The Cultural Weapon 13 April 2011

The Cultural Weapon

 Should artists accept “dirty money”?

 Mike van Graan

 A number of things strike one on entering Bamako, the capital of Mali.  The first is the majestic Niger River responsible for much of the green in an otherwise dusty, gravelly, semi-desert city.   Another is the industriousness of the people in an obviously poor country, as everyone is trying to generate even a meagre income selling mangoes, chickens and home-made furniture, or Chinese-manufactured T-shirts, electricity adapters and slip slops.  Then there are some incongruously tall buildings and hotels, a number of the latter bearing the name “Libya Hotels”.  One garish building is named after the Libyan dictator, Gaddafi, who has funded this – still empty – structure to house the Malian cabinet.  There are two bridges across the Niger with a third being built by the Chinese.

As one walks through the market, there are hand-made posters in defence of Gaddafi, and in conversation with some of the locals, it is clear that there is much sympathy for the one time, wannabe-head of the United States of Africa. 

Mali is ranked in the top half of the Mo Ibrahim Index on Governance in Africa and shares second spot for the best media freedom in Africa.  But Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world with an average income of $680 per year and a ranking of 160 (out of 179 countries) on the Human Development Index.  Should a country like Mali that is making great strides in human rights and freedoms – but which is relatively poor and in need of development assistance – accept aid from countries with extremely poor records in human rights and media freedom?

This is a similar question vexing some artists and arts organisations: should they accept “dirty money” that contradicts their own values of freedom of expression and fundamental human rights?  Funding is often used to buy credibility, to buy political or other influence, to boost an image in need of a makeover, or simply to co-opt and mute critical thought and practice.

So, should arts organisations, cultural institutions and individual artists – given that they often struggle to survive and are more often than not in need of funding – accept support from countries with poor human rights records and that might even suppress artistic freedom in their own countries?  How far back does one go to determine whether money is “dirty”?  Previous Cultural Weapons have highlighted how European countries like France, the United Kingdom and Germany are increasingly compromising fundamental human rights and principles of cultural diversity, particularly with regard to immigrant communities.  So, should funding be accepted from these countries?   Is their funding not rooted in the repressive colonial period, partly in contemporary neo-colonial relationships and their current trade with countries that do not have exemplary human rights records?

And how many western countries that profess support for human rights and democracy, such as the USA, are not guilty of direct or indirect abuse of human rights whether through the torture of prisoners, illegal wars (not sanctioned by the United Nations) or propping up repressive regimes that serve their interests? 

But if government funding may be dirty, what of funding from the private sector, from those that trade with and so sustain governments that abuse human rights, or who generate profits through weapons that are used for war against citizens, or through environmental destruction or simply through highly exploitative labour practices or who put profits before people such as drug companies who deny cheaper life-saving drugs to people who need them?  Should funding be accepted from such companies?  And what of more “harmless” funding from tobacco companies or wine companies that impact directly or indirectly on health and social problems?  Should artists accept funding from the lottery that some regard as another form of tax, especially on the poor?

The reality is that it is very difficult, if nigh impossible, to find “clean money”, that in a world as structurally and historically inequitable as ours, with the global free market perpetuating these inequities, it is likely that all funding is tainted in some way or another.  So then, is funding from any source morally acceptable, simply because it is unlikely to find funding that is not morally compromised through its generation, its source, its role or the strings that are attached?

Prof Es’kia Mphahlele, a highly respected South African writer and community activist who passed away a few years ago once said to the effect of “the closer dirty money gets to me, the cleaner it becomes”.

His was a pragmatic approach, one that did not see the world in binary opposites, but as a morally complex labyrinth.  If the money is used to achieve a good end or a morally sound objective, then that would be acceptable in terms of this approach.

Sometimes, it is those with options, those with resources, those in relatively privileged positions who may make more “moral” choices so that a more wealthy country may not accept funding from Gaddafi, but a country like Mali – also trying to assert greater economic and political independence from its former colonial master – has fewer options.  Similarly, artists and arts organisations with greater funder or income diversity are more able to adopt morally superior positions than those with less access to international or other funding sources.  (Not only do the rich have more options, but they can also be more opportunistic, such as the artists from the West who were paid huge amounts to perform at a Gaddafi function, only to rush to return or donate the money to charity after he turned his guns on protesting Libyans).

The locals in Mali speak of how the construction of the building to house the country’s cabinet ministers is often halted by Gaddafi when he is unhappy with some internal Malian policy or international public position that Mali takes.  (One can but wonder about the dynamics and varying interests of the current AU delegation to Libya that includes the Malian President).

In a complex global economic and political order where there are few absolutes with respect to human rights and only degrees of respect for such universal values, it is unlikely that one can adopt a one-size-fits-all policy about whom to accept funding from, and who not.  It would appear to be a question of whether the individual artist or the organisation could live with the written and unspoken strings attached to such funding.  Would an association with the source of funding compromise one’s image or the pursuit of one’s core objectives?  Would it compromise one’s ability to “speak truth to power” and be a form of co-option or lead to self-censorship?  Will it compromise solidarity with artists in the country of the source of funding? 

Generally, there is a contract between a donor and the recipient spelling out the terms and conditions of the funding arrangements, and articulating the expectations of the donor.  Perhaps – at least for organisations concerned about harming their image and reputations with funding from potentially compromising sources – recipients should draft a document that would form part of the contract, outlining their own values and principles, and the terms upon which such funding is accepted i.e. that the organisation will not change its principles, values, objectives or forsake its right to speak truth to power, even if such “power” includes the donor.


1. The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer and are not necessarily representative of any of the organisations in which he is involved. 

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Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses local expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

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About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
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2 Responses to The Cultural Weapon 13 April 2011

  1. Money is not clean or neat or tidy or nice and public money may be the nastiest … During the whistleblowing saga of slush public funds at the State Theatre in the late 1990’s, state officials actually claimed the money mismanaged itself away (on a pyramid-scheme)…

    I think I stand with Eskia Mphahlele on this one…:-).

  2. barbaracuerden says:

    Perhaps more humane ideologies must need be impure – and able to be vulnerable/permeable rather than iron-clad?

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