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After Monday night’s mini-spill outside the Tate Britain, enacted by the artist-activist group Liberate Tate, there has been a flow (‘scuse the pun) of press coverage from around the world, opening up the debate around corporate sponsorship of the arts (which is, in my personal opinion, a victory in itself).
Much of the arguments that are critical of the action taken, have followed along these general lines – that we, as activists, should be targeting BP, not the Tate; that we should be targeting all oil companies, not just BP, as other companies such as Shell have a high stake in our cultural institutions too; that oil has been sponsoring the arts for the past 20 years, so why bother protesting about it now; and that the Tate and the arts in general have no choice but to accept corporate sponsorship, especially in the light of further cuts in public spending.
In quick response, I would say to those – well, we have and are targeting BP, you may count any number of actions going on right now in the world that are doing just that. Targeting the Tate is about recognising our responsibility in all this mess. It is easy to blame the fat cats in suits, but here we are with big cultural institutions and artists (very well regarded ones at that, such as Grayson Perry and Cornelia Parker), endorsing companies that are causing massive environmental catastrophes and hastening climate change. Public concern about climate change is lower than last year and that is quite understandable. Political failure at Copenhagen, along with seeing oil companies endorsing our major public events and exhibitions, must of course give the general public the impression that it’s not that urgent.
In terms of targeting all oil companies – well that’s just a silly argument. Concerned citizenry willing to take action are currently made up of less people than those who work for big corporations. We’re trying! But if Shell are feeling left out and would enjoy 5 gallons of molasses on their doorstep, I’m sure that can be arranged.
And yes, oil has been sponsoring the arts for the past 20 years. Was Monday’s action the first action against it? No. Rising Tide and Art not Oil have been doing marvellous stuff for years. Even if this wasn’t the case, is that a coherent argument for not taking action? No. The Tate was founded on slavery money, and then sponsored by the tobacco industry. When this became unacceptable in public opinion, out those sponsors went. Something being rubbish for a long time is no excuse to keep on doing it, otherwise we would have a zero percentage divorce rate, amiright?
And lastly, to the argument that the arts have no choice but to accept corporate sponsorship. This to me, is the crux. I work for a charity, and believe me, I understand how hard funding is to come by. I also understand the vital need for art and culture, the very things that speak to me about what it is to be human, that make me feel alive. But to say that the arts have no choice in the matter, is doing us all a great disservice, and spectacularly undermining the role of art in the public domain. Are we merely to wait for corporations to stump up the cash before we can enjoy anything that we call art? Has art become such a commodity, that we must wait in line for the next big exhibition, buy a ticket and then wonder around for 45 mins with a furrowed brow, and that be the limitation of our experience? I have had an amazing time with Caravaggio at the Tate Britain, Picasso at the Tate Modern, Goya at the Prado. But have we forgotten what it means to create? Some of my best experiences of art have been small, intimate happenings – acoustic gigs, spoken word, craft nights – where the atmosphere is electric and alive with creation. So I have to wonder, who is art for? If it is for us, then we must ask whether or not corporate sponsorship limits the freedom of the artist to truly create. And it is wise to remember that Liberate Tate was born out of just such a limitation.
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