Generosity is not a Substitute for Justice

Everyone who has ever done a project has had to answer the question “Where does the money come from?” and it seems pretty obvious that whoever contributes cash flow has a certain interest attached to the provided financial means. The funding of causes like education and culture, often desperately in search for strong partners, is complicated as institutions easily end up in fragile positions where it seems an expensive luxury to measure corporate interests of a sponsor against the future of a project.

For many institutions the relationship to their sponsors is benevolent and productive, for others however, the pleasing of sponsors becomes a delicate management of compromises. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you, right? But what does this dependent position do to the autonomy of cultural institutions, education or journalism? How do we protect institutions that are critical, sometimes uncomfortable, providing essential research, from continuing to do so without having to fear to upset their funders? Is it really so difficult to understand that the ideas of what is important to a cultural or educational institution might not match cost-effectiveness considerations of some sponsors? And can we ultimately accept that our focus on measurable metrics in culture might not be what makes us valuable?

While public funding is facing cuts due to political or economic turmoil, institutions have to find new partners. These private or corporate sponsors often endanger institutional autonomy, making them vulnerable to be less critical or political in their programming. I’ve written in other parts about why Museums are not Neutral and why claiming that institutional neutrality exists is to ultimately value Business over Education. There are many cases where groups are raising awareness about the role of sponsors and pointing out that Sponsorship is not neutral, such as Liberate Tate who organized many protests and performances around the BP sponsorship of the institution. In 2016 BP ended the sponsorship after 26 years, it was emphasized by the museum that the break was not related to the pressure of the activist group. I guess we all understand the necessity of these sort of statements for the purpose to ensure future corporate sponsorship.

A few days ago Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, lost its annual £1.6m backing from the MAN Group, the press release reads like the corporation had a specific idea in mind about how the sponsorship could have been more effectively communicated to the public.

I listened the other day to an episode on the Onbeing Podcast with guest Anand Giridharadas, who is a former columnist and foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. The topic was around his new book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the Worldwhere he states that our assumption that philanthropy of the wealthy, the gig economy or new technology will save us comes actually with many moral compromises. I thought that some of his thoughts are actually really interesting for the cultural industry.

In his conversation with Krista Tippett he talked about the idea that generosity is based on a “win-win” assumption, both sides win. But the reality is much more complicated and generosity is, more often than not, attached to conditions. New foundations, scholarships, prizes, patronages are beneficial for the system, but we might have never asked in the first place if these philanthropic sponsors are really bringing about change for everyone. Or if they are actually interested in upholding the system where they are winning and that ensures they keep their power. In a nutshell, he is exploring and questioning the neoliberal myth that capitalism will benefit everyone.

“I actually think we’re now at a place where we are ripe, much as we were 100 years ago, when we were in the first Gilded Age, and you had these great inequalities and great new technologies and a lot of dislocated people and a lot of anger and a lot of philanthropy. What that gave way to was an age of reform. I think we are ripe for a new age of reform in American life, where these basic questions of, what is the relationship between work and health care? How do we do social mobility in an age of the gig economy and iPhones? What is our relationship to place as companies and as workers? These are some big questions that, in some ways,are almost spiritual questions about the economy and about our society.”

In an earlier talk at the Aspen Institute in 2015 (linked below) he started to delve deeply into his thoughts around generosity and justice: “We are here sometimes at risk of confusing generosity toward the victims with justice for those victims. Generosity is a win-win but justice often is not. The winners of our age don’t enjoy the idea that some of them might actually have to lose a little bit. To sacrifice for justice to be done”. The presentation is fascinating and you should watch it for yourself, but one question of the many he raised left a deep impact on me: “Are we here to change the system or slowly being changed by it? Are we using our collective strength […] to challenge power or are we helping to make an unjust, unpalatable system feel a little more digestible?”

His exploration on how neoliberal vocabulary shapes our believes is fascinating. He mentions several times the “win-win” equation:

[…] It’s language like the “win-win,” which sounds great, but in some deep way is actually about rich people saying, the only acceptable forms of social change are the forms of social change that also kick something back upstairs — language like “doing well by doing good,” which, again, is like, “The only conditions under which I’m willing to do good is under which I would also do well.”

In his thoughts around the role of education it seems very obvious that his thoughts connect to a systemic problem on how culture or education are evaluated:

"I think it’s very interesting that a lot of people, particularly in the [Silicon] Valley — there’s this thing of dropping out of college because one of the reasons these folks drop out is, they feel they have the technical knowledge they need to get started. And part of what they’re dropping out of, in many cases, is the liberal arts education that is precisely designed to give you these kinds of frameworks to understand things like, history is cyclical, and good things have bad effects, and things go ways that you couldn’t anticipate, and just this normal understanding of how the human condition, as you put it, works.

When you have people with that much power over humanity, that much power to decide more and more how children learn and how commerce works and how power functions, and they basically have a naïve, childlike understanding that any tool that they invent will inherently make things better, you go to a very dark place."

And it’s frightening to watch that school curricula do get “optimized” by declining subjects such as art, music and even languages, underestimating how valuable these subjects are for critical thinking, creative development and other skills.

I am not pretending to have connected the dots but I am a firm believer that education, culture and journalism should be protected from having to rely solely on corporate generosity. Cost efficiency believes in optimization and the attraction of many visitors - which can’t be the predominant reason to do projects in the cultural industry. And let me be clear, I’m not talking about accessibility here. I do firmly believe that culture should be inclusive for different groups and provide different entry points. That said, Blockbuster exhibitions, while attracting many, won’t soften the hierarchy of emphasizing always the same names. And what might come as a surprise to some sponsors, many names that are not linked to the “mainstream culture” (for lack of a better term) do have vivid fans that result in surprising numbers at the end of a project. Eyeballs (visitors, traffic etc.) shouldn’t become the only indicator we use to measure relevance.

Critical thinking is not a linear equation. We need more people understanding the power of sources, to see the interests behind of who paid for certain research and which information is used to form conclusions. We won’t find sustainable growth by letting others pay the money and not do the learning.