Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Did you drive your SUV to that "Down with BP" rally?

As I noted a few days ago, I'm not that interested in delving too deeply into finger pointing or pointless outrage about the spill in the gulf. For reference sake, let me just note quickly that although I believe it was arrogance and incompetence on BP's part that's most directly responsible for the accident and a massive FAIL on the part of the US government (going back to Reagan at least) that permitted them to operate without more serious regulation, I think most of the public outrage about it all now is a bit too convenient and a bit too late. Did you drive your SUV to that "Down with BP" rally?

Don't answer that. It's not a serious question.

I've attended enough protests and rallies and debated issues with angry people enough times to know each and every one of us can justify our personal consumption and/or willing participation even as we wag our fingers at others who can probably rationalize theirs just as convincingly. The truth of the matter is that everyone (anywhere) reading this has oil on their hands. You'd have to live like a hermit without any electricity to truly be blameless in the amount of energy consumed with abandon globally (and yes, especially in the States). So, although I find the "redesign BP's logo contests" [scroll down on that page] humorous, I can't quite agree with the folks demonizing that particularly unfortunate (and yes, perhaps criminally un-careful) company as if before the accident they weren't just as happy to fill up their car at a BP station as they were any other. Such is the nature of many helplessness-fed protests, though. Outrage for outrage's sake with little to no introspection.

Where I find the lack of introspection most bothersome is in the art world (because I gravitate to it for its claim to that very rare self-awareness...usually). reports on how the backlash against BP has entered the hallowed halls of the Tate:
Do corporations even support the arts anymore? Well, one big funder in England is British Petroleum, and if the oil giant might have thought that its good deeds in the realm of arts patronage would gain it any relief from the gusher of bad publicity (and worse) that has come its way during Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, then it was sorely mistaken. Or perhaps BP does benefit in a peculiarly perverse way, as the wrath of protestors that might ordinarily been exercised at the oil company itself is instead aimed squarely at the arts institutions who are recipients of its largess.

In a supreme example of bad timing, Tate Britain held a "summer party" on June 28, 2010, to celebrate 20 years of BP sponsorship, allowing BP executives to mingle with curators and artists at the museum. In a letter to the Guardian, a long list of arts professionals protested the association of Tate with BP, claiming that "the BP logo represents a stain on Tate’s international reputation." Signers of the letter include Hans Haacke, Suzi Gablik, Lucy Lippard, Peter Fend, Maya Ramsay and Helene Aylon.

Here's the gist of that letter in the Guardian:
We represent a cross-section of people from the arts community that believe that the BP logo represents a stain on Tate's international reputation. Many artists are angry that Tate and other national cultural institutions continue to sidestep the issue of oil sponsorship. Little more than a decade ago, tobacco companies were seen as respectable partners for public institutions to gain support from – that is no longer the case. It is our hope that oil and gas will soon be seen in the same light. The public is rapidly coming to recognise that the sponsorship programmes of BP and Shell are means by which attention can be distracted from their impacts on human rights, the environment and the global climate.
Now I don't actually question how upset any of these artists or writers truly are and I know a few of them to be life-long advocates of change. I simply question the convenience of their objections now as opposed to when, for example,
And I'm not suggesting that just because someone was involved with an institution at one point they're forever obligated not to criticize that institution, but the Tate is celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship. It's not like that relationship is new. Indeed, the point at which these objections to oil sponsorship would have had the greatest impact would have been during such events, when they were close to the museum. Of course, that would have been boorish, but it would have certainly gotten their point across.

Labels: art museums, politics, protests


Blogger George said...

Well put Ed.

6/30/2010 10:28:00 AM  
Blogger joy said...

hi Ed, good points. I figure there are different ways to look at institutional sponsorship. For instance, another way to look at it would be that these major corporations should be giving back in some way. Sponsoring arts programming is one way for them to do so. But in accepting their funding do we really become complicit in their various imbecilities and downright evils? (And tell me, why would government sponsorship represent less of a taint?!) As you point out, aren't we already complicit anyway?

interesting is how this brings up the issue of false 'purity'... the desire to be untainted looms as a much bigger problem than accepting our own complicity...

6/30/2010 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an engineer, I recognize something that isn't fully appreciated in the political situation - as this is the first sort of accident of this kind, people are quick to condemn BP as incompetent and the government as having multiple failures. And while that is true, it is only apprent looking back in time.

If we had insisted on multiple scenario plannings in case of multiple failures, as was the case, it is likely that it would have been much different that what happened simply because "we didn't know what we didn't know."

If there is guilt of anything it is the Hubris we typically display in attempting to do things we have never done before. The Myth of Icarus really hits home since this appears to be central to the human condition, especially with technology. If you laugh at him - what would you have him do?

Have we become so insulated from reality, duped by our institutions and catered to, that we cannot emotionally deal when (large) mistakes happen? Are we willing to let the possibility of failure bar us from striving for success?

Life is risk, and while we need to handle these things better, and insure better against disasters, and hold people responsible when things go wrong, I view the BP situation as primarily a failure due to ignorance and hubris rather than simple incompetence.

6/30/2010 01:11:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I would agree with your basic sentiment that hindsight is what most folks are relying on here for judgment (me included), but I will note that when BP's written contingency plans for handling a potential disaster in the Gulf of Mexico include passages on how to protect and/or deal with walruses (obviously simply cut and pasted out of a contingency plan for the Arctic) [cite]...then competency is obviously an issue here as well.

6/30/2010 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What Happened on the Transocean Deepwater Horizon Rig , I have seen happen on a micro scale many times before. It's that ramrod get the job done, FUCK IT attidude. Bad stuff happens.
BP was running the rig and were way behind schedule.

6/30/2010 01:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

You heard this a thousand times:
This catastrophy is an opportunity to rethink all our needs of energical ressources and their impact on our environment. This event might have political impact of historical proportions.

What's depressing are those recent statistics results (suspiciously from the UK) claiming that petrol is not likely to be replaced by electricity for cars to efficient degrees. I thought electro-magnetism was the future.

I have the original version of Popular Soviet Folk Songs by Zoviet-France, and it's a porcelain box that comes with a small american-USSR hybrid flag soaked in petrol, and a radioactive bird feather (for real). I love it! For a piece of 1980's subculture, it puts your face right there in the problems.
(gosh, I probably developed cancer because of it)

Cedric C

6/30/2010 04:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...


Argh, the petroleum tissue is from another release. The ceramic (not porcelain) box I was referring to has a flag soaked in oil that fuels the Sellafield nuclear plant (while the feather came from the Beach Incident of said Sellafield site in 1983). It's nearly the same, but the other with petrol smells much more strong.

Where was I going with this? Ah yes: when you bring the environment up to your nose in art, you don't need to have discussions or protests about things. Some issues bypass protest by self-evidence. The BP disaster is all no-talk, self-evidence. Foraging in seas, it doesn't seem it will ever be safe. Not with the deepest wells, not with the thickest tubes: it's an environmental time bomb.

Could it be possible we try to live again like in the 1890's? (the GAY years?)


6/30/2010 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Good post, Ed.
And what about support for the arts by Philip Morris, now Altria, here? Lung, throat, mouth and tongue cancer doesn't provide TV-news drama on such a large scale and the smokers did pick up the cigarettes themselves,a debatable issue because of the extra nicotine pumped into the tobacco), but the effects are still quite deadly.

6/30/2010 05:47:00 PM  
Anonymous An artist said...

I agree with you (and I don't even own a car). There is oil heat in my building, fossil fuels are used to make almost everything I own. And those fuels have to come from somewhere. Should we get them from Saudi Arabia, where women are beaten for not wearing headscarves? Or the gulf, where they may damage already fragile ecosystems?

Those who do the latter are certainly responsible when their negligence causes a disaster such as this. But they're not the most culpable. They are giving us what we want, and due to lack of current alternatives - what we need.

Turning down money from BP, is that a way to make yourself feel less complicit?

We've been at war in Iraq for 7 years - a war most artists like myself opposed - and have caused countless damage and casualties. We've tortured innocent people with impunity in secret prisons worldwide. Should we turn down government funding for the arts? I'd like the artists who benefited from this regime to return their Guggenheims and their NEA's. Not so fast you say?

Alright then, what about the foundations? They are there for the good of all, untainted by either government or corporate malfeasance. But where did they get their money, all those endowments? Oil, gas, diamonds, the military-industrial complex, labor-law flouting business interests, and if it's really old money - slavery. I could list more but I think I've made my point.

If you live in the 21st century, you are no more nor less culpable for the state of the world than any other individual. You can sign pointless petitions and feel morally superior. Or you can go ahead and take that dirty money (everyone's money) and use it to make art and change. At least that would put it to good use.

7/01/2010 01:23:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I'm not familiar with the others, but Gablik and Lippard have made their careers out of taking up politically convenient positions. This latest example may be hollow and ineffectual, but it is in character.

7/01/2010 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Sometimes (often) you accept to participate in a festival and the sponsors haven't been decided yet.
I wonder how many artists cringe when they see a sponsor they don't like, but then think "what the hell..." because there is a limit to self-sabotaging your career.

Cedric C

7/01/2010 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger isabelle said...

Point taken that we are all somewhat guilty, since we all use fossil fuel to a large degree to power our lifestyle.
However, in all these degrees of evil, the fact remains that BP has by far more safety violations than any other oil company.
I also cannot begrudge someone protesting the sponsor of an institution that one has worked with, even if said sponsor has been around for 20 years.
Our modern society is very complicated, and a lot of unsavory dependencies are hard to track. Besides, I don't have time to double-check every one I have business dealings with; yet I don't think that makes me a hyprocrite if I am made aware of unethical behavior from previous partners, and I decide to boycott them.

7/04/2010 04:41:00 PM  

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