Arts Opinion

Feathers ruffled over Fossil Free Books' stance on artwashing

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Top literary event Hay Festival has recently declined funding from Baillie Gifford (Screenshot via YouTube)

'Art-for-arts-sake' arguments are being tossed onto the book festival bonfire after Fossil Free Books called out writers' festivals for taking funding from companies involved in genocide, writes Rosemary Sorensen.

IT'S AMAZING – or maybe not in this upside-down world – that when the activity of activists actually has an effect, the reaction trends towards the hysterical.

A little UK organisation called Fossil Free Books, whose members appear to be mostly young people working in the book industry, called out writers festivals for accepting funding from mega-company Baillie Gifford (BG). They want BG – an “asset manager" –  to 'divest from the fossil fuel industry and all companies involved in Israeli occupation, apartheid and genocide'.

First, festivals Hay and Edinburgh responded and had to decline BG funding because writers were either boycotting or threatening to do so. BG then spat the dummy entirely, announcing the company would no longer support arts events. According to organisers, Baillie Gifford opted to withdraw its funding from the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Well! Saddle up the posse! Outraged, they are, those who frock up to sip cocktails at arty events sponsored by companies which might unfortunately have a few dodgy irons in the investment fire but, hey, surely the ends justify the means? And it’s such a lovely party, let’s not spoil it with inconvenient truths.

According to The Guardian columnist Marina Hyde:

 "These people [Fossil Free Books] have not thought anything through."

In a podcast she does with writer Richard Osman, called The Rest is Entertainment, Hyde is in high dudgeon, confusingly so, claiming that “art and politics are not the same… the pleasure of these things, just for their own sake, must be allowed to exist”.

Apparently, if I’ve followed the surprising lurchings of this usually eloquent and pithy commentator correctly by pointing out that writers' festivals are funded by corporations whose investments include fossil fuels, as well as weapons manufacturing, FFB is saying all art must be political. That, says Hyde, will destroy art entirely.

It really is not a good performance from the high-profile journalist. She calls up the ghost of William Shakespeare in support, suggesting that if Renaissance theatre-goers demanded he sign a letter complaining about Elizabeth I’s brutal suppression of the Irish, then we’d never have got to see The Taming of the Shrew

Hyde could have mentioned the endlessly engaging debate about whether Hitler’s love of Wagner taints the music, but I guess she wanted to keep the debate in-house, so to speak, by suggesting England’s great writer would have been silenced by campaigns driven by politics.

The case she presents is sloppy: it’s not writing or art that is being campaigned against; it’s how and why, and by whom, the events and institutions dependent on them are funded and what that means for writers and artists.

Depending on the art-for-art’s-sake argument – which was big in the 19th Century – Hyde appears to have entirely missed the exhilarating theoretical advances of the 20th Century when we learned to be alert to context and history.

The backlash against deconstruction was also fierce and often disingenuous, but it’s shocking to see someone so obviously talented as a writer – and so privileged as a commentator – voice what really amounts to a dismissal of the kind of brilliant literary analysis created by, for example, Edward Said. Or Roland Barthes. Or Rebecca Solnit.

Hyde’s final stab in this odd little video is to the sentimental heart of her argument: Baillie Gifford’s funding, now withdrawn, went towards Cheltenham festival’s “outreach programs for children”. Oh no! Not the kiddies!

While a journalist outing herself as a backward-looking keeper of the status quo is disappointing, it’s the lack of decent, reliable, thoughtful engagement with the issue that really confounds me.

How quickly people lose their moral compass when someone rocks the boat in which they are merrily sailing towards the safe port of the fabulous sponsored party at some prestigious event. I’ve seen this first-hand (having run a literary festival) and it makes me cringe.

Call me pernickety, but when Isabella Tree – she of the best-seller Wilding – the Return of Nature to a British Farm  – calls the Fossil Free Books campaign a 'cheap jibe', that also makes me cringe.

Tree told Evening Standard:

'To remove that huge funding, we might lose some of these prizes, which will completely undermine writers across the board.'

There speaks one of the tiny minority of writers who win prizes and also someone who, despite the beauty and brilliance of her project to rewild a farm, sounds alarmingly out of touch with what’s happening right now in the world.

I’m not just talking about Palestine – although, as Fatima Bhutto responded on X to the Hyde video:

 'Imagine having such contempt for dead Arab children that you can PUBLICLY whinge about genocide profiteers not sponsoring book festivals.'

The original reason for the FFB group’s existence was to draw attention as effectively as they can to the climate crisis, but, ah yes, it appears companies whose money funds fossil fuel projects are often discovered to also be funding Israeli weaponry.

Tree was, to be fair, asked for her reaction to the Baillie Gifford defunding announcement at an event where she was talking about her Wilding film, so what she was doing on her patch of land was top of her mind at that moment.

However, when she told the Evening Standard journalist about how she’s reintroduced beavers and has wolves, bears and even lynxes “on the agenda” to reintroduce to merry olde England, I reckon she should be thinking of reintroducing cuckoos – for the clouds she’s inhabiting. Or maybe she is brimming with confidence that – for the sake of the lynxes – Britain and the rest of the world will act urgently to reduce the emissions that are changing the climate. Et in Arcadia ego.

As for Baillie Gifford, it appears the company is taking the victim role, as it informs literary festivals that it won’t be funding them in future on account of being “bullied” — according to those who believe that writers withdrawing from a festival program in protest is bullying.

Stratford-upon-Avon’s festival, which has been supported by BG for a decade, has also been informed by the company that it’ll no longer be funded, which prompted the festival director to take the opportunity to:

'... celebrate the fact that the company was not only willing but enthusiastic about supporting literature, and educating its investment teams about the world in which it invests by exposing them to books by experts in their fields.'

 An enigmatic statement indeed!

'However,' the director said, 'we completely respect the company’s reasons for withdrawing sponsorship going forward.'

So many questions! Why would a campaign against what seems very much like art-washing, if that’s the term, offend a huge company to such an extent that they make the entire festival network feel their wrath?

Because they can. They let their money – the withdrawal of it – do the talking. And instead of the festival and book culture network supporting the campaign, they gush their submissive support for the money benefactors, in the hope that they’ll be rewarded down the track for their subservience.

Doesn’t that sound all too familiar?

Rosemary Sorensen was a newspaper, books and arts journalist based in Melbourne, then Brisbane, before moving to regional Victoria, where she founded the Bendigo Writers Festival, which she directed for 13 years.

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