Could artists do more good on stage than off?
A little over ten years ago, Richard Evans and I co-created the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, a unique and distinctly “Sydney” offering to the world. Our intention was to create a word class festival that pushes the boundaries of acceptable speech. There was (and remains) a serious goal behind the festival. We thought that if we maintained the boundaries, then we could help keep as large an “intermediary space” in the public square as possible, a space which, even then, was being shrunk by a wider culture of increasingly censorship.
Invariably, the festival has met its fair share of controversy – outraging “conservatives” and progressives. Along the way, speakers took to the stage to denounce The Ethics Center for its involvement in the festival; as well as various members of the audience who were outraged by the choice of topics, speakers, etc. by the Conservatives. Sometimes we have been applauded.
I mention it in the background of my remarks on the controversy surrounding the Sydney Festival 2022, namely a boycott of certain artists against his decision to take money from the Israeli government. I am no stranger to the pressures and ethical dilemmas of staging a contemporary public event that strives to transcend bland.
As a matter of principle, everyone has the right to define the conditions under which they choose to participate in an event – whether as a “content provider” or as a member of the public. No one should be required to contribute to an event that they believe will compromise their principles or appear to involve collusion in wrongdoing. With this in mind, it is important that those invited to events undertake their own “due diligence” before accepting a role. In turn, the organizers should give potential participants the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether or not to contribute to the program.
This implies that the organizers must establish criteria for partnerships, sponsorships, associations, etc. It might be easier said than done. For example, one can be “apolitical” while deciding that it would be wrong to accept funding from, say, the military dictatorship of Tatmadaw in Myanmar. Yet explaining the rationale for rejecting such funding (albeit intuitively obvious) is a challenge? Do we exclude all military regimes, or all regimes established by a coup? If so, would Thailand be breaking such a rule? One can think of many other examples where similar questions could be asked – whether in terms of legitimacy, human rights or other considerations. However, in the absence of such criteria, every decision risks being seen as the result of random judgment or bias.
So far, I have focused on the issue of informed decision-making – an uncontroversial principle that I hope could be accepted and applied by people on all sides of the debate about if, when and how. participate in controversial issues. But what about a somewhat different phenomenon where a person’s decision is less about personal conviction and informed decision-making than “sending a message” – of solidarity? or condemnation or to gain the approval of others?
This is where I think things get tricky. For example, I can see real merit in deciding to take a stand in solidarity with others – especially if those others are a marginalized group whose opinions are rarely heard. Then the gesture of solidarity can make sense – not because it brings about a major change in the world but simply because those who feel marginalized experience a moment of public support. This can be distinguished as a kind of “false solidarity” between those who simply wish to gain the approval of the crowd or to integrate more closely into their particular “tribe”.
However, I also wonder if those who are driven by more noble sentiments would not end up doing less good than what might have been achieved by taking the stage and using it as an opportunity to express their point of view. .