Over the past week we’ve published chapter by chapter the text from our new report ‘Picture This’ against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait Award.
Below is the final chapter, ‘Picturing the Future’, brilliantly and calmly reasoned by artist Raoul Martinez. Raoul has been 3-times shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award and has spoken out about this issue many times.
Within the whole report, we’ve presented The Past we don’t want – BP’s horrendous track record. Then we shared The Present that is a daily health and environmental nightmare for those living in or along the Gulf of Mexico. Now Raoul asks us, What Future do we want? And what part does art’s relationship with big oil have to play in hindering or bringing on that future?
Picturing the Future
The facts are plain: scientists have been warning for decades, with uncharacteristic alarm, of impending environmental catastrophe. Over the same period, academics and journalists have repeatedly exposed the active role that fossil fuel companies have played in attempting to discredit climate science and prevent any meaningful response to it. Against this backdrop I have always felt deeply uncomfortable with having my work associated with one of the world’s leading fossil fuel companies.
My portraits have been selected three times to appear in the BP Portrait Award. I remember having to think carefully through the implications, before first submitting a painting to the competition. The National Portrait Gallery has always been a favourite of mine, housing great works from artistic luminaries such as John Singer Sargent, and the portrait award itself has always been a great showcase for contemporary artists. But it seemed ethically problematic to include my work in an exhibition sponsored by BP.
Ultimately, I decided that a personal boycott by a young and unknown artist would go completely unnoticed and serve no practical end. If my work was selected, I reasoned, at least I could voice my opposition to the sponsorship, and perhaps that criticism would hold a bit more weight coming from someone who’d already been selected. As it turned out, this was a good call. Due to the valuable work of Platform, I have been able to voice this opposition through numerous media outlets. I’ve discussed and debated the problems surrounding fossil-fuel sponsorship on Channel 4 News,i the BBC World Service, Time magazine, Dutch television, and in a number of articles and interviews.
Whenever I discuss the issue I make the following argument: once we ask the question ‘Who should be allowed to fund our cultural institutions?’ it becomes clear that unless we’re willing to accept the sponsorship of fascist groups and foreign dictators, we clearly believe a line must be drawn somewhere. So the issue is not whether we draw a line, but where we draw it.
In the case of fossil fuel companies, there is an extremely persuasive case for placing them on the wrong side of that line: they have been, and remain, one of the most powerful obstacles to addressing the most serious threat our species has ever faced. Every year hundreds of millions of dollars (one estimate puts the figure at almost half a billion dollarsii) are spent on lobbyists, think tanks, advertising, party funding, and public relations (of which arts sponsorship is one part) to convince the public that climate change either doesn’t exist, doesn’t really matter, or will just be too expensive to solve – take a look at the remarkable book ‘Merchants of Doubt’.iii
This sabotage should be regarded as a crime against humanity on a par with genocide. Of course the motive is profit, not human devastation. But the outcomes produced may well be equivalent, and have long been predictable. And to the person who dies of starvation, drought, drowning, or resource wars, it is little consolation to hear that environmental catastrophe and the human suffering it produces was never the primary goal of the fossil fuel industry, but merely collateral damage in the pursuit of profit.
Choosing to accelerate and deepen our climate problems is, as Rebecca Solnit recently pointed out, an act of violence, and the scale of this violence may eclipse anything that occurred in the twentieth century.iv I wish this were a gross exaggeration, but once you bypass the persistent distortions of the corporate media and listen to what the scientific community is telling us, it becomes painfully clear that it is not.
One way of deflecting the criticism of environmentalists has been to point out that we all depend on oil, eco-activists included. And of course it’s true that as a society we are currently heavily dependent on fossil fuel. Since Thomas Newcomen’s invention of the steam engine, we have transformed the face of this planet with machines powered by coal, oil and gas. The comforts and wealth we enjoy today owe their existence, in large part, to the discovery and utilisation of fossil fuel. But to concede this in no way undermines the case for changing the system. A few centuries ago there were more enslaved people on this planet than non-enslaved. Almost every product consumed, and much of the wealth of the British Empire, owed its existence, directly or indirectly, to enslavement or indentured labour (slavery by another name). In various ways, many of the abolitionists fighting to end slavery would have been beneficiaries of this wealth, but that did not undermine their argument that the system should be replaced.
Just as small groups of concerned women and men once fought to end the institutional violence that was slavery, environmentalists today seek to abolish and replace the institutional violence that is the fossil fuel industry. It should be noted that this violence also has a distinct racist dimension to it, for it is the Global South, who bear far less responsibility than the Global North for our ecological crisis, that is likely to be most affected and least prepared for the calamitous consequences of climate change. To provide legitimacy to fossil fuel companies through sponsorship deals is to place yourself categorically on the wrong side of history.
So what does all this mean for the cultural institutions desperately seeking funding? First of all, let’s be clear, the amounts our cultural institutions are receiving, as a proportion of their total budgets, are paltry. According to research by Platform, if BP’s sponsorship money was allocated equally over time across the four institutions with whom whom it announced a new sponsorship deal in 2011, BP money represents only 2.9 per cent of the National Portrait Gallery’s total income – the figure is even lower for the other organisations: under one per cent for the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the Tate.v In return for these small percentage points, our cultural institutions are providing an invaluable source of legitimacy for companies like BP and Shell.
This is a shameful act. Artists, and the institutions that support them, should be at the cutting edge of critiquing the worst aspects of our society and moving us toward a humane and ecologically sustainable transition. An institution like the NPG should seek to replace the 2.9 per cent of dirty money it receives with alternative sources of funding. They could approach other companies less complicit in bringing about precipitous environmental collapse, hold fund-raising events, pressure the state for more investment, cut back their activities, even sell off some art works if necessary (or a combination of all of these things)—whatever it takes to stop providing a veneer of legitimacy to one of the world’s most destructive and morally inexcusable industries.
Art is ultimately a form of communication. But the wider context of a piece of art, the conditions under which it is made, its purpose, and the setting in which it is presented, cannot be separated from that which it communicates. I fear that the acquiescence of the art world to destructive corporate interests drowns out the message of the art for which it provides a public platform. I realised long ago that, as a painter, offering legitimacy to fossil fuel corporations is a far more significant statement than anything that might be communicated by an exhibition. Valuable creative expression is not limited to the traditional artistic formats. Every choice is inherently creative. If our cultural institutions took a principled stand on this urgent issue it would, in and of itself, be a beautiful creative act, certainly as valuable as any painting or performance they might showcase.
We are living through extraordinary times. The influence of our dominant economic and political paradigms is slowly being eroded. Welcome as this is, this process desperately needs to speed up. The kind of change that we need to bring about will require people from all walks of life, in all kinds of situations, to defy the professional obligations and expectations that too often tame and dehumanise us, and remember the more fundamental obligations that we have to each other, future generations, and the planet that sustains us all.
Solutions to our pressing problems do exist. Much work has already been done: it is clear that in the short term we need a Green New Deal that will channel massive amounts of investment into green energy, and energy efficiency. We also need a worldwide cap on carbon, and we need it fast. And in the longer term we need to ditch the unsustainable growth imperative at the heart of our system, and make a careful transition to what’s known as a ‘steady state economy’, one that tries to maximise quality of life, not quantity of things, working within the limits of Earth’s ecological boundaries.
In short, the problem is not the lack of viable alternatives, but the lack of power to implement them. In order to shift the balance of power, we can no longer afford to provide those opposing this change the legitimacy that comes with being associated with our nation’s most respected cultural institutions. We can no longer allow the celebration of human creativity to provide cover for environmental destruction.
i ‘BP protest: ‘Tate should come clean about dirty oil money’,’ Channel 4 News, 20 April 2011. https://www.channel4.com/news/bp-protest-tate-should-come-clean-about-dirty-oil-money
ii ‘The Burning Question,’ Tim Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke, (London: Profile Books, 2013), p.173.
iii ‘Merchants of Doubt, How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to climate change,’ Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway https://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/
iv ‘Call climate change what it is: violence.’ Rebecca Solnit, Guardian, 7 April 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/07/climate-change-violence-occupy-earth
v ‘Culture Clash – Arts & Oil Money,’ Platform, 26 April 2014. https://platformlondon.org/p-publications/artoilinfographic/