Examining ethics of the boycotting the Sydney Biennale and the reply from the Board of the Sydney Biennale to the calls for a boycott. If you need a background on the issue see the links on Leg of Lamb.
“The Biennale’s ability to effectively contribute to the cessation of bipartisan government policy is far from black and white. The only certainty is that without our founding partner, the Biennale will no longer exist,” the letter in reply to the artists stated. “Consequently, we unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family – and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale – must override claims over which there is ambiguity.” (Quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald 21/2/14.)
Attempting a utilitarian argument the Biennale’s board believe that their show is more important than the lives of refugees fleeing persecution only to be persecuted by the Australian regime. They can’t admit that the Australian government and Transfield have and will continue to commit crimes against humanity. They claim ambiguity when they are participating in distorting the facts about their association with criminals. It when they used the word “loyalty” exposing that their sense of duty is based on patronage rather than morality; loyalty, like patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
According to the Sydney Biennale it is better to do nothing other than talk because the outcome of further pressure on the government is uncertain and unlikely. The makers of SodaStream could use the same argument as not buying their product and Oxfam dumping Scarlett Johansson as its good will ambassador is unlikely to get Israel to withdraw from the occupied West Bank. (See Ryan Gilbey’s article in The Guardian 16/2/14)
The threat of the Biennale ending is an empty threat and only threatens their status. It is the equivalent of saying that if you don’t buy SodaStream then you and your friends won’t enjoy sugary carbonated water. If the Biennale ceases to exist then another biennale will take its place in a few years, if a biennale was really needed by the hundreds and thousands of people, as the Biennale’s board claims.
When in 2003 Nelson Mandela refused to have dinner with George Bush and spoke out against him it was a symbolic action. It was not because Mandela thought that it would stop the invasion of Iraq but because he did not want to associate with an evil person. I would urge all Australian artists to follow the moral example of Nelson Mandela to avoid and speak out crimes against humanity rather than the amoral example of board of the Sydney Biennale.
Just as Mandela condemned George Bush’s invasion plans Australia’s treatment of refugees is something that we should also condemn without reservation. We should condemn both the Liberal Party and ALP and hope that one day that all members of these parties serve time for their crimes in slightly more humane conditions than they hold refugees indefinitely in. We should condemn Transfield and the Biennale chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis without reservation and all people should avoid any kind of association with them even if this is only a symbolic action. Artist, above all people, should understand the power and importance of symbolic actions for art is a symbolic action.
Artists and the public should boycott the Sydney Biennale. Not only should artists and the public boycott the Sydney Biennale but they should picket it. I have to give credit to the artist Van Thanh Rudd for being the first artist to protest about Transfield’s links to the Biennale in 2012. Visitors to the Sydney Biennale need to be aware that they are giving aid and comfort to people who commit crimes against humanity. Who, besides its board and Transfield, really cares more about the Sydney Biennele than people’s lives and dignity?
For further reading on the issue see: The Biennale Boycott and Diversity of Tactics