Bad money good arts

Colin Tweedy has written such a sloppy opinion piece on the sponsorship of art by oil that it shouldn’t really merit attention. However, he is in an influential position and has been the key voice at the intersection of art and business. You could do well to read this alternative voice in the same debate by Jane Trowell. But if you’re in a nitpicky mood, you might want to read my take down.

He begins “Art and money have always gone together”. However, the production context and value of art is not a universal or constant. Human society has not always been driven by money. We are at a point in which it has never been so dominated by the interests of those who seek to accumulate by extracting money out of natural resources, labour and, increasingly, via debt. Art has not always been a commodity. Makers have not always lived in societies where most people need to exchange their labour or ideas for money to exchange these for essentials.

“Some of the finest patrons among the Popes were nothing less than fornicating murderers!” He is suggesting that because artists were patronised by some bad people in the past, when the powerful could murder with impunity, we can’t expect things to be different 500 years later. This is an extraordinarily passive morality. It also makes two assumptions, one that there was no other kind of art or artist than that which was funded by the worst people, the other that there were no artists unwilling to be a part of this system.

He describes how Lord Goodman presided over the view that money from crime could be washed by giving it to art. He says “This could be described as one of the most amoral of all opinions, but it was seen as a guideline for many years”. Again, this is a justification from the viewpoint of ‘this is how it’s always been, so it seemed natural to us’.

“I have always found it ironic that most…arts organisations are, of course, happy to accept money from governments, however dubious or down right crooked they may be, while pontificating loudly about the morals of business”. This is a highly simplistic conflation of two very different kinds of institution. In the European context, governments are defined as more or less democratic institutions, representing the broad demos and distributing commonwealth for the public good. The forces making these governments ‘dubious or downright crooked’ are the corporations lobbying for protection, for reduced regulation and for repression of dissent. He asks “are the morals of governments any different from those of the private sector?”  Here is an irony in that he does not acknowledge just how uncomfortably entwined they are.

Moreover, is he correct to insist that ‘most artists and arts organisations’ are pontificating loudly about the morals of business? A few certainly, but arguably too few.

“Is there such a thing as a bad business? Surely if a business is acting legally, who are we to throw the first stone metaphorically?” The fact is we have an epidemic of companies (or individuals who profit from companies) lobbying and insinuating themselves into governments to change the law to benefit business. The new boss of Natural England is a Tory-donating property developer who, it seems, wants to change the law to stop protecting nesting birds to enable fast development of green sites. Changes of law to reform public services are enabling private companies to profit from outsourcing. Our government is unwilling to annoy its cronies by changing laws to crack down on just-legal tax avoidance and evasion. Until we have an ecocide law, internationally, we basically have a situation in which companies can destroy the common wealth, the environment, in their own short term interests. We do not have a legal basis for good business. An authentically good business can only be one which actively helps to heal the planet (rather than partially mitigates the damage it does).

He tells an anecdote about how Tate replaced a tobacco sponsor with one who, perhaps unknown to them, manufactured missile parts. He asks “Is tobacco worse than weapons of mass destruction?” The confusing fallacy here is that while asking ‘is there such a thing as a bad business?’ he is at the same time suggesting that all businesses have bad in them. What he means is that morality is all relative. All businesses can be perceived as bad by someone somewhere who quibbles about their testing on animals or their sexist marketing, or whatever.

The next paragraph about anti-oil sponsorship protests contains a number of factual errors. He says “Shell’s sponsorship of the arts has rarely been criticised” and “But BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum is not attacked” but he is ignoring many performances highlighting Shell sponsorship of the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and the Southbank Centre, and BP sponsorship of British Museum exhibitions. He is trying to suggest, though not clearly, that the protesters are fickle and latching onto fashionable scapegoats. He also makes the point that the protests were not about BP being an oil company but about its responsibility for the Deepwater Horizon spill. Members of the Art Not Oil coalition have been protesting, some for the past decade, with the fundamental concern of the role of fossil fuel extraction in a complex of devastation, including climate change, the transportation of oil, the dominance of automotive transport, oil-fuelled agribusiness, land grabbing, security protection, labour injustices, conflicts arising from resource insecurity and oil spills.

“It is now illegal in many European countries to allow tobacco products to be advertised or to sponsor the arts”. This point is often rolled out to defend the morality of arts organisations. It says ‘they do have ethical sponsorship policies, you know, so don’t push them on oil as well’. There is a subtle fallacy here. Tweedy says “One person’s good company is another’s bad one” so you may as well just go with any type of corporation. But, on the other hand, he makes clear that the line has been drawn at tobacco. So, we may ask, if the line can be drawn at the purveyors of a substance that shortens many human lives, why can it not be drawn at the line of the purveyors of a substance that threatens diverse life, and much human life, on our planet now? He tries to cover his confused tracks by explaining that the line at tobacco has been arbitrarily drawn. Tobacco isn’t really beyond the pale because so many people think their CSR programmes and employment of many people are redeeming. So, the answer to ‘why can’t we draw the line at oil?’ is because it makes no difference where you draw the line. He is not interested in the evidence about the difference the oil industry has made to the planet, presumably.

On this same tack that we can’t draw the line anywhere, he makes a tangential leap to ask “Should artists coming from countries with dictators who breach civil rights and commit war crimes be treated with caution?” He is expecting us to chorus back ‘No, of course not, we have to be liberal and relative with our morals!’ However, our considered answer would be: if the artists themselves are proven to be directly involved in these crimes, then yes, treat them with caution. Being an individual associated with a country or a company does not make you responsible for its systemic failures or the crimes of its leaders. Just as Romanians coming to this country are not necessarily thieves.

As if to prove that all morality is all relative, he makes yet another tangential leap to ask if we should boycott arts organisations that don’t pay a living wage or employ enough senior women. The considered answer: No, we shouldn’t, because these are not equivalent faults to ecocidal crimes of oil companies, but we should nonetheless comment on bad practices and model good ones.

He concludes “Perhaps Lord Goodman’s dictum is best, bad money becomes good when it goes to the arts”. He assumes that the source of all money is relatively bad, and because this is a natural fact it is a kind of good. He also assumes that all art is relatively good (if not aesthetically), and because this is a natural fact, it has a magical transformative power. However, he has not mentioned any evidence of how this alchemical transference takes place.

One final point: Tweedy’s piece argues around the question of where money comes from. However, the main concern of oil sponsorship campaigners is not the source itself but what the sponsor aims to extract from the deal, how they are using it for ‘social licence to operate’.

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One response to “Bad money good arts

  1. Good points. Art has been seen by many as a good way to launder money, but just because it’s been used that way doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be.

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