Yesterday, on the anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, art activist group Liberate Tate staged a performance protest in the Tate Britain gallery, with a naked performer covered in oil representing BP’s corrosive impact on the environment and society, as well as standing as an indictment of the British art world’s complicity with controversial oil corporations, who are now amongst the largest sponsors of public British art, including the Tate galleries and the prestigious annual BP Portrait Award.
Yesterday’s protest is the latest in a series of actions by Liberate Tate – recent activities included a mass ‘sleep in’ earlier this week at the Tate Modern – as the relationship between British art institutions and corporations such as BP and Shell are called into question at a time when, thanks to government cuts, the funding of public art is at an historically fragile moment.
Campaigning groups such as the organisation Platform make a compelling case against BP’s widespread sponsorship of contemporary arts institutions, arguing that it provides the company involved in the Gulf of Mexico disaster with a ‘social licence to operate’, further ingratiating the company with Britain’s social and cultural elites. Sponsorship of the arts presents the company as a benevolent and invaluable asset to British public life, raising its positive profile with governmental officials and the general public alike. What’s more -- as Platform, George Monbiot, and others have pointed out – there was little accountability for BP’s role in last year’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. Instead of facing the consequences of the scale of last year’s environmental tragedy, BP spent 2010 and 2011 busy expanding its operations. Most notable is BP’s involvement in expanding the refinement of Canadian tar sand petroleum, which is undoubtedly an environmental disaster unfolding in slow-motion. As Albertan oil is literally in the sand itself, refining it makes it one of the most carbon-intensive processes of fossil fuel extraction, while First Nation groups continue to protest the negative impact of the tar sand extraction on their communities.
One year on from the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP is hardly scaling back the harm it causes the environment, and this harm can’t be compensated for by throwing some money n the direction of cultural institutions. Platform also point to BP’s support of the Mubarak regime and its convoluted attempts to proceed with Arctic drilling to highlight that, in 2011, BP is hardly chastened by its recent involvement in one of the largest environmental disasters in history.
Artists and art critics have come out in defence of BP sponsorship of British art institutions – understandably, at a time when the coalition government’s wholesale gutting of arts funding is causing a crisis in almost all of Britain’s cultural institutions. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones has argued that, in such dire times for art and artists, if cultural institutions “can get money from Satan itself, they should take it.” Others argue that art has never been free of the taint of mercantile interests, from the Medicis and the Catholic Church to proscriptive governmental sponsorship of state-approved art – and the survival of art inevitably comes at a price. Jonathan Jones and other defenders of the arts portray the role of BP and Shell in cultural institutions as benign, behind-the-scenes benefactors, since they have no tangible impact on what art is displayed or produced. As such, the argument goes, the oil money gives artists a platform – sorely needed when the government has shown how little it values the arts – to give voice to the plurality of experiences that the current government, with its disregard for the reality of the lives of the majority, are silencing and disempowering through legislation and its cosy links with the media Murdoch-cracy. In a grown up world with no easy choices, oil sponsorship is a small price to pay for freedom of cultural life.
Perhaps this is what is most crushing about the debate about BP sponsorship of cultural institutions: it pits artists against environmentalists, like so many instances in recent times in which groups which have the potential to challenge ingrained power structures are positioned against one another, fighting for scraps whilst those responsible – for the recession, for entrenching economic inequalities, for causing wide-scale environmental disaster – remain unchallenged, happily socialising together at illustrious evening events in London’s high cultural institutions.
The significance goes beyond the emptiness of vapid displays of ‘corporate responsibility’, although that’s part of it. BP’s sponsorship of the arts does provides the company with the glossy veneer of ‘social responsibility’ to act as a fig-leaf for its role in the looming global disaster of climate change and its involvement in the environmental and social devastation caused by oil spills, drilling and tar sand extraction. But more than this, BP’s sponsorship of the arts, in particular, is doubly insidious, because it enables the continued corrosion in our society of the role of the artist as a voice that challenges power. The culling of the humanities subjects at university in the wake of the coalition government’s ‘reform’ of higher education – which also entailed a ‘divide and rule’ between the sciences and the humanities, to distract from the central attack on education itself – was devastating in large part because of the way in which the government so effectively cut funding from the humanities disciplines which teach students how to interrogate texts, analyse political actions, and discern power dynamics. Art similarly plays a central role in challenging assumptions and the status quo – alongside its central role, as Martha Nussbaum argues, of developing civic virtues and our capacity for empathy, stretching our humanity.
With their survival under threat, government funding all but dried up, those who care about art galleries, theatres and museums might argue that the only way these can survive and continue to play this crucial role is to take sponsorship from oil companies, from anywhere they can. But the idea that the art enabled by this sponsorship is somehow untainted by association – even if the benefactors graciously allow the artists free reign with their subject-matter – denies the broader power structure: the artist’s work is a cog in the larger apparatus of the dominance of oil corporations who are directly responsible for this generation’s greatest looming catastrophe. And, as Sontag wrote on Riefenstahl, taste is context; art cannot be removed from the context in which it operates – you can’t take the petro-dollars then throw your hands up and say “but I’m only an artist” as though this title magically exempts you from the normal rules of complicity. Of course we’re all highly complicit, on a daily basis, in unjust systems we claim we don’t approve of, and it’s impossible not to empathise with the artists and curators in this situation, but that doesn’t make it right, nor does it mean that the oil-art relationship isn’t damaging to cultural life. Allowing BP to use support for the arts as a fig-leaf for its devastating actions not only supports mass environmental and social destruction, but also neuters the potential of the artist to meaningfully challenge power and assumptions, instead of producing empty faux-subversive gestures within a harmless play-pen of corporate sponsorship, to entertain the cultural and economic elite after they’ve finished their business meetings.