Since its inception in early 2018, Artists for Brexit has grown in both membership and profile. This is in part due to continuing media interest in the association and increasing support on social media platforms, the establishment of a vibrant website and also its various successful public events. Co-founders Michael Lightfoot, Manick Govinda and other members of AFB have appeared on television and radio programmes and have written a succession of published articles. We held our ‘Civil Times’ exhibition, accompanied by our publication of the same name in July and following this, our ‘Big Brexit Party’ was covered in The Guardian and The Independent, not unsympathetically.
Our website - artistsforbrexit.com - displays not only a sample of the superb artwork of some of our members, but also offers a regular blog featuring articles, interviews, reviews and information on forthcoming events. And critically, we have always been, and we remain, a non-partisan association that insists on a civil approach with all that we do. It was perhaps inevitable therefore that we would be approached by the Pro-EU The New European, a publication utterly bewildered by the raison d’etre of AFB:
“Artists? Who support Brexit?”
“Sorry, artists who voted to leave the European Union?”
“Artists who don’t like the EU? They really exist?”
Not known for its support of the democratic vote to leave the EU, we were naturally a little wary when we were contacted by journalist, Mia Jankowicz, with a request for an interview. While some news outlets have clearly attached their flag to the Remain mast, it could be argued that The New European goes even further, perpetuating what many feel to be a toxic and hateful atmosphere in the ongoing Leave/Remain debate.
In our view, the fomenting of hostility towards most Brexiteers and associated groups by The New European has played a significant part in causing damage to civil discussion with opinion pieces that are often emotional and that too frequently choose to be angry rather than cooperative or pragmatic.
Nevertheless, Mia’s approach to us was one of civility and appeared to be based on a genuine desire to understand AFB’s “unusual position” and so we were grateful for the opportunity to speak with them. We have always also considered it important to engage with those holding opposing views to our own.
Despite our reservations about The New European, we are keenly aware that this pamphlet would not have been possible without being first asked the questions below. Despite our differing positions and styles of campaigning, we do sincerely wish to thank them for reaching out to us and for giving us the motivation to set out some of our shared thoughts more formally. It was due to an approach from one of our opponents, rather than any of our allies, that led us to us setting down this succession of suggestions on future arts policy as it relates to Brexit. Perhaps there is a lesson in this for how the Brexit debate could be more productively conducted than it so often is, especially on social media and at the grassroots, if one simply civilly engages with ones opponents?
We certainly think so.
AFB wish that there could be more civil engagement and exchange of ideas between both ‘sides’ of the Brexit debate. Although we won’t ever pull our punches in debating, discussing and exploring Brexit, we offer up this document to Brexiteers and Remainers alike; especially those who are in the arts or interested in the arts.
We would also like to take this opportunity to reiterate that we have always been, and we remain, an entirely volunteer run, defiantly nonpartisan and truly grassroots enterprise that provides an unprecedented - and much needed - platform for artists and arts workers supportive of Brexit to share ideas. Because of our independence from party political lines, we in AFB are able to publicly voice our opinions and views in a manner that members of many associations or institutions are unable to do. We hope that those who oppose us, along with anyone who cares about democracy and freedom of speech, may see some value in this extremely and truly liberal aspect of our association.
We hope that you find our thoughts expressed in this pamphlet interesting and challenging. Even if you are not an artist (or arts worker) who supports Brexit, we hope our thoughts here will give you an insight into AFB and our values. You may even find yourself surprisingly sympathetic.
We hope that it will inspire artists, arts workers and also those who simply support the arts to support us, get involved, and to consider joining our association, regardless of how they voted in the referendum. We continue to welcome members and associates of all positions, including those who voted Remain who now want a stake in the process and help ensure that Brexit is a success.
Importantly, we accommodate and respect many different types of Brexiteer positions too: we have members who are ‘out and proud,’ as well as ‘quiet Brexiteers’ and also those who are entirely ‘closet Brexiteers,’ because of the social and professional backlash they have unfortunately experienced.
To be clear, we respect all positions and welcome all to join us, as long as you do not actively oppose the EU Referendum result, being one of the largest acts of democracy in British history. We have also enjoyed increasingly civil engagement with people who actively seek to derail Brexit. We are aiming to facilitate ways of bringing people from both ‘sides’ together. Indeed, we are hoping that our next major project will be an exhibition of artwork that represents all views on Brexit. We are aiming to produce this in cooperation with some high profile Remain campaigners (If anyone reading this would like to be involved in such a project, then please get in touch with us via our website).
Most of all, we hope that those of you who support Brexit and support democracy in Britain will actively stand up for Brexit at this important time and make a positive contribution, which includes helping us to champion civility and civil discourse in our society. Right now both Brexit and civil discourse in the UK need all the help and support they can get. We believe that the very stability of our democracy and of our country itself that is at stake, so now is the time for ACTION!
One of the best things you can do if you want to stand up for Brexit is of course is to join, or make a donation to AFB, so that we can do more to support the arts community as they support democracy.
While by no means definitive, we hope you are inspired by our vision for the arts as they relate to Brexit.
This is just the beginning.
An Interview with Artists for Brexit steering committee members by Mia Jankowicz, journalist for The New European, September 2018.
1. How, in your view, will Brexit help artists (economically, creatively, practically).
This question could equally be posed; what benefit does the EU provide for most artists? For while some artists may have concerns about a possible negative impact post Brexit (and those concerns must be taken seriously), we think it is important to maintain some perspective. A pre-referendum Arts Council survey recorded concern about leaving the EU with over 70% of the artists asked. However, the survey also noted that applications from the UK for EU funding were in the region of only 9% of those polled. And when the strict criteria for and aims of this funding are scrutinised, is it actually reflective of the needs of most jobbing artists or indeed arts audiences? We think that post Brexit funding could be better and more fairly allocated across the regions without EU “strings” attached.
It is also important to bear in mind that the actual amount of arts funding from the EU between 2007 and 2016 according to both Creative Europe and The Arts Council reports was around £40m per year, which, according to the European Commission’s calculation of the UK’s net contribution to the EU each year at £8.1billion, equates to two days of the UK’s yearly contribution. Most arts funding comes from the Arts Council via the Treasury and from the National Lottery, amounting to £672 million in 2016/2017. It should also not be forgotten as the UK is a net contributor, EU funding is the U.K.’s money to begin with.
We can understand that there will be concerns about possible funding cuts post-Brexit and that artists may see EU funding in part as a springboard to other creative ventures, but nevertheless it is speculation to say that they will not be replicated once we leave the EU. We would certainly like to see the government and appropriate government agencies commit to existing projects that would have been funded through the EU (via UK contributions) and to also reassure the arts community that their needs are taken seriously.
We hope this would help to build the necessary support for Brexit within the creative industry. Moreover, we believe that the challenges involved in making these changes in such funding structures whilst certainly complex, also provide an opportunity to fundamentally reassess how such funding is spent.
Brexit provides the UK with the chance to build on existing creative programmes and do more with those who perhaps do not currently feel they have a voice in the arts industry. Managing our entire cultural budget means we could identify more quickly the areas where investment is needed. We could simplify the arts funding application process and direct funding more appropriately, focusing on rebuilding the connection between the arts and the British working class, or linking with developing countries to create partnerships that have perhaps been overlooked in the past by shaping a fairer system of access and work that does not favour EU artists over non-EU artists. We don’t want to just accept the status quo; we see Brexit as an opportunity to improve things.
In terms of trade and movement it’s important to remember that we still don’t know what the outcome of the negotiations with the EU will be in terms of impact on the arts sector. However, we do know that it is the aim of both the U.K. government and the EU to reach an agreement that reflects both sides’ desire to make trade efficient and cost effective. Once out of the European Union we also have the chance to revisit some of the European regulations that a number in the arts industry see as unnecessarily bureaucratic and prohibitive and create a more liberal, flexible approach to the arts trade, so that we are more competitive with the rest of the world. And while we do sympathise with concerns about ease of movement for artists around Europe, we are certain that both the U.K. and the EU will come to an agreement that does not significantly impact on mobility. We should also point out that artists from the rest of the world do not have the right to move freely around Europe. If U.K. artists travel outside of the EU then they themselves have to complete additional paperwork. This is not prohibitive. Artists have always travelled and interacted across borders and will continue to do so once we leave the EU. If there is anything to challenge post Brexit, perhaps it would be to rethink the complexity and cost of shorter term visas for work purposes on a global scale.
2. What is your stance on border controls, both as practiced by the EU towards the wider world, and as much-debated in the UK; and the implications of this for artists? Is this a project that wants to harden the sovereignty of states and their borders, or one which dislikes ‘fortress Europe’s attitude to the rest of the world?
Artists for Brexit does not have a specific stance or policy on border control. AFB is a platform for artists who either voted to leave the EU or who voted to remain but accept the result of the referendum. We are not a homogenous group where a particular view is expected from its artists; quite the opposite. We have a range of views on immigration, both within and outside of the EU; Manick Govinda, for instance was a lead campaigner against the Home Office’s visa restrictions on non-EU artists, which led to important amendments in immigration policy; the introduction of a Tier 1 visa and the introduction of the Permitted Paid Engagement facility. Now, hundreds of small non-EU groups and individual artists are able to visit and tour around the UK and receive payment, within a one month period.
Some support managed immigration on a points based system similar to that of Australia and Canada. Others like Michael Lightfoot and Meghan Flight focus on a fairer, more equal system of movement for artists that does not favour artists from the EU over non-EU artists. Some, like Steph Bofinger have concerns about depopulation and “brain drain” from Eastern Europe for the benefit of more wealthy Western European countries, where the benefits to the receiving state outweigh those of the sending state. We are as diverse in our views as the non-arts community and we encourage civil debate and respect difference of opinion.
3. Do you see a fundamental ideological connection between your attitudes as artists and Brexiteers; or are you simply artists-who-happen-to-support-Brexit? Is there something about art that you think would make one necessarily pro-Brexit?
AFB obviously does support Brexit but perhaps this is partly informed by our attitude that art is supposed to be edgy, risqué, daring, innovative and anti-establishment where it wants to be. We consider that art is surely supposed to have a global attitude and reach; not dictated to by an artificially constructed political trading bloc. Artists are supposed to question and challenge, create debate and embrace or even lead change.
Yet the EU as an entity seems to be the opposite of this. We feel the artistic process can and should reach beyond borders and offer shared experiences across time zones and language differences, without the notion that we are ideologically tethered to the European Union.
Perhaps for many of us our stance is also informed by a sense of ourselves as citizens of the UK and the far wider world. We feel that art should reflect all views, not just those with whom you might share similar beliefs or value systems and we certainly all hold the fundamental view that the result of a democratic vote should be respected and not overturned simply because those who voted to remain in the EU were unhappy with the outcome.
4. If your position is, essentially, a utopic, ultra-liberal one that eschews borders and identity politics, how do you square that with the rise of the far right and its influence on the Brexit debate? Do you recognise this danger - as a danger across art and ordinary life - and is it a price worth paying? Why?
Firstly, we would respectfully suggest that care be taken not to get too carried away with the notion that the far right is spreading like an oppressive shadow across the UK. There has always been a small, unpleasant racist element in this country, but it has not become mainstream here, unlike trends that we are unfortunately seeing in other European countries. While there are online movements with some appalling views, this is still, statistically, confined to a very small base in the UK and not reflective of the country as a population. Where there is movement to the right we feel that this tends to reflect other societal issues rather than the referendum, for in terms of political parties, so far as they are on the right of the spectrum, UKIP were all but wiped out at the 2017 election.
Secondly, we don’t accept a direct correlation between the Brexit vote and any increase in activity or membership on the far-right. The intellectually lazy habit of labelling of people who voted to leave as racists and xenophobes is counterproductive and potentially dangerous; by demonising a significant section of the population in this way you are actually pushing them away rather than engaging with the debate.
Sensible conversation with supporters of Brexit rather than abuse may lead Remain supporters to conclude that actually, a lot of people simply want the mechanism to manage immigration in a manner similar to that employed by the majority of countries across the globe.
Finally, no one has ever said that Brexit was ‘utopic’. Everyone accepts that there may be short term negative consequences; the perspective is rather that those will diminish in favour of long term benefits and that the benefits of living in a truly independent democracy again outweigh any negative consequences of our implementing Brexit in the short-term.
5. Why do you think British artists are so pro-remain? What does it say to you about the British art world?
Good question! Are they? Perhaps most are. However, there are a significant number who are not and feel unable to say so in the current political environment because it is ‘considered’ antithetical to liberalism. Yet this perceived connection between the EU and liberalism is a rather curious one, for the EU is protectionist, it privileges EU immigration over non-EU immigration, has questionable transparency and has a lack of accountability. Furthermore it is conspicuously bureaucratic and often over-regulatory, inflexible and closely associated with corporatist, global business.
Perhaps there is also the fear among artists that Brexit will result in a retreat into isolationism and parochialism? We think the opposite is true; we are merely of the view that Britain is a great cultural brand that extends beyond the limits of the EU. Moreover, we cherish our relationships with colleagues and friends in Europe and recognise that the future in terms of economic growth and reach lies with countries outside of the European Union.
Pro-EU/Remain artists may believe that the values of cooperation, collaboration and diversity with fellow artists in Europe are intrinsically linked to the EU and that Europe is not separate and distinct from the EU. But we reject this view. We don’t accept that the ability to appreciate culture and to work collaboratively is something owned and best understood by enthusiasts of a supranational organisation with dubious accountability. Indeed it’s simply a fact that very little of our shared cultural heritage with Europe arises out of the existence of the EU or has been much shaped by it. Rather, it has been nurtured over many generations by Europeans who for the most part did so before the existence of the EU.
In terms of what this says to us about the British art world, there is a clear consensus that it is widely seen as out of touch with a large part of the population. Darren Henley, Chief Executive of the Arts Council wrote in 2016 following the referendum result, “We need to lead a national conversation and we should redouble our efforts to ensure that more people can experience the best of our nation’s creativity. We know there are many places where people still don’t enjoy the benefits that art and culture bring – places where communities feel marginalized culturally. In the coming years, Britain will need to use all its talents, so art and culture must reflect the interests of everyone, not just a privileged few”.
Similarly, Rufus Norris, the National Theatre’s artistic director said, also in 2016, “...this has been a huge wake up call for all of us to realise that half the country feels that they have no voice. If we are going to be a national organisation we must speak to and for the nation.”
We would agree with both of those statements and feel that Brexit is an opportunity to address these important issues, indeed it could be a catalyst for the positive change we need.
On an optimistic note, we are encouraged by the commitment to spending and programmes over the next four years set out in the Arts Council report of July 2018. There seems to be a clear recognition that reconnection with previously overlooked sections of society is absolutely necessary, and that listening to the concerns of those who have not previously had a voice is fundamental to the creative industry if it is to continue to flourish.
Therefore, we’d suggest that perhaps some of those artists who have been abusive towards Leave voters or who are determined to overturn the referendum result could ask themselves what they have done in the last two years to help realise Mr Henley and Mr Norris’s aims?
6. How do you feel about being in the art world minority with this view?
We respect the decision of those who voted to remain but have generally been disappointed in the response from some of them. We are concerned about the hostility from the ‘Remain’ side of the arts community towards those who voted to leave. We’ve heard from a significant number of artists who did vote to leave but feel unable to speak freely about this for fear of being ostracised by the arts industry. We’ve heard accounts of people losing work because of the way they voted and there is a very unpleasant presence on social media that seems to fly in the face of the openness and tolerance you would expect from artists.
Indeed this is one of the main reasons that Artists for Brexit was founded; to provide a platform for artists and arts workers to meet and with whom we could express solidarity in the face of isolation and abuse from a number of those in the creative industry.
7. What limitations are placed on a British artist by virtue of being a member of the EU?
British artists have to work within the confines of the rules and framework under which we are run, like everyone else. Our main aim is to provide a truly independent, grassroots platform for discussion about what will be possible post Brexit. We also need to look at the bigger picture, because the global art market is becoming ever more competitive. Being tied to the EU could inhibit growth and trade in the U.K.’s bid to keep up with its rivals, the U.S. and China in the future. In fact in some instances regulation from the EU has created additional cost and administrative burdens when the UK, the second largest arts market in the world, trades with non-EU countries. The single market benefits trade within Europe, but not trade outside of Europe. Post Brexit there will be a chance to review current EU regulation and administrative costs burdens and where it benefits the U.K. arts industry it will have the power to make changes.
8. Futurists or Stuckists : pick one. :D
We are Brexitists who see a positive future for the UK!
9. I’m particularly interested in the fact that, prior to the referendum, there were many excellent EU-critical works coming from the contemporary art community (Goldin+Senneby, Take To The Sea, Andre Romao) who would nonetheless probably take a remainer position today.
Would they? And more importantly, even if they did, we would answer this with a polite, ‘so?’ Theirs may simply be another strand of artistic expression; they are critical of aspects of the EU but ultimately would personally prefer to be part of it, which is totally fine. That position is no more valid than those who are critical of the EU but who voted to no longer be part of it. Care needs to be taken not to fall into the trap of expecting homogeneity and binary, simplistic viewpoints among the artistic community when people are far more complex than that.
Steering committee contributors:
Michael Lightfoot, artist and Director of Artists for Brexit
Steph Bofinger, editor of the Artists for Brexit website
Meghan Flight, Artists for Brexit designer and copy editor