I thought I had posted this on Sunday but it turns out I pressed save instead - never get a man to do a monkeys job... - so here is my slightly late contribution to the debate around the TS Eliot Prize.
When Alice Oswald and John Kinsella withdrew from the shortlist of the TS Eliot prize last week, citing a moral objection to the sponsorship by hedge fund firm Aurum, I instinctively supported their decisions. It may be easy to be cynical and say that Oswald particularly has gained more publicity having done so than she ever could have had she won the prize, but that is too glib an answer. Following one's moral convictions is never easy and acting upon them is vital to healthy debate accross society. We each have metaphorical lines in the sand that, when transgressed, we must oppose. And at the moment, I suspect their is lots of sympathy with the anti-investment bank and hedge fund stance they have taken. I'm personally uncomfortable with the fact that my football team, Totttenham Hotspur, are currently sponsored by two investment banks.
And yet. The more I have thought about it the less convinced I am of the value of Oswald and Kinsella's actions. Corporations are guilty of conducting many practices with which I disagee, and investment banks are one of those. They are a major step down from international arms traders who do only bring about destruction - at least investment banks have contributed to increasing wealth in the past, albeit in a morally questionable way - and, as such, in my books not as clear a target for protest, but there is little question that opposition to their actions can be justified on anti-capitalist lines. They are lines I support. And the Occupy action around the world targeted them effectively.
The problem I have is that Oswald and Kinsella's process will fall on deaf ears because it in no way hurts Aurum. It only hurts the Poetry Book Society - organisers of the award - at a time when the removal of Arts Council funding has already hit them hard. And in hurting PBS, this action also hurts the arts in general.
With a few limited exceptions, the arts in the UK are not financially sustainable without public funds or private sponsorship. Patronage is the only way many important programmes can exist. It is not ideal, but it is a reality and society is better for these programmes existing. The arts a major source of income for the UK, directly or indirectly we all benefit from investment in them. So to protest against patronage of the arts is both counter productive and to fight on the wrong terms. If our qualm with business is their socially irresponsible quest for profit over all else, then shouldn't we suppport sponsorship as a positive and socially resonsible practice and encourage more of it, rather than throwing it back in their faces?
Protest against Aurum. Protest against the inhumanity of the capitalist money-mindset, but if you are going to do so, do so in a way that hurts them. Take to the streets, protest for laws to prevent irresponsible investment practices. Or protest against cuts to arts budgets UK wide. But don't make an already difficult situation more difficult for the PBS. In doing so, they may turn other organisations away from a sponsorship that allows great art to happen.