‘Sources of cultural funding have an increasingly dramatic impact on the supposedly ‘independent’ curatorial and artistic narrative of an event. The funding, whether state, corporate or private, fundamentally shapes the way the public receives the work of artists and curators.’ (São Paulo Biennial curators Charles Esche, Galit Eilat, Nuria Enguita Mayo, Pablo Lafuente, and Oren Sagiv, August 2014)

In his feature for the October issue of Art Monthly, ‘To Boycott or not to Boycott’, Dave Beech writes that,

Thirty years of conspicuous apathy and professional cynicism in the art world appear to have come to a glorious end. Political protest has reasserted itself in public acts of dissent, direct action and speaking truth to power. […] The art boycott has established itself as a political device for calling institutions, corporations and the state to account. […] The art boycott borrows its technique from the consumer boycott, a combination of non-participation and public announcements that specify preconditions for re-participation […] the art boycott is not principally associated with the withdrawal from work but the withdrawal of participation, in which participation is understood to be charged with ethical consent.

Why artists say no to Israel

When artists and cultural workers refuse to lend the legitimacy of their presence or their cultural activities to a state that perpetrates human rights abuses, their refusal has moral power. In the case of Israel, each refusal sends a clear message that there is a price to pay for the brutal, decades-long occupation.

A letter was published in The Stage, on 11 September, in response to Simon Tait who writes a weekly column on ‘all the big issues facing government support for the arts.’ The letter was signed by several well-known theatre directors and playwrights, under the headline ‘We artists have a right to boycott.’ It challenged Tait’s argument that artists should not take political stands on sponsorship of the arts:

Simon Tait, in his recent online column (Why you should worry about the politics of arts funding) argues that artists should try to make a difference to political situations only through the work itself and not by taking political stands such as boycotts or refusal of sponsorship.

It ignores Israel’s use of the arts to enhance its public image, an overt policy of Brand Israel, promoting arts and holidays (and many forms of sponsorship are now considered unacceptable – arms, tobacco, and increasingly oil). It ignores the long history of political engagement by artists and the wide support in the theatre community for the Tricycle’s stand…. (read the letter in full here)

In July, a number of high profile Scottish artists, including Scotland’s National Poet Liz Lochhead, signed an open letter in The Herald titled ‘Israeli theatre company should not be included in the [Edinburgh] Fringe’. They said:

… The current, brutal assault by Israel upon the people of Gaza, which is an appalling collective punishment, underlines the seriousness of this error in co-operating with a company which is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the State of Israel… The state of Israel uses the international ventures of its artists to attempt to lend itself a sense of cultural legitimacy and to distract attention from the brutality of its illegal occupation. Some brave and principled Israeli artists oppose the Israeli state’s cynical attempts to use them for propaganda purposes. In taking Israeli state funding, Incubator Theatre is not among them…

After only one show, Incubator’s The City closed at the Underbelly because of public protests outside the venue. Once again, the editorial line The Stage took was to oppose the boycott of Israeli-state funded artistic companies on grounds of supposed ‘freedom of artistic expression’. As the letter’s coordinator wrote in response, ‘This absolutist, libertarian position is naive at best.’

In August, the São Paulo Biennial decided to drop the logo of the Israeli Embassy in response to an open letter from 55 participating artists that rejected ‘Israel’s attempt to normalise itself within the context of a major international cultural event in Brazil.’ A Financial Times arts column, looking at questions arising from sponsorship of the arts, understood this decision as just one example of a recent trend:

… Art and patronage are ancient bedfellows and bursts of outrage are nothing new. But the sheer weight of discontent suggests we are reaching a tipping point. When the curators of the São Paulo Biennial wrote to the organisers in support of the artists’ objections, they declared that the Brazilian situation “should also be a trigger to think about funding sources of major cultural events”. In their opinion, “the sources of cultural funding have an increasingly dramatic impact on the supposedly ‘independent’ curatorial and artistic narrative of an event”.

The thrust of this argument is that art is compromised if the finance is unethical. “In the 31st biennial, much of the work seeks to show that struggles for justice in Brazil, Latin America and elsewhere in the world are connected,” the São Paulo curators continue. In other words, work will lose its integrity if it depends on support from those seen to be perpetuating problems….

British cultural figures who have given support to the Palestinian civil society call for a cultural boycott include: Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, Brian Eno, violinist Nigel Kennedy, Massive Attack, Elvis Costello, Faithless and Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz; film directors Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, actors Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance and Miriam Margoyles, theatre legend Peter Brook, playwright Caryl Churchill, authors Iain Banks and China Mieville, and Professor Stephen Hawking.

More on ‘Brand Israel’

We see culture as a propaganda tool of the first rank, and I do not differentiate between propaganda and culture.
Nissim Ben-Sheetrit, Israeli foreign ministry, 2005

It is more important for Israel to be attractive than to be right.
Ido Aharoni, Israeli foreign ministry, 2008

We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theatre companies, exhibits. This way, you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.
Arye Mekel, Israeli foreign ministry, 2009

In October 2006, the Israeli foreign ministry, the prime minister’s office and the finance ministry took over the work of a US group calling itself ‘Brand Israel Group’, in order to plan ‘a comprehensive strategy for the nation’s image management.’ ‘The media always show men with guns,’ complained Saar Friedmann, one of many public relations and branding agency people hired along the way.

Re-branding Israel has continued to be a central pre-occupation of the foreign ministry, though successive re-launches have not so far succeeded; ‘the dark side of the story won’t go away’, says US academic Stephen M. Walt.

A key strategy of the re-branding is to use musicians, filmmakers and other cultural professionals to provide a glittering screen behind which the everyday brutalities of occupation and dispossession would be less visible.

More on arts funding:

  1. Guardian article on the pressure growing over BP arts sponsorship: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/sep/19/bp-arts-corporate-sponsorship-pressure