A protester holds a poster during the demonstration against rising rents and gentrification in Berlin, Germany April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt - UP1EE4E105PTD
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“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun.”

It’s a great phrase, much reworked and requoted. It’s sometimes quite wrongly attributed to Mae West, who had an entirely different kind of pocketed weapon in mind. Closer to the truth, it’s variously attributed to those refined thinkers, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler or Joseph Goebbels. Or, more accurately, a play of that era by Hanns Johst.

We don’t much care, since we don’t much care to rehearse the sayings of Nazis anyway. Yet its echoes have lived on in various forms.

Recently, journalist Jonathan Jones quipped: “When you hear the word ‘culture’, do you reach for your copy of Das Kapital?” He was describing an issue of our moment, “artwashing”. Rather like the pistol quip, it’s a phrase that’s somehow too good to waste. Even if its generously varied usage shows how the social media era’s love of phrasemaking often outruns its capacity for thoughtful commentary.

“Artwashing” was coined amid the anti-gentrification protests that began two years ago in the Boyle Heights district of Los Angeles. The coming of art galleries, claimed the protesters (although of course they had nothing against art per se), forces out local shops and services and drives up property prices. More, that this is a deliberate policy on the part of greedy property companies, whose aim is to “artwash” an area to prime it for development to a smarter demographic.

This is a terrible conundrum. I feel deep sympathy for a single mother of three who sees an art gallery oust the only laundromat within walking distance. She might well be moved to the kind of dirty protest (I mean that literally) some Los Angelenos resorted to. Or for someone desperate for accommodation who sees the stock of affordable apartments wither as affluent millennials move in, seduced by arty cool.

Yet it seems very unfair that this should be blamed on art. Why call it artwashing; why not call it coffeewashing? I think we can be sure that the profits from the coffee outlets and eateries that cluster around any cultural activity are making far more money than a beleaguered little art gallery — which has, in any case, only done what art has done for centuries, which is to go where property is cheap.

There is only ever one reason for a lack of affordable housing and proper amenities, and that is the lack of effective policies to ensure a supply of affordable housing and proper amenities. To finger art and artists as the thin end of the laissez-faire wedge is just disingenuous. (My favourite polite word for lying.)

No, artwashing is very different, as I was reminded this week when a lavish invitation to a cultural event in Istanbul dropped into my inbox just before the next email, which was an update on the case of Zehra Dogan, a Turkish artist sentenced to almost three years’ imprisonment for the content of one of her paintings.

Logical, or what? It puts me in mind of the Qataris, who gave millions to the British Library in London while imprisoning a poet with a savage sentence, just for what he wrote; of Saudi Arabia, proclaiming new cultural freedoms while continuing to mete out harsh punishments to artists; of the recent imprisonment of photographer Shahidul Alam in Bangladesh, while Dhaka’s fledgling cultural initiatives expect the admiration of the world’s press.

This, surely, is artwashing: using the veneer of cultural engagement to whitewash tyrannical behaviour, often towards the very cultural sector it makes use of. Julian Barnes once wrote that literature encompasses politics but not vice versa. I’m not sure if that works if you extend it to more tangible and visible forms of culture: art certainly can encompass politics, even if it doesn’t always choose to do so, and might even then struggle to make its message heard — but politics can co-opt art into its machinations with insulting ease.

Recently, the V&A was charged with an insensitive form of “artwashing” for putting a section of the former council housing estate called Robin Hood Gardens on display at the Venice Biennale of Architecture — thereby, according to protesters, obscuring ordinary Venetians’ (and others’) urgent need of affordable housing behind a veil of aesthetics.

I’m not sure this is artwashing, in any meaningful sense. For the rich to revel in misery or crime or deprivation in a cultural setting is nothing new: bejewelled operagoers watching as Puccini’s Mimi dies her poverty-stricken death is an irony of a complicated kind, but you can’t say they are glorifying tuberculosis. That would be daft: so, so much else is going on — as it was in the display of Robin Hood Gardens in the context of an architectural discussion precisely about the provision of such housing.

But it was enough to make people angry, even so. They are right to be angry, and if they found a useful means of expressing it, fair enough. It’s hard on the arts, and culture is an easy target. Yet . . . if art’s mission is to make concrete (oops, no pun) our deep feelings, and to set them in a form that we respond to powerfully, then it can’t be sorry if it succeeds. If culture makes people reach for their guns, perhaps it is just doing its job.

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