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Artwashing: Capitalism and Art

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Matthew Terrell

By Matthew Terrell
We’ve all heard the term “selling out” –  sacrificing artistic purity for the sake of profit. There’s a perennial distrust amongst the arts community of business people, and the effect capitalism has on art. The idea is that caring about profit makes an artist and their work less noble, and destroys their creative integrity. This is a shame because, no matter what, we all live in a capitalist society. Artists have to make money too, and doing so shouldn’t make them less of an artist! Working with a local business to make a mural may mean the artist has to yield some control to the people paying them, but such is a sacrifice an artist has to make for their career. Being willing to work with businesses doesn’t make you a sell out, and doesn’t make you some shill along the lines of Thomas Kinkade or Jeff Koons (although I would consider them to have admirable careers)—it makes you a businesses-minded artist. That’s a good thing! Unfortunately, in today’s political climate, activists (many emboldened by the ease of online call out culture) vilify artists willing to work with businesses, and places like London and  are run out of town.
In Atlanta, with so much development going on, “artwashing” is seen as a threat by the progressive creative class. A by-product of the dreaded gentrification, artwashing is where real estate developers use artists and their works to create a more appealing community to invest in. This includes giving artists studio spaces in abandoned buildings, and encouraging the production of public murals to make a place look less derelict. Today activists cry foul at the advances of a business seeking to partner to create art—it’s assumed those with capital always have ulterior motives. Recently, two artists accused the Macon Arts Alliance of “artwashing” a historically black neighborhood, Mill Hill, on behalf of real estate developers. In truth, the MAA wanted to bring socially-conscious cultural offerings to a neighborhood that had been neglected by local leaders. It was the artists that set off the stink bomb by claiming evil conspiracy plans to kick out residents. This is a shame because Mill Hill remained a cultural desert because the artists brought in to help them left.
The relationship between business interests and artists can be a minefield, and navigating it is fraught with online activism, real life protests, and a danger of being shut down by anti-gentrification advocates.There are some things developers and business owners can do to better collaborate with artists without coming across as artwashing or the artists being called sellouts. While the arts can (and should) be used to improve run down areas, getting artists on board is easier if it doesn’t look like an opportunist use of art to increase profits. This might mean giving artists more leeway to create the work they want to make, and making sure any contracts give artists copyright for their work. Next, using art to enliven an area means more than commissioning street murals. Can your organization host a performance art event? What about creating a pop up photo gallery? Instead of thinking of art as a product to cover up urban blight, think of promoting arts as a way to help the careers of local creative professionals. Finally, socially-conscious artwork may be a way to ease tension between developers and a community. This might mean hiring an artist to do a storytelling project that gives voice to local residents, and what they want to see their neighborhood become.
Atlanta is a business city, and the arts should play into our growth and improvement. What business people may see as bringing culture to an area to generate tourism and economic activity, may be seen as artists and advocates as gentrification coming to use their skills and kick them out. The solution goes in both directions. Businesses should invest in long term success of artists, and make sure once a neighborhood changes that the people who made it vibrant can still afford to live there. Artists, for their part, should actively work with businesses and be willing to contribute to the development of our city. As our city continues to change, we may be scared of where we end up, so if we all work together we can create a vision for Atlanta that benefits everyone.

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