September 6, 2010

You Say You Want a Revolution

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If there’s one image synonymous with the gulf oil spill, it’s not the green and yellow BP logo. Not a bumbling Tony Hayward. Not even the deserted beaches. It’s the birds, their feathers dark and shiny with oil.

This presumably was the image demonstrators tried to recreate when they threw an oil-like substance and feathers on the entrance to London’s Tate Britain, protesting the museum’s acceptance of BP sponsorship. But the protesters were evoking another image as well, this one particularly popular in pre-Revolutionary America to target British sympathizers and tax collectors: tarring and feathering.

A war and many feathers later, America was born. America: Land of the free with its freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of religion.

And yes, the free market. The same market where inadequate government funding forces the arts community — be it in Britain, America or elsewhere — to seek corporate sponsorship. The same market, moreover, where the arts community cannot be picky about what corporate sponsorships they accept, especially during an economic recession. The same market where companies like BP sometimes bypass safety regulations to make bigger profits, spawning the chain of events that led to the Deep Horizon oil spill tragedy.

In an open letter to the museum, over 170 artists called on Tate to decline BP sponsorship and argued, “These relationships enable big oil companies to mask the environmentally destructive nature of their activities with the social legitimacy that is associated with such high-profile cultural associations.”

We have every reason to be mad at the Tate but not for “legitimizing” BP. Obviously, no one was fooled. No one went running out to buy BP gas because they sponsor Tate. No one salvaged BP’s image by recalling its sponsorship of the Tate. To claim the Tate “legitimizes” BP is absurd. Instead, we should take issue with Tate for not illuminating the deeper fear behind the letter and the protest: our own guilt and unease with art’s undefined role in an unregulated, free-enterprise economy.

As much as we value art for its apparent “social legitimacy,” we let it face funding cut after funding cut. We like to think our culture, art and morals are somehow “above” economic considerations, that they somehow remain untarnished by the marketplace. Indeed, we like to think art has so much “social legitimacy” that it can even save the floundering BP.

We are not innocent in the funding cuts that have befallen the art world. Nor are we innocent in the Deep Horizon oil spill tragedy. During an era of unregulated economics, companies like BP were subject to little oversight and took dangerous shortcuts to get ahead. We let it happen. We could have demanded more regulation, more accountability, more oversight. We did not. It’s not the Tate’s job to regulate BP or to morally condone it. It’s ours.

The Tate is the scapegoat for our own guilt and fear. It is the tarred and feathered tax collector. It is not the British regime ultimately responsible for the taxation, just a symbol for it. To some extent, BP is also our scapegoat. While we should condone BP for the oil spill and the practices that lead to it, the larger issue is not BP. It is all oil companies, all methods of oversight and all environmental regulations. There is no doubt that BP is guilty of one of the worst environmental disasters in history as well as the resulting loss of lives and of livelihoods. BP is unmistakably, irrevocably guilty. So are we. And, in a different way, so is the Tate.

As a leader in the arts community, the Tate has an obligation to expose issues, question them and propose solutions. From court patronage to corporate sponsorship, arts funding has evolved with the times. Now, the Tate has an opportunity to play a key role in this evolution, to fundamentally redefine the relationship between art and economics. It would be tragic if the Tate didn’t seize this opportunity to make an artistic statement about the status of art in a free market society. It would be tragic if the Tate were tarred and feathered rather than the policy choices that got them there.

BP has already destroyed the environment. Let’s hope the Tate doesn’t go down with it. It’s time for a revolution in how we fund the arts.

Original Author: Emily Greenberg