Why do oil companies fund the arts?
Is it because the oil companies are massively generous? Or is it because the oil companies see it as an investment … and if so, what are they getting in return?
These are important questions. Over the last few years I have been fortunate enough to be alerted to occasional ‘interventions’ at oil sponsored events by ‘artivists’ – art-activists – who have taken the theme of the performance or exhibition and turned it into a critical piece of performance themselves.
The first target I heard about was the campaign against the sponsorship of the large Shakespeare festival by BP – this lead to some delightfully crafted performances performed on stage – always before the play started – and often met with a warm response from the audience. The RSC has dropped the oil money.
In Tate Britain Lady Macbeth came to life in a beautiful impromptu performance – with disturbing revelations about the role of BP – ‘Is this a logo I see before me?‘
Then I got to photograph two Viking interventions at the British Museum – they even managed to get a 10m longship in, despite there being enormous security (and Thor being arrested!).
Tate Modern has not been immune to the attention of protesters disturbed at the use of art to greenwash the image of BP. I was lucky enough to happen upon a beautiful scene as Malevich’s Black Square came to life.
And when Tate dropped BP money – I was there at the party too.
Working with art-activists is such a pleasure. The work is thought through, nonviolent and gently confrontational. It is work that has generated great results too – but absolutely no complacency. Only last night I got to go and see the latest intervention as three actors took to the stage before Russia’s Mariinsky Orchestra was due to begin a performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet … and thanks to the delay caused by conductor Valery Gergiev’s rehearsal over-running, the audience thought, for a short while, that they were officially part of the show … though the balcony scene featured ‘Ramira and Juliet’, a gentle dig at Putin’s homophobia (its not a phobia, just nastiness). Again, the use of the arts to try and gloss over the murkiness of the oil industry was not allowed to happen.
The amount of money the oil industry gives to the arts is disproportionately small compared to the exposure they receive. While investment from central government is stifled, it is easy to see why the arts would turn to the easy money – but there is a great cost attached. There is a moral cost that will continue to be illuminated by courageous and creative art activists. The money comes stained with the blood of generations gone and yet to come. Dirty money has no place in sponsoring great work.