(I really got a good snicker coming up with this alternative blog post title, so I just had to share it: Oil-Based Art Protests. Har har har.)
A recent article came out in the Telegraph about artists protesting a Tate Britain event due to the Tate’s involvement with BP,
…oil and art came together in a clumsily choreographed pageant of comic absurdity this week at Tate Britain’s Summer Party. A group of spittle-flecked wing-nut demonstrators poured oil down the gallery’s steps as a “protest” against BP’s financial support of the gallery. A hi-vis mop-up army immediately replicated the Louisiana shore in Pimlico, but cleared up to better effect. The party continued.
While it’s easy to see the appeal for staging such a protest and equally easy to see the appeal of making fun of the protesters, author Stephen Bayley brings up a panoply of scenarios in which artists have (more or less happily, or at least ignorantly) been funded by arguably despicable people, companies, and governments,
That anyone should express outrage at BP’s involvement with the Tate is evidence of cringe-making naivety, not to say burping, thigh-slapping and howling ignorance. Artists have always gone where the money is. You either have the Holy See or you have BP. Art and ethics do not have a straightforward relationship, they have a grubbily convoluted one: the great art of the Renaissance was paid for by usury, vice and corruption. Pope Alexander VI was the father of Cesare Borgia, a poisoner, sadist, sexual deviant, intriguer and mercenary syphilitic. The Borgias created the culture in which Bramante and Michelangelo flourished.
Great art has always been involved with great fortunes: it was only a temporary distortion of history, a hangover from the Romantic idea that artists need be poor and tormented, that insisted art must be uncontaminated by trade. Patronage may well be a non-negotiable part of artistic activity. For a while, this principle was blurred when the interventionist economist J M Keynes helped found the Arts Council after the Second World War. Keynes simply made the state a patron. Do the oily protesters advocate refusal of the Arts Council’s “government” money supporting the Tate because the same government money funded an illegal war in Iraq and a tragic war in Afghanistan? Of course they don’t.
That artists always go (must go?) where the money is, is often lamented as the “sad reality” of being an artist…because art is supposed to transcend the meanness of money-making to achieve the sublime goal of inspiring and enlightening. Art and artists seem to be stuck because not only are they encouraged not to think of their art as products, but the act of displaying and disseminating art is not a mere business transaction, but something sacred. It is because art is treated this way that higher standards have ostensibly been set (even if subconsciously) for its funding sources. But Bayley provides more examples of what could be considered the inevitable clash of morals in the arts.
Any inflated posturing about the relationship of art to ethics and to money is bound to end in an embarrassing collision of principles. Teeth-rotting sugar, mother’s ruin booze and blood diamonds have funded great galleries around the world. Profits from the slaves’ torment of the Middle Passage made Liverpool and Bristol great cities of art. The Guggenheims became philanthropists only after polluting Philadelphia and running some mining interests that would, perhaps, today be criminal. Never mind if commissioning Frank Lloyd Wright was an after-the-event expiation of corporate sins, New York’s Guggenheim Museum is a benefit to us all.
Throughout the Twenties, The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by Henry Ford, frequently published articles about the menace of “The International Jew”. Ford sponsored the vicious, spurious and anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The same Ford also mobilised poor Americans with his Model-T, paid his workers with fabulous generosity and commissioned the Communist Mexican painter Diego Rivera to create epic murals about the proletariat’s struggles in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Right now, London’s Frieze Art Fair is one of the most successful art fairs in the world. It’s the creation of Matthew Slotover, whose parents, full declaration, are friends of mine. And Jewish. Slotover, more sensible than the howling pack who emptied their sump of resentment over the Tate, is quite comfortable that the Frieze Art Fair is sponsored by Deutsche Bank which, in 1999 agreed to contribute to a fund of several billion pounds for Holocaust survivors who could still remember that it financed IG Farben, producer of Zyklon-B, the murderous gas used in Auschwitz.
Another Frieze sponsor is BMW, whose owners made their fortune from producing the batteries that powered U-boats and the V2 missile that pounded London. BMW is also sponsoring our bomb-site Olympics. We move on.
These examples abound. Artists, it seems, cannot be too picky about their customers. But why should this really be a dilemma? Do we boycott the local hardware store because a serial murderer paid for the rope and plastic sheets he used to kill his latest victim? I know that is a horribly crude analogy, but I’m trying to illustrate that the stain of the profit can perhaps be removed, cleansed so to speak, when it is cycled through an artist’s hands, transformed into something else…then again, maybe not.
What is the solution? How can artists reconcile these moral and fiscal dilemmas? Just as many artists find no hypocrisy in monetarily supporting and praising the art of a child rapist, perhaps they can similarly continue to take money from gulf-destroying corporations without feeling any moral incongruity?
I suppose one argument is that the artist is never beholden to take funding from BP, Ford, BMW, or any government in particular – but it does seem the list of despicable offenders that have enough cash to pay for art are greater in number than the squeaky-clean philanthropists and good samaritans.
These are not so much conflicts as inevitabilities. And they arise not from any disingenuousness of clients nor from any cynical opportunism by patrons, rather from the confused nature of our understanding of “art” in the contemporary world. An art that requires to be institutionalised and displayed in expensive galleries is inevitably going to cost someone a lot of money.
And if it is BP’s money rather than ours, then that’s to our common good…And while I am not the person to exonerate a dirty and dangerous energy company, who has the methodology to calculate whether an oil spill causes more damage to civilisation than mendacious and greedy bankers? Perhaps the misery caused by the wicked speculations of Lehman Brothers was, in the long run, more injurious to human dignity and well-being than a dirty-and-dangerous oil platform. Lehman Brothers supported the Lincoln Center, the American Ballet School and Kathleen, wife of the notorious CEO Richard Fuld, was vice-chair of the Museum of Modern Art.
In the long run we are all dead, declared Keynes. In the meantime, let’s do what we can with what we have got. Frieze Art Fair is a very good thing, even if Deutsche Bank funded the Gestapo. Tate Britain is a very good thing, which is made even better by oil money, although we do all wish BP were a little more fastidious about its day job. Only a peevish hypocrite would deny these things.