When an artist misrepresents their art, passing off the work of others as their own, or pretending to play live, when there is, in fact, a pre-recorded backing tape running, we have a tendency to feel indignant and duped. An audience presented with a fraudulent or obviously cynical artwork feels ripped off and short changed. The artist is trying to make us look foolish. People are highly critical of artists that are doing whatever it takes to grab their money, but lacking in authenticity and integrity. Above all else, we demand that our artists are nothing less than honest; scrupulous in presenting their authentic work, with integrity. Anything less is, quite frankly, wholly unacceptable.
This trend is now applying increasingly to politics, business and commerce. There are legions of consumers and expensive consultants trying to deliver the message to corporations and leaders that they must be authentic and demonstrate the highest levels of integrity, to thrive. People want ethical, socially conscious businesses, which behave consistently with those values at all times. They want companies to do little harm, if any at all. They crave integrity in public life.
However, while the message is being shouted, loudly and clearly, what many businesses and leaders choose to hear is that if they can fake being wholesome and honest, pretending to be ethical and socially aware, then they can continue to act extractively, thereby maximising the gain and profits they reap. Business as usual, but with better PR.
While most people want them to behave with integrity, as a core value, businesses see the opportunity to apply the veneer, but continue to sneer. To them, it’s just another opportunity to cloak their real motives and actions in the disguise of an organisation that is more caring and sharing, thereby fooling the populace into parting with more of their money, or ceding more of their rights and control, while subjecting them to less critical scrutiny.
If artists acted this way, we’d boo them off the stage.
Take a company like Coca-Cola (or any other soda manufacturer you care to nominate, for that matter), which sells a product increasingly linked with obesity and mortal disease, according to the most credible research and science available. For a company like that to act socially benevolent, when their product is the root cause of human afflictions, which result in misery, suffering and premature deaths, is totally meaningless. It is hollow benevolence, designed only to conceal the fact that their fundamental business model is to profit from human destruction. And they know it.
There are numerous examples of so-called “green washing”. Oil companies, increasingly linked to global warming, are prime examples. How many of these companies speak of caring for the environment, while continuing to operate in ways that ensure its ultimate destruction and despoliation? It’s not an authentic narrative. It has no integrity. The people that disseminate this falsified image also have no integrity either. Often, that includes the artists that design the green campaigns, the video producers that make the environmentally aware television ads and the myriad writers, public relations professionals and media editors that write and spread this fraudulent nonsense.
Consumers are becoming aware that simply giving money to a good cause is far short of enough. For the act to be authentic, the company must also give its time and commitment to the worthy cause they fund. Otherwise, it’s just a tax deduction. Tax laws have been written to favour charitable donation, so companies often offset their tax liabilities by throwing money at charitable causes. That’s not necessarily bad, per se, but it’s less than honest. It lacks integrity.
Saying your care for your customers, as consumers, while simultaneously hiding your profits in offshore shell corporate constructs, in order to minimise or completely avoid/evade paying taxes, which are supposed to be spent on ensuring the welfare of those self same customers, is nothing less than bogus. You’re not a nice, fluffy, benevolent, friendly company, which cares for its customers, if you cheat those same customers out of the social services we have, as a society, agreed to fund through taxation.
Some would argue that nobody has agreed to fund anything, via taxation and that taxes are often spent on things we are personally opposed to, but the only people that seem to be able to exercise an opt-out from paying taxes are the very corporations that depend on publicly funded education and infrastructure, innovation and public order, to operate at all. The rest of us are stuck with paying for it all, whether we like it or not, whether we can afford it or not.
Making money from sponsoring, promoting, organising or betting on sports that inevitably, provably and demonstrably cause brain damage in the participants, paid to entertain us, is simply not forgivable, just because your organisation makes donations to worthy charities. Profiting from the foreshortening or degradation of a human life, taking away their dignity and very ability to function as a thinking, sentient being, can’t be white washed away by a few friendly PR campaigns. Your integrity has to be more authentic than that.
Insisting that the consumer is sovereign and guaranteeing to reliably deliver orders, in record time, at unprecedented low prices doesn’t mean very much if the work force is treated like garbage, abused, on zero hours contracts and/or minimum wage, while stealing their pensions. Those workers are somebody’s customers. Maybe, they’re even customers of the company that employs them. Why are they treated as sovereign, when they’re parting with their money, but as sub-human, when being paid for their efforts? Something doesn’t add up. It’s how you know that the talk of consumer sovereignty is a total sham. It’s inauthentic. It has no integrity.
In a recent annual general shareholders meeting of Honeywell, the executives of the company, sitting on the podium, were taken to task about their involvement in manufacturing nuclear weapons, by their own shareholders. The CEO was asked to what extent the company profited from the increase in spending on the US government’s nuclear weapons arsenal. He was also asked how much money had been spent, by Honeywell, to lobby the US government to increase its spending on nuclear weapons. The CEO claimed he didn’t know. For any chief executive of a company to not have these figures to hand obviously demonstrates sheer financial and governance incompetence. It’s either that, or it belies a willingness to lie to and deceive his shareholders, treating them with arrogant contempt.
What Honeywell’s CEO did say was that he did nothing more than the bidding of his government, as if that mantra absolved him of any and all culpability and suspended the requirement to make sound moral and ethical judgements, independently of his government. Why would you do that? Everybody knows that governments are bought and paid for by private interests and that most administrations are populated with the most corrupt of crooks and thieves, or else mindless automatons that just follow orders from the top. Why would you have such contempt for humanity, in lobbying to make money by producing weapons that have the potential to end human life completely? Do such people believe they could escape the consequences of an accidental or deliberate orgy of nuclear destruction, enabled by their own business activities?
This is a text book example of a company lacking authentic integrity. They claim to be doing only what their government wants, yet they covertly fund the influencers, to ensure their government wants to spend more taxpayer money with their company, making weapons of mass destruction. Honeywell could just as easily manufacture more benign wares, but they choose not to. Evidently, it’s easier to divert taxpayer monies to the purchase of nuclear weapons.
If an artist behaved in this way, they’d very soon find their audience had deserted them for good.
Authentic integrity is not about putting a glossy cover on swindles and ruses. It’s not skin deep. It’s, instead, about dealing fairly and ethically, while taking due care and diligence to ensure you don’t do anything harmful. If that way of conducting business is not profitable, then it is the concept of profitability that must be redefined and changed. Profit, after all, depends entirely on what you choose to count and what you choose to discount or exclude from your calculus.
To use profitability as some kind of universal, objective arbiter of human choices is disingenuous and fraudulent. The numbers come out however you choose them to, depending on what you think you ought to count. This can’t be a substitute for responsible moral and ethical choices. Too often, the balance sheet is used to excuse poor moral and ethical actions, giving them an air of legitimacy, while conveniently ignoring the fact that the true costs weren’t even tabulated.
Socially responsible sourcing shouldn’t be the first casualty of doing business profitably. It should be the very last. If you can’t obtain and use resources in a socially benign way, then your business literally has no legitimate reason to exist. Yes, it might divert money from one group of people to another, but the collateral damage is so severe that the transfer of wealth is pyrrhic. It doesn’t get you anywhere. It is of no net benefit and actually makes us all poorer. Value destruction is not a viable strategy, even though you can contrive balance sheets to make it appear as though it is.
Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are interesting and remarkable manifestations of this disconnect between a public hunger for authentic integrity and a refusal to hear it, on the part of corporations and entrenched elites. In the world view of the incumbents, personal integrity is seen as audacious – something that only serves to upset cosy apple carts. Authentic and sincere people are automatically slandered as unelectable, by the mainstream media, acting in the service of corporations and organisations that are entirely lacking in authentic integrity.
Here is where art can inform and transform practice, in the real world. The discipline of openness, transparency and integrity and of being scrupulously honest and authentic in all you do, demanded of artists, also applies to the wider world. Learning how to be this kind of human being, through being an artist, can provide a route to all kinds of people and organisations acting in a more authentic way, displaying more personal and corporate integrity.
Authentic integrity is something worth learning.