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Artwashing or symbiosis?

Currently consulting in the creative industries, Michelle Constant is a journalist, radio presenter, business leader and champion of the arts.

The recent decision by the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company to cut all ties with fossil fuel company BP, after eight years of sponsorship, is revealing about the tricky relationship between business and the arts. Over the years, BP has sponsored a variety of cultural organisations in the UK, reinforcing the argument of sponsorship for public good. Alternatively, describes the oil company’s sponsorships as a ‘greenwash and spin’, and ‘making you believe they are cultured, current and green.’ Indeed, as has oft been written about, arts and culture are generally considered a crucial key to soft power. (UK activist Mel Evans describes it as an ‘Artwash’.)
     Of course, this is a conversation that happens in diverse sectors. Given, though, that the arts are notionally a commentary on humanity, a push back against society’s ills in many instances, it is appropriate that the sector acts against unethical or immoral sponsorship. Who decides on the ethics and morals though? Who fires the first shot – the artist/activist, the artist or the activist, or both?
     The complexity of sponsorship (and by association, censorship) in the arts sector is further underscored in South Africa by our current economic climate and the spectre of rapidly growing unemployment. (Sponsorships that come not just from the fossil fuel sector, where we have seen ongoing support from Sasol, and Total, on a variety of important creative projects and awards, are all under scrutiny.) The challenge of getting any kind of support for the arts remains central to a struggling sector. Given the current technical recession, many corporates appear to be waiting on the future, holding back on marketing budgets, instead of actively futuring. With this in mind, it remains unsurprising that arts organisations choose to engage with sponsors that may be considered inappropriate by civil society, taking whatever is available.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre PHOTO Peter Cook
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre PHOTO Peter Cook

     As I write this, I’m uncomfortably aware that I am prevaricating on the proverbial fence. Even addressing the debate from both sides seems like the ultimate hedging of bets. As I get older, I become a little less confident in the binary and skulk along the spectrum depending on my reading, engagement, beliefs and the density of the issue. Oh, that I could be as decisive as any activist. What then of a corporate that has been found wanting in its previous activities and wants to address transformation and real change as it moves forward? Conversely, what of the corporate that is an active participant in the destruction of our planet, and other insidious activities? Then again, we have many corporates who are doing highly impressive, ethical and empathic work in the partnership space, demonstrating that one brushstroke does not fit all.
      I suppose the challenge is to try and identify who owns the narrative – whether we are talking sponsorship or censorship. What of the museum trying to tell a complex story of hatefulness, using art to address the issue. But what of the artwork that is so triggering as to make debate difficult, nigh impossible? Should it be taken down, closed down, and who decides? I know that I am not the philanthropist who recently told me, ‘I stand for the artist, the curator, and not the person who is offended. Art is, and remains transgressive.’ Conversely, while I agree with Chris Garrard, the co-director of Culture Unstained, an advocacy body opposed to oil sponsorship in art in the UK, when he writes, ‘… in a time of climate emergency, ethical judgments about sponsors need to go beyond metrics and money,’ I am also aware that with money and metrics, we can push the agendas that could make a positive difference. Earlier I noted that the sector was perceived as a key to soft power. The more I work in the sector though, consulting business, government and creatives, the more I am aware of the complexity. If soft power is defined as ‘a persuasive approach to relations, typically involving the use of economic or cultural influence,’ I would argue it is not an either/or, that the economic and cultural are tightly intertwined, in a difficult yet symbiotic relationship. It is fraught, it is tenuous, it is challenging and demands that we don’t simplify a conversation that is less complicated than it is complex. Yes, a line needs to be drawn, but the sands are constantly shifting.

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