Artivism: The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism, by Alexander Adams; Imprint-Academic, August 2022; £14.95, available here.
LIKE the poor, revolutionaries will always be with us, so it behoves those of us who wish to conserve the best that has been said, thought and created to understand the scale of the threat posed to museums and galleries today. Alexander Adams’s forensic examination of the problem is a very useful guide.
The term ‘artivism’ means political propaganda masquerading as art. ‘Artists’ receive funding from ‘cultural entryist’ museum directors, who have politically captured the institutions they run, then launch some ‘installation’, ‘hub’ or ‘happening’. As Adams acutely observes, this ‘art’ is left-wing without exception.
Though he is scrupulously fair in examining the purported aims of artivism, Adams’s conclusions are damning. Practitioners of artivism are parasites, chancers and charlatans sucking up public money, and their paymasters in museums and galleries are an arrogant elite who seek, in a rather colonial way, to impose a minority viewpoint on the majority – who merely pay for it and in return are held in contempt. As he says: ‘There has never been a piece of publicly sponsored artivism that encouraged viewers to be less anxious about the environment, advocated fidelity within marriage or celebrated traditional marriage’. Adams has it that the British arts establishment is led by ‘anxious, middle-class, left-wing, self-hating (overwhelmingly white) university graduates who use minorities as political tokens and shields to bolster their organisations’ status and government income’.
Adams sees the origins of state-funded political art in Bastille Day celebrations after the French Revolution, which included bonfires of regalia. Under the Soviet regime avant garde art, a feature of the early revolutionary period, was suppressed in favour of dull paintings showing idealised views of peasants happily toiling for the greater good of the communist utopian motherland (this made me think of the BBC’s socialist propaganda dramas such as Casualty). He shows that Nazi-era art, also depicting agrarian striving for the national socialist fatherland, is virtually indistinguishable from the Soviet version.
In Britain, the Year Zero in the state’s interference in art was 1946 when the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, established during the war to support and preserve British culture, was reconstituted as the Arts Council of Great Britain. Adams says that though museums and galleries had a ‘golden age’ between 1945 and 2000, the whole concept of public-funded art was always open to becoming a vehicle for elite political preoccupations and mission creep. Utilitarian thinking was the order of the day, which led to state-funded artists delivering political messages, which in turn led to today’s obsessive neo-Marxist proselytising.
Using as an example the Institute of Contemporary Art, in the Mall, central London, he cites topics from its press releases in 2020: Racism, race activism, historical slavery, feminism, LGBTQ+, transgender issues, anti-police, anti-prisons, anti-Trump, anti-Brexit, anarchism, migration, pornography, exhibitionism (one of the films shown is now available on PornHub, one of the world’s biggest pornography websites) sex work, abortion, anti-capitalism and anti-colonialism. All that just a few minutes’ walk from the Queen’s front door.
Admirably Adams, himself a painter as well as critic, took on the ICA. On October 1, 2018, it hosted a celebratory dinner for Chelsea Manning, the former US soldier Bradley Manning who was court-martialled in 2013 for breaking the US Espionage Act by leaking 750,000 classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents to Wikileaks. Manning, who later had a sex change, was jailed for three years.
Adams complained to the ICA’S then director, a German curator called Stefan Kalmar (who spent part of each year living in Berlin) that the dinner for Manning was a breach of the ICA’S founding memorandum which stipulated that it should be concerned only with visual art. It also, Adams says, was a contravention of Charity Commission regulations which ban political campaigning. Kalmar feebly responded that Manning’s presence ‘contextualised’ the study of data. That, as Adams responded, can be made to mean anything. Far more telling was the reaction of ministers and MPs, to whom Adams also complained: they did nothing. The dinner went ahead.
Another penetrating example of high level artivism is that of the eco pressure group Extinction Rebellion, a front organisation formed from two radical leftist groups, Rising Up! and Compassionate Revolution. XR tailors and sanitises its revolutionary ideas by making simple, environmentally alarmist statements that appeal to the young and uninstructed (XR’s handbook of activism is published by Penguin Random House if you don’t mind).
It is a mistake to think this is merely a mob of unwashed bedsit revolutionaries. XR has funding from the international elite. It has, says Adams, received large donations from the Kennedys, the Gettys, various billionaires and charities. This represents an open alliance between neo-Marxist revolutionaries and the Davos crowd. As Adams puts it: ‘Rising Up! and XR propose environmental sustainability through restricting capitalism and replacing parliamentary democracy with rulership guided by scientists. Taming free markets, curbing the unpredictability of democracy, governance by experts and reducing personal freedom in a system of surveillance, nudge and control – all in the name of environmental sustainability.’ These are ‘the same goals of super-wealthy globalists, international firms and civil servants’.
One might add that the disastrous panic over Covid 19 was a textbook episode in how global governance intends to proceed.
The West has been well warned about the dangers of a managerial elite. James Burnham’s books on the subject in the 1940s were studied by George Orwell, whose Nineteen Eighty-Four is the great work on totalitarian control of culture and language. Who controls the past controls the present, he observed. The art activists, in their decolonisings, denunciations, cancelling and statue smashing, are engaged in a power grab of the past. Transgression is the lingua franca, with one act setting the precedent for another. Adams alludes to artivist stunts including: induced vomiting, public orgies and an activist ‘nailing his scrotum to a cathedral door’.
He concludes that wherever public money is spent on the arts, corruption follows. He notes that artivism never reflects majority opinion, it always traduces it. This shows up the nonsense of cultural administrators’ endless bleats about diversity: there is none: it’s all left-wing propaganda. The former standards in art, flair, merit, talent, originality, beauty, have been abandoned. Only the political claims of the artist have any consideration. The traditional conception of art has been destroyed.
What can be done? Adams is somewhat circumspect about this, losing himself in doubt about the elites’ ultimate motivations. For me, the broad answer is simple: turn off the money tap; axe the Arts Council and turn over arts funding for our major museums, galleries and orchestras to a ministerial department. That is not perfect but would at least raise the possibility of kicking out the parasite ‘artivists’ – for a while.
How you keep woke out of museum management is a more difficult problem. As Adams notes, museums and galleries have always been vulnerable to capture by the radical middle classes, whose aim is to live at someone else’s expense. Since our universities are already controlled by the left, it is overwhelmingly likely that all future arts curators and administrators will impose postmodern/left-wing dogma on museums and galleries.
I do not see any politicians who realise the scale of the problem and show the will to fight woke in the public sector. If politicians inform the public what is going on, the public will quite rightly ask why they have allowed the public purse to finance a cultural revolution. It would be an awkward question for the Conservative Party, in charge for the most time since 1970, to answer.
This is a war that is here to stay. At stake are our cherished institutions and our culture. Adams’s book is an essential – and depressing – guide to the hostilities.