have always provided rich people with the money they need to allow artists to express their creativity.
Besides, is Transfield really as corrupt as the Medicis or as exploitative as the factory owners of the 1900s or as destructive to third world environments as Rio Tinto? Transfield Holdings isn't even the company running the detention centres, that's Transfield Services, and while Transfield Holdings has shares in Transfield Services, so do a whole lot of our superannuation funds. The gripe is with the Government, and it's a legitimate one, not just because they're locking up asylum seekers but because they're spending way too much of our money to do it.
There aren't even conditions on this money—artists are able to do subversive works like having 16 guys run down the street and make faces, or recruit schoolkids to march down Martin Place to celebrate peace which is apparently art now. Use that creativity we've invested so much in already to protest about asylum seekers, and feel even better that it's only possible because of asylum seekers. How ironic! The crowds will love it.
Look artists—if you don't take money from big companies, someone else will. Before you know it, Transfield will be forced to spend that chunk of their profits on something totally not creative like schools or clinics or farming equipment in a place that is not Australia like that other evil behemoth company Monsanto does. The little black kids who get to eat breakfast now don't complain that the money comes from a company that's destroying American farmers. Corporate Social Responsibility is a battleground, and those kids with their cute faces and big bellies are pretty convincing.
We know you hate money and you love to hate it and you hate that you need it and you hate that we all know you need it. But when someone is giving you a chance to show your art, take the money.
Follow Carly on Twitter: @Carlylearson