Friday 17 February 2012

Dirty money?

Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil, by Platform, Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate (2011)

Imagine a trickle of thick black liquid oozing down the leg of a well-dressed woman. It seeps from beneath an expensive dress and collects in a shiny pool on the floor. What do you see reflected in its taught, dark surface? Imagine a trickle of oil leaking, in this way, into Tate Britain’s Summer Party 2010. It’s the year of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster – the largest oil spill in history – and the twentieth anniversary of BP’s sponsorship of Tate. Imagine the paintings and sculptures arranged at the edges of an ever-growing puddle of black. What do you see?

The aim of Culture Beyond Oil, a book produced by the arts and activist organisations Platform, Art Not Oil and Liberate Tate, is to draw attention to cultural sponsorship by the oil industry. The book is a type of intervention that questions the status quo – just like the scenario described above, which was carried out by Liberate Tate in June 2010. What does oil sponsorship reflect of the culture it supports? What does culture do, for oil money? What does oil money do to culture?

The targets in this campaign are BP and Shell. BP is the fourth largest company in the world, and the third largest energy company. Shell is the fifth largest company in the world, and the fourth largest energy company. Between them they sponsor a dizzying array of London’s major cultural institutions including The Natural History Museum, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, The National Theatre, The Royal Opera House, The Science Museum, The Southbank Centre and Tate Britain. This sponsorship is not an act of philanthropy, says Platform’s James Marriott (pp8-13, p10), but an act of commerce. Marriott quotes Shell’s own PR:

Our Special Publics Engagement Programme is a key element of our corporate mix and is fundamental to sustaining a positive view of Shell among key decision makers and influencers around the world. (p11)

In other words, cultural sponsorship is an ambassador for Shell and BP’s commercial interests. As such, it does not play to an audience of theatre goers or gallery visitors, but to ‘special publics’ made up of diplomats, government officials, journalists and NGOs. It is an operation that takes place on a global scale – one global brand (eg, BP) using another (eg, Tate) to persuade ‘key decision makers and influencers’ to let the first global brand carry on making money.

The problem is not commercialism per se, but the unethical practices carried out by BP and Shell that pollute everything they do. The first half of Culture Beyond Oil details a litany of bad behaviour: abuses against the natural world, abuses of human rights, complicity with oppressive governments, and an overwhelming lack of responsibility in all cases.

As well as the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, for example, since 1990 BP has caused ‘more than 8,000 spills of oil and dangerous chemicals and gases in the US alone’(pp38-43, p40) (This is in contrast to the views of Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate, who recently said of BP, ‘The fact that they had one major incident in 2010 does not mean we should not be taking support from them.’) It has aided controversial military groups in Colombia, and signed deals with Colonel Gadaffi’s despotic regime in Libya. Shell is complicit in ongoing human rights abuses in Nigeria, and has helped to prop up Syria’s violent and discredited government.

You could say these companies demonstrate a strong commitment to profitability, even if it means paying a heavy price in human life and natural resources; and even if it means lying. Despite rebranding itself as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ in 2006, for example, BP has since reduced its spend on green energy year on year. In December 2011, BP announced it was closing its Solar Power business.

There is another lie, too – that we cannot do without their money. ‘There is no money that is completely pure,’ says Nicholas Serota; and, ‘… corporate sponsorship for the arts and education is a public good’ (p41). An extract from a 2010 meeting of Tate’s Board shows the Trustees discussing the organisation’s obligation, as a charity, to ‘be predisposed to accept funds, where their origin was known to be legal’ (pp21-22). In other words, it is not Tate’s responsibility to judge the actions of its sponsors; indeed, it has a duty to receive money where it can.

But the danger, as art historian Julian Stallabrass points out, is that sponsorship affects the value of the culture it supports. ‘Unlike the life of a turtle or a gull,’ says Stallabrass, ‘… the cleanliness of art’s ideals is an ideological fabrication’ (p70). At what point is the ‘public good’ of art eclipsed by the murky past of the money it receives? And there is a precedent for refusing sponsorship money, says Liberate Tate (pp14-18). The precedent is the tobacco industry, which was a prominent supporter of cultural events until the harmful effects of tobacco became impossible to ignore, or impossible to mask with marketing. The National Portrait Gallery stopped receiving tobacco sponsorship ten years before the Labour government passed a national ban.

Having established the problems of sponsorship by BP and Shell, the more difficult question is – what to do next? The second half of Culture Beyond Oil invites a range of suggestions for the future of major cultural institutions without oil money. Few solutions are practical.

The Stuckist artist Charles Thomson suggests we do away with ‘cultural indulgences’ like rotating the Tate’s collection – as if the art-oil relationship is about exhibition space and not influence. Philip Goff from the protest movement Art Uncut argues for public subsidy. While it’s not perfect, he says, public funding at least ensures that cultural organisations act with and for the public, rather than as a proxy for the interests of private shareholders. Others issue a general call for the rejection of sponsorship per se. The artist Conrad Atkinson says we face a cultural battle: ‘A corporate mentality is a culture, and they all have basically the same culture. The profit motive is embedded in their culture and they’re not going to change’ (p75).

That may be true, but neither are we. In the absence of a wholesale revolution in the role of the state, or the mechanisms by which an artist gains an audience or an income, it is unrealistic to advocate a total rejection of private funds. Moreover, it commits the same dangerous elision of scale as the companies doing the greenwash themselves.

It is the global scale of corporations like BP and Shell, as well as the global recognition of the organisations they sponsor, that means they can slip out of full accountability. After ‘a 13 year legal battle’ in Nigeria, Shell settled out of court in a lawsuit against the victims and relatives of victims killed and injured as a result of the company’s interventions in Ogoni (fn p42). BP’s importance to the global economy means that President Obama was forced to make a public statement in favour of the company, even whilst their Deepwater spill was destroying generations of American livelihoods in the Gulf of Mexico (p11).

Likewise, a global view makes it easier to forget the responsibility we all have as individuals to hold public institutions to task. By far the book’s most engaging suggestions for the future are those that draw attention to the difficult decisions individuals must take. Raoul Martinez has twice submitted his work to the BP Portrait Award, arguing that he can do more to harm the reputation of BP by speaking from their sponsored platform than he can as an unknown painter. The cultural consultant Bridget McKenzie says, ‘I feel anxious about being seen to take a radical position, especially given that my family’s income depends on bodies like Tate trusting me’ (p84). And the artist and Tate Trustee Bob and Roberta Smith praises protestors for making it easier for governing bodies to act: ‘My ability to talk to those I have access to is generated by protest’ (p59).

To what extent you think these individuals are rationalising their own needs, and to what extent you think they are doing everything in their power to confront the issue, will depend on your personal politics and influence. But their instinct – to shoulder responsibility as individuals – is the revolution that everyone’s looking for. Global discourse between brands and their ‘special publics’ can be – can only be – interrupted by local discourse between individuals, because the cultural battle that Atkinson identifies is not just associated with corporations: ‘they’ could be any institution dependent on the private sector. This includes governments as well as art galleries and means that, if we see a problem, we cannot wait for governments or galleries to act on our behalf.

The greatest strength of Culture Beyond Oil is its detailed rebuke to those who say that it’s not practical, not necessary, or not our problem to deal with the unethical behaviour of cultural patrons. As such, the book is an important part of a network of artistic actions and interventions that are making the anti-oil argument difficult to ignore. I did not see the intervention described at the top of this article and neither – I imagine – did you. But the idea alone has enough power to spread its message beyond the clean walls of the Tate, and to ask you directly: what do you see reflected in that puddle of oil?

Read or download Not If But When: Culture Beyond Oil

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