Oil sponsorship of the arts: Getting rid of some myths

From the powerful interventions of the art collective Liberate Tate to the impromptu performances by The Reclaim Shakespeare Company, the media are gradually being prompted to raise the issue of oil sponsorship of the arts. As a consequence, the arts institutions in question are now under much greater scrutiny regarding their consistency of ethics and values. The logic behind opposing oil sponsorship of the arts is not complex, if anything, it is quite straightforward. However, as has been the case with climate change denial, the arguments by those defending the status quo are used to “flatten” the debate – analogies and generalisations that sound compelling as linguistic devices, in reality, lack substance. These generalisations are repeated to the point that they are then accepted without question. The effect is to direct discussion around the issue into dead-ends that prevent a deeper understanding of how we value the arts and the environment. Frustratingly, this is the quality of debate that meets the needs of a media interested in sound bites and the entertainment value of strong dividing lines. But it’s time to open up the debate and try to put maybe a few of the weak arguments to bed…

“We are all entitled to our opinion…”

Thanks to a recent tweet by the comedian Marcus Brigstocke, I came across a blog by an American philosophy lecturer, Patrick Stokes. Stokes says to his students in their first lecture, ‘You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.’ The purpose of this opening statement is that his students learn to recognise the point at which a belief has become indefensible and that there is a need to shift position in light of new information. Also, Stokes outlines that there are two different kinds of statement: those that are subjective and can be said to be true because it is specific to your own experience, and those that are drawn from a large body of expertise and insight. But often the two get confused…

But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this too is a distinction that tends to get blurred.

 So, at a very basic level, the judgment of the ethics of a given company or their decision to sponsor an institution is an issue where I may hold an opinion. However, the value of my opinion is limited according to my level of expertise or insight in the relevant area, my ability to argue for it. So at the point where my own knowledge reaches a limit, I refer to the expertise and research of others who can speak with greater authority. For example, Jeremy Leggett has worked in both the oil and renewable energy sector and has the ability to respond to different aspects of the debate. A supporter of the Tate can be in favour of BP’s sponsorship but if they are uninformed as to the full extent of BP’s activities in Canada’s tar sands, they lack the capacity to fully analyse the ethical implications of that sponsorship. As Stokes suggests, they cannot expect that their opinion should be treated as a serious candidate for the truth. Their opinion is valid but not of the same value as that of an expert such as Leggett. It is not a weakness to accept that our opinion occupies a different place to the arguments of someone well informed and working in the field. In fact, we should allow ourselves to be challenged by those who provide these fresh insights and allow our position to shift accordingly. This is how effective debate is meant to function rather than fixing rigidly to a position that has become untenable.

 “These oil companies are just large businesses who want to engage in philanthropy and support the arts sector.”

 It can appear that way and to be honest, some people in some oil companies, might. Not all workers for Shell or BP are the same. It is often difficult to believe that companies that have become household or ‘roadside’ names should be manipulating our perceptions of their brands. But they are. Sadly, that is a large part of how capitalism functions. I am not trying to discredit capitalism but instead suggest that we should recognise that brand management is central to how companies and corporations function in a capitalist system. Studies have been undertaken which show that by sponsoring events, particularly in sports and the arts, many corporations have enhanced the public perception of their brand. However, what discredits the philanthropy argument further is that we need not even look for this kind of study. The directors of oil companies often refer to the concept of ‘social licence’, the ability to be perceived by governments and the public as legitimate and responsible in order to continue undertaking high-risk, unconventional oil extraction. (Here, unconventional refers to methods such as deep water drilling in the Arctic or tar sands extraction in Canada.) The concept of social licence is not a secret. To some extent, these companies are dependant upon this chain from perception to approval to legitimacy – the acquisition of the social licence. (Once the perception of the the tobacco industry became shifted, they became stigmatised and the tide turned with regard to advertising and sponsorship.) Unlike the official licences issued by governments to allow companies to drill for oil in specific territories, the social licence is intangible and as is acquired by shaping perception. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to associate your brand with culture, community and the socially responsible – perhaps, to sponsor the biggest and best-known arts institutions. So, even if there might be some philanthropic intentions somewhere, it will be one (very small) part of the motivation because much more besides can be gleaned from appearing to be generous.

“But the arts sector needs the money…”

 The arts sector needs money. But it does not need this money. We are regularly presented with the argument that arts institutions are heavily dependent on the funds they receive from oil companies and others, and should the funds be taken away, huge swathes of programming would disappear or the institution would collapse altogether. The removal of funds would, of course, affect the activities of an institution but these dire scenarios are misleading. Firstly, the contributions made by BP to the Tate or the RSC, and by Shell to the Southbank Centre, are a tiny proportion of overall budgets, which would be unlikely to affect the core activities of these institutions. The accounts are available online – go and have a look. Secondly, there are other ways to fill the gap or potentially other more socially responsible sponsors to make up the shortfall. For the most part, the taxpayer is the main contributor of funds to these institutions via the Arts Council. (There are peripheral debates here about the extent to which the government should fund the arts and questions of austerity but I’ll stick to the main point.) Oil companies make small contributions to arts institutions, negligible amounts in their working budgets of billions of dollars, and in return, are able to craft the perception of their brand in a big way. Paradoxically, your tax money, which pays the majority or a large share for many of these institutions, is being co-opted by an oil company at the other end, who pay a tiny share. In some respects, they are piggybacking on the good work of your tax money to sustain the arts, to sell their brand image back to you. If anything, the taxpayer should be calling the shots, not the other way around. We are the larger stakeholders in many of these institutions.

“But historically, the arts have always taken money from big business or sponsors… Why should things be any different now?”

This argument has several aspects to it that are based on fairly weak assumptions. Firstly, there is an objection to specifically oil sponsorship that is being proposed by groups such as Liberate Tate, Rising Tide and Reclaim Shakespeare – not all sponsorship. Some might prefer that the arts are entirely publicly funded and some the opposite, but it isn’t the concept of sponsorship that is being challenged. Secondly, this argument appears to promote the values of capitalism, big business and, by extension, accepts the dynamics of the market place. But if the situation is truly dynamic, an open ‘market place’ of the arts, then there is also the possibility for new and more effective methods of sustaining the arts to emerge and replace the old. If you want to embrace the sponsorship model, you have to accept that it is subject to competition and challenge too. Another argument, which might seem simplistic but is worth mentioning, is that knowledge, understanding and social justice have developed over time. For example, the world is a markedly different place in light of the civil rights movement. Also, the tobacco industry has now become stigmatised to some extent and gradually excluded from advertising in many settings, in light of research about damage to health. Our moral and ethical values evolve as our knowledge and understanding develops over time, and our laws, conventions and behaviours change to reflect this. The body of evidence about the damage oil industries are causing to people and to the environment is vast but they are still allowed to sponsor arts institutions. Objecting to this sponsorship is not a case of environmentalists arbitrarily drawing their own ‘ethical’ red lines, but bearing witness to a body of evidence that dictates where those red lines should lie. The suggestion that the status quo should be maintained because it is the status quo is particularly misguided here, given the dynamism of both the arts and the environment. To argue that the framework should stay constant while the content shifts over time is an unsustainable position.

“If we engage more people in the arts to learn about life and philosophy, then that has to counteract issues with where the funding came from…”

This argument starts from the weakened position of acknowledging there are ethical issues about accepting oil sponsorship. The difficulty is that it is impossible to compare the quantifiable environmental impacts caused by oil companies with the intangible benefits of art making – they are of markedly different qualities. However, those that pose this argument are not inherently wrong but have fallen victim to a narrow view of the issue. Those arts events supported by oil companies are worthwhile but reach a relatively limited audience, both in scale and demographic. Up until now, our frame of reference might perhaps be the UK, US or Western world though. The injustice perpetrated in the developing world and against Indigenous peoples may lie outside of our immediate sphere of consideration. This argument is inadvertently proposing that damage to the environment is acceptable as long as it furthers the intellectual nourishment of those with access to the arts in the developed world. Perhaps I am now comparing environmental impacts with the benefits of art making which I suggested is difficult to do. However, there is an implied environmental racism being played out in this argument, even if it is unintended. We perhaps need to question how the funds that support our arts institutions have been generated. Lastly, and at a more abstract level, art can be interpreted as a reflection of the socio-economic forces that underlie its creation. (I am very loosely borrowing from the critical theorist, Theodor Adorno here.) The more we might strive to make art autonomous or separate from these external issues, the more they acutely reflect and embody the surrounding context and society. Programming Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, his ‘plea for peace’, with Shell’s money stands at odds with the company’s financial support of the Nigerian military and other armed groups. Also, Shakespeare’s own words about justice will sharpen the distinction of why it is unacceptable to use BP’s money to produce his plays, that the ‘the quality of mercy’ should not be strained.

“Money is money. It doesn’t matter where it comes from.”

 To some extent, this statement is true. Money and economies are, at a theoretical level, neutral. In practice, economies become politicised as a certain set of values and beliefs are articulated through them. Money can be seen as a set of numbers, bits of paper or chunks of metal that allow transactions within an economy to happen. There are those political types of considerations about whether it’s good for money to flow or become concentrated and whether governments or others should engage or interfere with that. Obviously, if an evil dictator signed a set of ten-pound notes, those ten-pound notes don’t become inherently evil by extension. However, it is significant where money becomes concentrated and what kinds of behaviour it is then able to facilitate. In this context, there is more than just a passing symbolism that gets attached to the ‘financial capital’ of BP and Shell. It is their large concentrations of wealth that allows these companies to exert influence over governments and people in order to continue with their activities. Sponsorship payments represent an offshoot from this concentration of wealth, the direct outcome from a particular kind of profit-making activity, which in this context is environmentally damaging. The funds have not emerged from a pool that is ethically neutral. As highlighted earlier, the amounts spent on environmentally damaging methods of oil extraction heavily outweigh the amounts spent on sponsorship. Our arts institutions are therefore receiving a small slither of a larger, more sinister pie. The environmental damage and the arts sponsorship are both traceable back to that pie and it is the company that is determining that capital flows, in particular, around these points. Admittedly, sponsorship money could also flow to the same destination by going via the tax system – such as BP to HM Revenue and Customs, assigned to the Arts Council then given to the Tate. However, that chunk of money flowing from the tax system to the Arts Council could have come from any number of sources and the taxes from BP could have gone to a vast number of destinations – the likelihood of BP meeting Tate in a chance financial encounter in cyberspace is pretty slim. Within that chain are a whole series of other motivations and political concerns being played out. The Arts Council though is the most proximate body to the arts institutions in this particular chain and although it receives and directs flows of funds, it primarily exists in order to disperse those funds in order to enhance art making. There is a marked contrast in purpose, motivation and scale between oil company and Arts Council and their respective roles in supporting the arts. So, money might be neutral as an object but it allows certain kinds of activities and values to be played out. In the hands of Shell and BP, relationships of influence, exploitation and unequal power exist because of their use of that money. If you receive money that creates or sustains those relationships, then it certainly does not exist in an ethical vacuum. As Shakespeare put it, ‘All that glisters is not gold’.

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