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The Arts versus filthy lucre
Article Type: Literature and insights From: Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Volume 25, Issue 3
A short while ago, I was researching pop music’s reflections on the world of business, which lead to a co-authored paper on the theme (Evans and Jacobs, 2010). It referred in part to Billy Bragg, who has been criticised for owning what many would regard as significant realty despite fostering a personal profile based on having working class values. The contrast is too much for some who complain that Bragg is a hypocrite for seeming to hold mutually exclusive positions. Why, he even has Billy Bragg merchandise available online!
Ethical issues around the intersection of art and business arose recently in a different context when the UK’s Poetry Book Society (PBS) (2001a) learnt that it was losing government funding from the Arts Council England. Subsequent events opened the proverbial can of worms, and they say a lot about the interplay between arts and business, especially regarding sponsorship. In case you were wondering, it concerns business sponsoring the arts, and not the other way around – although, as they say, there has to be a beneficial swap involved.
The loss of Arts Council funds meant that the PBS was forced to shut down two long-term projects that revolved around poetry for children, and its prestigious TS Eliot Prize was also under grave threat. The Eliot prize has been described, rather parochially, as “the prize most poets want to win” (Andrew Motion, then Poet Laureate) and “the world’s top poetry award”, and “is awarded to the author of the best new collection of poetry published in the UK and Ireland each year” (Poetry Society, 2011b). One would think that a visible association with such a prize would be an attractive proposition for a civically minded corporation.
The money awarded to the shortlisted and winning poets comes from the widow of TS Eliot and from his estate (Page, 2011). Luckily for the PBS, it seemed, new sponsorship was acquired from the private investment management firm Aurum Funds to cover management expenses (Flood, 2011a), enabling the TS Eliot Prize to survive for another three years at least. That success, though, came at an unexpected cost. Two of the ten poets who had just been shortlisted for the Prize withdrew their entries as a protest. First it was former winner Alice Oswald, saying:
I’m uncomfortable about the fact that Aurum Funds, an investment company which exclusively manages funds of hedge funds, is sponsoring the administration of the Eliot Prize; I think poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions and for that reason I’m withdrawing from the Eliot shortlist (Flood, 2011a).
Virtually on her heels, it was the turn of Australian poet John Kinsella to do the same. He sympathised with the plight of the PBS “given the horrendous way they were treated”, adding:
I regret that I must do this at a particularly difficult time for the Poetry Book Society but the business of Aurum does not sit with my personal politics and ethics (Flood, 2011b).
He added that, “Hedge funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism, if I can put it that way” (Flood, 2011b).
Many reader comments immediately arose in response to these poets’ decisions and they were intriguing. A few respondents simply supported the poets’ choice as a matter of taking a visible stand against the machinery of perceived financial exploitation, but others were more critical and, generally, more detailed. A number of inter-related issues arose that are relevant to the way that numerous art forms and businesses intersect:
When funding used to come from a government that invests in essentially the same way that Aurum does, it had produced no similar complaint. Is it because the earlier funding was perceived as being money of “the people’ rather than of the wealthy few, or is it based on perceptions of investment funds” indifference to the ordinary individual? What perceived difference lies at the heart of the complaint?
A number of investment funds do support the arts already: the Man Booker Prize, for instance, is funded by the financiers Man Group, though not all authors are happy with that. This kind of support might be seen as capitalism co-opting culture, but is a broadside against investment funds per se enough of an answer? What particular investment strategy is the problem? If some investment funds are potentially “good patrons”, what criteria should be used to identify them? Is there a distinction to be made between filthy lucre, not so dirty money, and clean money? Is there ever such a thing as clean money, anyway?
Even poets need to make money from their art, but how does one reconcile a poet’s personal ethics about reward for their own effort with considerations of scale, agency and control that come into play when an investment business is involved? Where can a poet ethically put her money, for instance? If it goes into a bank, where does that institution invest money on her behalf, and has she any special ethical responsibility to enquire? Is the poet effectively powerless in this regard?
As mentioned, funds for the prizes (as distinct from those for managing the competition) come from the estate of TS Eliot, which would arise in part from royalties and Eliot’s other earnings. Did Eliot have qualms about accepting a Nobel Prize for Literature and the related large cash prize that was founded on wealth from the production of armaments? Did Alice Oswald and John Kinsella, feel awkward about that financial connection before the Aurum matter arose? For that matter, have there been abstentions from entry to Nobel Prizes, whether in the Literature or other categories?
The kind of protest undertaken by the poets is not new. There is a history of authors taking a moral stand in relation to sponsorship where they disagree with corporate activity, including such notables as Hari Kunzru, John Berger, Janet and Allen Ahlberg (Flood, 2011a), Germaine Greer and Jim Crace (Sherwin, 2011). Some of the current attention on corporate engagement may be due to a wider scrutiny of business globally. Whether one thinks that the various “Occupy” movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, are desirable or effective is perhaps less an issue than what they signify.
Phone hacking, enormous profits, Wikileaks, the GFC, and so on, all help to create the sense that the financial sector needs to be more sensitive to the expectations of less powerful citizens and its obligations to the greater community rather than just to the concerns of shareholders for dividends.
Corporate sponsorship can be a cynical attempt or a real one to demonstrate identifying with a community and “giving back”. In Australia, the federal government and a few prominent wealthy business people have been pushing for a higher level of giving. This is already evident in the US where there is a long-standing tradition of relying on philanthropy, notwithstanding its vulnerability to the personal whims and tastes of board members or of rich individuals. Unfortunately, this is often seen as an excuse for governments to further back away from investment in the arts, and that is happening in this country too.
A personal ethics lies at the heart of the poets’ actions, and the shape of corporate accountability is ultimately determined by the way that individuals are prepared to take a stand on issues they think important. Robert Graves said “There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money either”. This doesn’t mean that poets should not think about money or aspire to earning some, and they are entitled to assert the strength of their convictions on money through their poetry. They can also talk about those views publicly and withdraw their labour or output in order to make a point.
Has it been effective on this occasion? These are early days. In the Economist, R.B. expresses puzzlement about the poets’ lack of specific grievance, also highlighting the long history of arts patronage by business and wealthy individuals (R.B., 2011). I expect that there will a brief surge of such articles before interest switches to something new.
Art has its own commerce; a trade in ideas and a discourse about the way we live that must find a place alongside and intertwined with making a living. It is useful to remember that Eliot himself worked for Lloyd Bank, and though it was in an era when banking was less voracious, he was in the game of financial services nonetheless. Then again, at least he could see across the different worlds in which we all work and play, identifying links that unite us. One of these is evident in his poem “Four Quartets 2: East Coker III” when he describes how everyone faces the same end; even, “The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters. The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers”. Gloomy yes, but it highlights that there is a leveling somewhere in everyone’s future. Naturally, that does not excuse behaviour along the way that is unethical, prejudiced or cruel.
In this issue, the creative material makes salutary points about ethics and money and, in one case, offers a specific scenario where the arts and taxation intersect. In this smorgasbord, Lyn Daff describes what may be all too familiar to many of us, the dreaded ethics application process, as a kind of initiation into the secret workings of a research club. I liked Greg Horne’s poem about a dinner party encounter when I saw it, partly because it triggered memories of a past working for the Australian Taxation Office, and also for its deft interweaving of a reference to a Mayakovsky poem (“Talking with the Taxman about Poetry”) that Billy Bragg adopted for a song and album title. Barbara L’Huillier’s lament for the demise of investment balances coincides with a letter from my superannuation fund yesterday advising that defined benefits may have to be cut (it was not expressed so directly). In other words, your contributions to your superannuation fund dwindle and then the notified return is retrospectively reduced as well. Maybe we should all be content to write poetry. Anyone know a good patron?
I look forward to your contribution to this section of the journal, which can be sent to me at: email@example.com.
Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal (AAAJ) welcomes submissions of both research papers and creative writing. Creative writing in the form of poetry and short prose pieces is edited for the Literature and Insights Section only and does not undergo the refereeing procedures required for all research papers published in the main body of AAAJ.
Steve EvansLiterary Editor
Evans, S. and Jacobs, K. (2010), “Art for art’s sake. Money for God’s sake”, Proceedings of the Asia-Pacific Interdisciplinary Research in Accounting (APIRA) Conference, Sydney, July, available at: http://apira2010.econ.usyd.edu.au/conference_proceedings/APIRA-2010-236-Evans-Art-for-arts-sake-money-for-gods-sake.pdf
Flood, A. (2011a), “Alice Oswald withdraws from TS Eliot prize in protest at sponsor Aurum”, The Guardian, 6 December, available at: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/06/alice-oswald-withdraws-ts-eliot-prize (accessed 7 December 2011)
Flood, A. (2011b), “TS Eliot prize: second poet withdraws in sponsor protest”, The Guardian, 7 December, available at: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/07/ts-eliot-prize-second-poet-sponsor-protest (accessed 7 December 2011)
Page, B. (2011), “New sponsor backs T S Eliot prize”, The Bookseller, 21 October, available at: www.thebookseller.com/news/new-sponsor-backs-t-s-eliot-prize.html (accessed 7 December 2011)
Poetry Book Society (2011a), Projects, available at: www.poetrybooks.co.uk/projects/ (accessed 7 November 2011)
Poetry Book Society (2011b), Projects 23, available at: www.poetrybooks.co.uk/projects/23/ (accessed 7 November 2011)
R.B. (2011), “On poets and patronage”, The Economist, 8 December, available at: www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/12/literary-prizes (accessed 9 December 2011)
Sherwin, A. (2011), “Poet reaches end of line with TS Eliot prize in row over hedge fund sponsor”, The Independent, 7 December, available at: www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/poet-reaches-end-of-line-with-ts-eliot-prize-in-row-over-hedge-fund-sponsor-6273175.html (accessed 7 December 2011)