BP Portrait Award exhibitor speaks about BP

14 Dec 2011 admin

Howard Zinn – A People’s Historian (1922-2010) by Raoul Martinez
Raoul Martinez is a portrait artist who has twice been shortlisted as part of the prestigious BP Portrait Award. We hooked him up with a journalist for an upcoming article about the ongoing controversies around arts sponsorship, such as the news in the Guardian about Tate's review of BP sponsorship, and Alice Oswald withdrawing from the TS Eliot poetry prize. This is the full text of what Raoul had to say about his participation in an event sponsored by BP.


As you've been shortlisted twice in the BP National Portrait Award, do you agree with BP's sponsorship of the award?

No, I'm not in favour of BP sponsorship of the arts. When it comes to sponsorship, everyone believes a line must be drawn somewhere. Most, for instance, would not think it acceptable to receive sponsorship from arms manufacturers or foreign dictators. So the issue is not whether we draw a line, but where we draw it. In the case of BP, I believe there is a strong case for placing them on the wrong side of that line.

Oil companies in general, including BP, have a history of using PR tactics to discredit climate science while lobbying governments not to reduce CO2 emissions. With other leading oil companies BP was part of the Washington based Global Climate Coalition which staunchly opposed reducing greenhouse gas emissions late into the 1990s. To give an idea of the resources this group commanded, it spent $13 million on one anti-Kyoto campaign.

BP is also exploiting Canadian tar sands – a highly controversial action due to the fact that the extraction process involved releases up to four times as much greenhouse gas as other forms of fossil-fuel extraction, while demanding copious amounts of water. Furthermore, BP has a highly questionable human rights record, supporting human rights abusers in South Africa and Colombia among other places.

At a time when the world's leading climate scientist, James Hansen, is telling us that "Human-made climate change is, indeed, the greatest threat civilization faces" and that "the continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself…" we cannot afford to offer positive PR to those groups which engage in ecocidal behaviour, cloud our understanding of climate change or obstruct steps necessary to mitigate its damage. Asked recently about the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to the U.S., a project BP wholeheartedly supports, Hansen responded that if it goes ahead it's "game over for the planet". The stakes could not be higher.

There is now somewhat of a taboo against tobacco sponsorship. I see no reason why this should not be extended to oil sponsorship, oil being a far more dangerous societal addiction.

Would you accept the award if you won?

It's not something I foresee happening, but if it did happen I probably would accept the award, while doing what I can to talk about these issues and using the prize money to fund projects fighting for a sustainable future. I am a big supporter of the award, it's just BP's sponsorship that I object to. As long as I, or my work, do not offer BP good PR, I see no problem with this position.

Have prizes like these helped to raise your profile?

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.

Would artists struggle to earn a living without awards of this nature?

Artists struggle to earn a living at the best of times. Awards are an important way of helping promote new artists and their work. If we refuse sponsorship from oil companies, however, it does not mean such awards will cease to exist. There are other ways of funding such events: other sponsors, government subsidies, a small entry fee. For instance, if each visitor was charged just a pound to enter, it would generate hundreds of thousands of pounds. As an artist, the price of submitting one's work is now £34; the award gets over 2000 submissions. That alone raises around £70,000. It may not be ideal, but there are alternatives to BP.  An advantage of this kind of funding would be that we could re-name it something like the Greenpeace Portrait Award to promote environmental sustainability, and build an association between art and the greater human good.

What's your view of corporate sponsorship in general? is it a good thing?  What do you think companies get out of sponsoring art prizes, like the TS Eliot poetry prize and BP Portrait award?

To answer this question properly it is necessary to give some context. So forgive me if I go on a bit here. Over half of the wealthiest entities on the planet are now corporations. In the US, 90% of all media is owned by just 6 companies. Domestically and internationally, corporations wield an awful lot of power. Over the last century, US and UK case law has dictated that corporations are legally obliged to pursue only the maximisation of profit. Corporate social responsibility, therefore, has, for a long time now, been illegal. It is permitted if it generates good PR which might then translate into higher profits, but it cannot be justified in terms of social welfare.

There are various ways to increase profits—some, such as technological innovation, can benefit us all. But there are many other easier ways firms can increase profits that cause us all great harm. Exploitation of workers is of course one way. Externalising costs is another. So for instance if a wealthy corporation generates huge amounts of pollution, it can use its wealth to lobby the government to repeal regulation that previously required them to clean up this pollution. Though millions might be spent on lobbying, it is far cheaper than protecting the environment. Another harmful way to increase profits is to avoid paying tax. A recent study (by Action Aid) showed that of the top FTSE 100 firms, 98 paid little or no tax. The UK's four biggest banks have, between them, 1,649 tax haven companies. Another study showed that in the US , corporate tax dodging has cost the American people over $42 billion over the past three years (this is just looking at those firms whose records were publicly available; many were not). George Monbiot recently summarised a fascinating psychological study which tells us something about the kind of people that succeed in becoming chief executives of corporations. The results are chilling:

"In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses. They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated. On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact on these criteria they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders. The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for. Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people. Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations."

In a recent study on the state of democracy in the UK, Professor David Beetham concluded:

"Most important, in terms of our ongoing democratic audit of the UK and its principles, these developments reveal a gaping democratic deficit. Instead of the public sphere constituting a separate life domain, with its distinctive values, relationships and ways of operating, it has become an extension of the private market, permeated by the market’s logic and interests. Instead of popular control we have subordination to an oligarchy of the wealthy and economically powerful. Instead of everyone counting for one, we have the easy purchase of political influence and the well-oiled revolving door between government and the corporate sector. In Lindblom’s terms, where democracy at best is a compromise between the power of the vote and the power of business, with government negotiating the interface between the two, the balance has been decisively, and perhaps terminally, tilted in favour of the latter, as government has increasingly become its promotional agent."

In short, then, we are faced with an economic system which demands that the world's most powerful corporations act selfishly, irresponsibly and destructively. With their staggering wealth, the largest firms undermine our democracy while legally destroying our environment: one-dollar-one-vote has replaced one-person-one-vote.  Since the days of Walter Lippmann and Edward Bernays, PR has been perhaps the most potent weapon in the corporate arsenal. Corporate sponsorship is an important and relatively cheap way of cleansing a firm's public image, and restoring its reputation and legitimacy. It seems to me that if we care at all about the values of democracy, and the fates of our children and grandchildren (bearing in mind the imminent devastation of our environment), we ought to do what we can to challenge corporate dominance in our society. Challenging corporate sponsorship, particularly of banks and oil companies, is one way of doing this.

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