It was heartening to hear Mark Rylance on the Today Programme this morning talking about his involvement in the Olympics opening ceremony and his discomfort about BP (and McDonalds) sponsorship. The award-winning actor, theatre director and playwright said that he’d been asked to take part, and the interviewer suggested he could have said no, to which he replied:
I thought about it. The conversation about private sponsorship being supported by tax payers money, and private sponsorship from companies that are not really necessarily behaving all that ethically, big questions about BP, and big questions about McDonalds and the amount of sugar and obesity that's costing the NHS billions – it's in the paper today. I think those questions are good and I had thought since agreeing that maybe I shouldn't be doing this, and if people feel critical of us who are taking part, I think they've got a point, a very good point. On the other hand, all these athletes, the human endeavour aspect of it is so wonderful, I wouldn't want it to stop, and I wouldn't want to be a nay-sayer or a chastiser.
It’s not the first time Rylance has spoken out on BP sponsorship. In April he cosigned a letter in the Guardian with a number of other theatre folk in which they expressed their concern that, “that the Royal Shakespeare Company – like other much-cherished cultural institutions – is allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities.”
The reaction on the twittersphere didn’t seem to be critical of Rylance taking part, but for daring to speak about it – the typical muttering being along the lines of “if you’ve taken the money, then you don’t have any right to speak about it.” This seems to be a particularly corrosive way of collapsing the debate akin to the old chestnut of, “if you took a bus to come here that used petrol then you can’t speak out about the environmental and human rights abuses of oil companies.” This is one of the many arguments that we addressed in the publication Not if but when – Culture Beyond Oil.
It’s really great to hear someone like Mark Rylance actually articulate the complexity of the issues and take ownership of the decision to take part. What’s important here is the fact that he still has the integrity to speak his mind about the nature of the companies involved. He could easily have been cowed into silence through fear of loss of his cultural capital, or through fear of being slagged off for being a hypocrite by internet trolls or snidey arts commentators.
This sort of nuanced position has also been described by portraitist Raoul Martinez who has been exhibited a few times as part of the BP-sponsored National Portrait Award:
Yes, it's an honour to have my work exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery with leading artists from around the world, and two floors below original works by John Singer Sargent (a favourite artist of mine). The portrait award gets a few hundred thousand visitors a year, so it does inevitably raise the profile of the artists involved, which is great. At the same time, if involvement in such an award buys our silence, if as artists we self-censor in order to placate corporate sponsors, I cannot help but think that such acquiescence is a far more significant statement than anything our work might convey. Nevertheless I understand the dilemma. The life of an artist is often a struggle.
So, I'm 100% more pleased with Rylance’s willingness to speak honestly speak out than I am critical of his decision to take part, and hopefully it might encourage other artists to do likewise. Just because you might be exhibited in Tate doesn’t mean you lose the right to have an opinion on the way that oil companies operate or whether or not art galleries should be taking their cash.
If you haven't seen it already, do check out the performance below by the Reclaim Shakespeare Company on the opening night of the BP-sponsored Shakespeare festival.