Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil

This week, an unconventional book review. Culture Beyond Oil is really more like a compilation of short essays and manifestos, all addressing the fact that unethical oil companies should not be allowed to sponsor cultural institutions, with BP’s ongoing sponsorship of the Tate as the point of departure. The publication is a call to arms for artists and arts administrators to remove themselves from the grasp of Big Oil.

The publication includes a wide range of short articles by artists, writers, and curators, as well contributions by a fisherman, a Native American, and other people unaffiliated with the art world. In fact, I find these voices to be most powerful. The Louisiana fisherman, for example, admits that he knows nothing of art, but that he sees the art of God in nature. Having witnessed firsthand the decimation of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, he remarks, “To have BP pour oil all over our God’s country and decimate it, is overwhelming. And then to support manmade art. It’s just wrong.”

The main problem with Culture Beyond Oil is that it is overly optimistic in its attitude toward the “purity” of the art world and in its approach to the problem. How would banning oil company contributions to the arts affect the arts organizations themselves? But, first, why does Big Oil support art anyway? The answer, as the publication rightly points out, is positive publicity. It’s a kind of covert advertising. Although people may not realize it, the fact that a certain oil company sponsors their favorite arts programming somehow seeps into their subconscious. (I remember when I was little, my parents would consistently buy their gas from Chevron, because the company sponsored PBS.) So, in a way, BP is proving itself as the “better” oil company by giving money to the Tate. It’s a brilliant business maneuver, but a company’s philanthropic gestures do not erase unethical policies and actions.

“No money is completely pure, but some funding is dirtier than others.” I realize that there are differences between the U.K., where the idea of corporate funding is not ingrained from birth, and the U.S., where dedicated lottery funds for the arts are a pipe dream, but is BP money really that much worse than Carnegie or Rockefeller money? Although the tycoons have been dead for years, their legacies have been scrubbed clean by their respective foundations’ philanthropic work. For someone who hasn’t studied history, they just seem like wealthy people who liked to build libraries, universities, music halls, and skyscrapers. The horrific truths about the Carnegie Steel Company and Standard Oil (that’s right, another oil company) have been all but forgotten. I suppose this would be one of the strongest arguments for not allowing BP to fund the Tate, so that in 50 years, the evils of the company will not be masked by its philanthropic achievements.

On the other hand, how dirty does money have to be before it’s rejected? A few weeks ago, on the radio show This American Life, an episode was dedicated to the wrongs perpetrated against workers at Chinese factories making Apple computer products. The living and working conditions are apparently appalling; they reminded me of stories I’ve read about 1930s Chicago, from the cramped dormitories and long hours to the suicides and blocked access to labor unions. And yet, if Apple were to offer any arts sponsorship, there is no way its application would be rejected on grounds of unethical business practices. This in no way excuses BP’s behavior or justifies the Tate’s acceptance of money from the company. I use it merely to point out that that big businesses that can afford to fund expensive art projects and museums are big for a reason.

The solution, then, would be to completely disentangle the arts from corporate sponsorship. But this is also impossible for several reasons. Most importantly, public funding for the arts has been falling drastically over the years all over the world. At the end of the Cold War, arts funding lost its luster for politicians, who had previously used culture as a tool of diplomacy and propaganda. Having no political use for art anymore, public funding began to dwindle. And then the economic crisis hit. But, even if national governments were still willing and able to fund the arts, this would not solve the problems of “control” over art anyway. Culture Beyond Oil consistently points out that BP’s sponsorship of the Tate gets in the way of the Tate displaying art that criticizes its sponsor. But public funding comes with its own version of censorship. Just last year, I remember that the U.S. National Portrait Gallery refused to include a work by David Wojnarowicz in an exhibition because it was too sacrilegious for taxpayer funding.

In conclusion, yes, BP, and Big Oil in general, causes too much damage to the environment and the world’s people to have the luxury of laundering its money and its name through funding the arts. On the other hand, we are only kidding ourselves if we believe that the art world can ever be or has ever been “pure,” no matter where the money’s coming from.

—Elena Goukassian

Book Description:
Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil
Edited by Jo Clarke, Mel Evans, Hayley Newman, Kevin Smith, and Glen Tarman
London: Art Not Oil, Liberate Tate, and Platform, 2011
95 pages, available free on-line here
ISBN: 978-0-9567365-3-6

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