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Art for art’s sake, sponsors for God’s sake

November 6, 2019

The day after a report signed off by 11,000 scientists warns us of the imminent catastrophe of climate change is probably not the best occasion on which to offer some perspective on sponsorship of the arts by fossil fuel producers, but here goes anyway.

The British Museum is one of my favourite places in the world. In the coming months it’s putting on two exhibitions of great interest to me. The subjects are Orientalist art and the myths and realities of Troy.

The former is sponsored by Standard Chartered Bank. The latter receives funding from BP. According to the new orthodoxy, I’m supposed to approve of the Museum taking money from a bank that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis and is notorious for its money-laundering antics thereafter, and disapprove of it receiving largesse from a company that extracts oil from the ground and thereby contributes to climate change.

Neither of these companies is, in my estimation, any more or less to blame for the predicaments each has helped to bring about than their corporate peers. Among predatory banks whose misdeeds helped to sour the financial prospects of a generation, are Standard Chartered any less evil than Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank or Barclays?

And are BP any more evil than Shell, Exxon, Saudi Aramco and all their illustrious predecessors?

Yes, according to a number of righteous organisations such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, who have decided not to take BP’s tainted money anymore.

And yes, according to the protesters who staged a sit-in during the British Museum’s magnificent Assyrian exhibition, I Am Ashurbanipal. Apart from  – as the protesters claimed – urging Britain and America to attack Iraq in 2003 so that it could get its hands on Iraqi oil, BP bears the stigma of once having been the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, so its track record of economic imperialism and exploitation of hitherto poor countries in the Middle East is a further mark of shame in the eyes of the righteous.

I don’t enjoy games of moral equivalence, but I fail to understand why BP’s money is so much more tainted than that of a whole bunch of dodgy companies keeping afloat the icons of Britain’s arts establishment. Find a company, and someone, somewhere will find a reason to put a black mark against it.

Here’s a thought. I, for one, am profoundly grateful that BP and its competitors are still producing oil. I’d rather they were investing more in the business of wind, water and solar – nuclear fusion even. But if by some miraculous transformation all the fossil fuels in the world suddenly became unusable, you could be sure that what we think of as civilisation would collapse far more quickly and catastrophically than it would through the progressive disaster of climate change. Until we don’t, we rely on hydrocarbons for our energy, so perhaps we should have the grace to acknowledge that BP actually does something useful, as opposed to the banking community, whose main purpose appears to be making money out of money.

One more thought. If BP’s money is no longer welcome among the artistic great and good, it’ll find some other way to spend it. Otherwise it’ll end up paying more tax to the government. So which would you prefer? That it sponsors sport, or maybe starts supporting the Louvre? Or that it just pays tax that Boris Johnson and his cronies can spend on – among other things – an ad campaign warning us of the oncoming Brexit tsunami? Granted, more people get to see the Brexit stuff than experience the wonders of Troy in a London museum. But in three thousand years time, who will be learning lessons from Brexit?

In the name of austerity, state funding for the arts in the UK has steadily declined since 2011. Institutions such as the British Museum increasingly rely upon corporate sponsorship to maintain the interest of the public and their reputation for excellence. At the same time spending in schools on creative subjects has decreased. Libraries are closing across the country.

Before we force more of our treasured institutions to spurn contributions from the likes of BP – and Standard Chartered for that matter – we should ask ourselves whether in our righteous zeal we are happy to see the cultural life of the country further degraded at a time when the excellence of our scientific institutions is also under threat through the diminishing opportunities for international collaborative research that are likely to be the consequence of Brexit.

If not the likes of BP, who will fill the funding gap? Philanthropists? Yes and no. Plenty of institutions – orchestras for example – are reliant on individual contributions. But we don’t have the same culture of giving as exists in the US, where the likes of Carnegie and Guggenheim would always dig deep in search of personal monuments. As for our billionaires, James Dyson and Jim Ratcliffe to name but two, have scuttled off to foreign shores to escape the ill-effects of the Brexit they supported.

So my humble suggestion is that we shouldn’t be too choosy about the corporations whose money we welcome to enhance our cultural lives. Otherwise we’re left to the mercy of our parliamentarians, many of whom couldn’t tell the difference between a work of art and a hole in the ground.

From → Art, History, Politics, Social, UK

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