At arm’s length

At a Buckingham Palace event in November, the race rights charity worker Ngozi Fulani was asked by the royal aide Lady Susan Hussey where she was from. Fulani dodged the question but Hussey insisted: where was she ‘really’ from? The predictable claims of ‘abuse’ in Fulani’s media rounds and Hussey’s resignation followed.

Whether Hussey’s question was racist or not is not interesting. However, the passing of the octogenarian’s world in which people were from somewhere is significant. In Hussey’s view, presumably, a person of mixed heritage would also naturally have split loyalties and to understand those would be important. We are in an interregnum: the individual decides who they are and where they are from but these choices are not (yet) consequence-free. 

Let me ask Hussey’s question in a form less likely to raise eyebrows at dinner parties: who do you work for? But who, really? Recently, I asked a colleague employed by a well-funded London arts festival to account for the aims, values, and principles that underpin her organisation’s work. The answer was long-winded, invoked ‘the community’ (and, bizarrely, George Floyd), before touching on sustainability. But I was told that it should be up to the festival curators to choose these values and ethics: it’s art’s prerogative to seek truth and speak it to power for the common good.

Some culture is unambiguously in the service of politics. Photo: Matt Brown/flickr

I found these final words admirable. But my Hussian instinct made me inquire who my colleague ‘really’ worked for: wasn’t she, formally, employed by the local authority and, technically, a civil servant? And, strictly, did that not mean that she was contracted to promote the values of her democratically elected representatives? Legally, what kind of a community did her employer want to nurture? Officially, did the administration have an actionable policy on race relations in the US? Who, really, was she to tell voters what they should believe?

I asked these questions knowing they would confuse because the arts’ loyalties are largely aligned with the interests of the ailing professional-managerial class that manifest as the kind of indignation of late liberalism that Fulani voiced when challenged by Hussey’s old-world institution. How does one distinguish between art’s imperative to challenge and disrupt from its political instrumentalisation under the very same guise? We cannot, and consequently, artists and arts administrators believe that they have the legitimate right to bind others to their personal values in the name of art.

Protests against the Sackler family in New York. Photo: Anthony Picciano

It would be callous not to admit that this impulse has had some admirable outcomes. The campaign spearheaded by the artist Nan Goldin to sever the relationships between the Sackler family and numerous cultural institutions is an example of impeccable ethics and extraordinarily potent artistic work coming together. But in other cases, such as the sacking of the Guggenheim’s curator Nancy Spector in response to potentially self-serving claims by activist curators which in most reporting became confused with issues of racial equity, the ‘common good’ has been less straightforward to discern because the call came from inside the house. Scale this to the level of the industry and the question of accountability of the art world’s revolutionary workforce becomes moot.

No wonder some of these campaigns, as well as the very values that drive them, have become fodder for a culture war. The question is one of legitimacy: does the activist urge to change the world by changing the art institution trump the institution’s corporate interests or obligations to other parties? Frustratingly, there is no single answer, but the refusal of the art workforce to acknowledge that in some instances it’s ethically not up to them to decide what such obligations are is sometimes damaging to its political interests.

I previously wrote about the Polish government’s hostile takeover of the country’s contemporary art museums which met with vocal disapproval from liberal art workers. The prospects of their ongoing boycotts and protests are grim: the Polish state legally owns and directs the very institutions that the curators are vying to protect from state interference. And because the Polish government was democratically elected on an antiliberal platform, it is, in principle, free to radically change state cultural policy whether the curators like it or not. Those whose dissent has cost them their jobs (and I count friends in this group) may rightly feel politically targeted but they will struggle to explain why the state’s chosen ‘culture’ should be theirs.

Ujazdowski Castle, one of the museums ‘reclaimed’ by the Polish government. Photo: Bartosz Morag/Flickr.

Closer to home, Arts Council England’s latest periodic rebalancing of its investment portfolio has been marred by accusations of political interference when the then Culture Minister Nadine Dorries demanded that this ‘quasi-autonomous non-government organisation’ diverts £24 million away from London arts organisations to UK regions as part of a wider government policy. The offence is that the instruction breached the ‘arm’s length principle’ under which ACE is sheltered from political whims. But this principle is at best a fiction that went unquestioned in times of plenty (like when the overt political instrumentalisation of art was backed by generous funding from New Labour governments) but is lamented when money is tight. There is nothing autonomous or non-governmental about an organisation that is funded wholly according to government policy.

There have been some painful side-effects of ACE’s ‘independence’ that include cutting funding for London’s English National Opera lest the organisation move to Manchester. In a parliamentary hearing on the decision, the funder’s chief executive Darren Henley insisted that he had followed his political orders while his colleague denied ‘political interference’. Unimpressed, the opposition MP Kevin Brennan accused ACE of a “dereliction of duty”, acting contrary to the Culture Secretary’s direction, and letting voters down. Are the politician’s ‘voters’ not the same as ACE’s ‘audiences’? Will the left-leaning art world now agree that the Conservative Dorries had the mandate to do what she did but ACE did not?

Arts Council England CEO Darren Henley appearing before the DCSM parliamentary select committee in December 2022.

If ACE’s chief executive doesn’t know who he works for, it’s no wonder that so many art managers haven’t asked themselves this question and that they fancy themselves exempt from public scrutiny. The Polish example, perversely, will likely exacerbate this feeling because the ‘public’ has been staged as an adversary in a culture war. Elsewhere, proponents of public accountability don’t always have good intentions, either: Ngozi Fulani’s charity work has been gracelessly ‘scrutinised‘ (for which read ‘smeared’) by a pseudonymous Twitter political activist as though her conduct as an officer of a tiny, independent organisation invalidated the cultural claim she made of the Royal Family.

In a culture war, everyone fancies themselves a conscientious objector. Sometimes, the paradoxes this creates are stark, as is in the case of the British Museum whose collection policies are determined by parliamentary legislation. Notwithstanding, the museum’s chair and former government minister George Osborne appears to be secretly negotiating the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece contrary to government policy. Who’s the hero here?

An exhibit in the now closed exhibition Medicine Man at the Wellcome Collection.

We shouldn’t assume that everyone is telling the truth, either: calculated corporate moves are often hailed as acts of political bravery. The Wellcome Collection’s decision to close a supposedly ‘racist’ exhibition came about as a result of a pseudo-activist campaign that involved, among others, the Collection’s own director. Given that the institution is an independent trust bound to public duty only by its charitable status, why would it bother?

Where one is from and who one works for still have heavy consequences. The arts are expert at Fulani’s tactic of flat-out denying this, but seeing that this strategy so readily enables manipulation and astroturfing, isn’t it time to trial radical transparency and honesty? Given the amount of critical attention afforded by art to everyone else’s political agendas, some scrutiny must be redirected at the self. This won’t feel joyous for everyone, but that’s OK: knowing our place in the (art) world can bring new energy. Or, at least, relief.

Main image: DanceLilSister/Flickr.