Ignore the protests against BP at the Tate. Oil and art get along fine
Ignoren las protestas contra BP y la Galería Tate. El Petróleo y el arte se llevan bienUnited Kingdom
Anti-BP protesters at the Tate Britain failed to see that industrial riches have always been partner to artistic endeavour, says Stephen Bayley.
Like oil, art is a dirty and dangerous business. Each offers big rewards for big risks and tends to attract headstrong individuals who feel beyond the law. Artists and extractors operate outside social norms, at strange hours in obscure places. Oil and art can make us feel guilty and uncomfortable, but we have a reckless appetite for consuming both. They get along just fine.
And oil and art came together in a clumsily choreographed pageant of comic absurdity this week at Tate Britain's Summer Party. A group of spittle-flecked wing-nut demonstrators poured oil down the gallery's steps as a "protest" against BP's financial support of the gallery. A hi-vis mop-up army immediately replicated the Louisiana shore in Pimlico, but cleared up to better effect. The party continued.
That anyone should express outrage at BP's involvement with the Tate is evidence of cringe-making naivety, not to say burping, thigh-slapping and howling ignorance. Artists have always gone where the money is. You either have the Holy See or you have BP. Art and ethics do not have a straightforward relationship, they have a grubbily convoluted one: the great art of the Renaissance was paid for by usury, vice and corruption. Pope Alexander VI was the father of Cesare Borgia, a poisoner, sadist, sexual deviant, intriguer and mercenary syphilitic. The Borgias created the culture in which Bramante and Michelangelo flourished.
Great art has always been involved with great fortunes: it was only a temporary distortion of history, a hangover from the Romantic idea that artists need be poor and tormented, that insisted art must be uncontaminated by trade. Patronage may well be a non-negotiable part of artistic activity. For a while, this principle was blurred when the interventionist economist J M Keynes helped found the Arts Council after the Second World War. Keynes simply made the state a patron. Do the oily protesters advocate refusal of the Arts Council's "government" money supporting the Tate because the same government money funded an illegal war in Iraq and a tragic war in Afghanistan? Of course they don't.
Any inflated posturing about the relationship of art to ethics and to money is bound to end in an embarrassing collision of principles. Teeth-rotting sugar, mother's ruin booze and blood diamonds have funded great galleries around the world. Profits from the slaves' torment of the Middle Passage made Liverpool and Bristol great cities of art. The Guggenheims became philanthropists only after polluting Philadelphia and running some mining interests that would, perhaps, today be criminal. Never mind if commissioning Frank Lloyd Wright was an after-the-event expiation of corporate sins, New York's Guggenheim Museum is a benefit to us all.
My favourite example of ethically muddled arts sponsorship? United Technologies of Hartford, Connecticut, produces the Sikorsky Blackhawk UH-60M Direct Action Perpetrator military helicopter. With its M134D Gatling gun (firing up to 6,000 rounds per minute) and its classy Hellfire ("fire and forget") missiles and 30mm automatic cannon, it is chewing up insurgents in a desert somewhere near you as we speak. The same United Technologies also has a splendid record of supporting exhibitions at the Tate – rather nicely of genteel landscape.
Throughout the Twenties, The Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by Henry Ford, frequently published articles about the menace of "The International Jew". Ford sponsored the vicious, spurious and anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The same Ford also mobilised poor Americans with his Model-T, paid his workers with fabulous generosity and commissioned the Communist Mexican painter Diego Rivera to create epic murals about the proletariat's struggles in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Right now, London's Frieze Art Fair is one of the most successful art fairs in the world. It's the creation of Matthew Slotover, whose parents, full declaration, are friends of mine. And Jewish. Slotover, more sensible than the howling pack who emptied their sump of resentment over the Tate, is quite comfortable that the Frieze Art Fair is sponsored by Deutsche Bank which, in 1999 agreed to contribute to a fund of several billion pounds for Holocaust survivors who could still remember that it financed IG Farben, producer of Zyklon-B, the murderous gas used in Auschwitz.
Another Frieze sponsor is BMW, whose owners made their fortune from producing the batteries that powered U-boats and the V2 missile that pounded London. BMW is also sponsoring our bomb-site Olympics. We move on.
I learnt a little about sponsorship and its conflicts while building London's Design Museum during the Eighties. In those days, there were only two sources of charitable support that no one would go near. One was a Japanese war criminal and the other was Dow Chemical, best known for the production of the naphthemic and palmitic acid compound known as napalm. That and Agent Orange, the very effective Vietnam-era defoliant.
In the end, we were sponsored by Fiat, whose engines powered the Regia Aeronautica planes that shot up the British in Libya in 1940. Perhaps because the Design Museum rejected its support, Dow (which bought Union "Bhopal" Carbide) has been keen to involve itself in clean- water initiatives in India.
These are not so much conflicts as inevitabilities. And they arise not from any disingenuousness of clients nor from any cynical opportunism by patrons, rather from the confused nature of our understanding of "art" in the contemporary world. An art that requires to be institutionalised and displayed in expensive galleries is inevitably going to cost someone a lot of money.
And if it is BP's money rather than ours, then that's to our common good. As to accusations of suborning or coercion, you do have to ask if BP, with its record of catastrophically inept media relations, is actually bright enough to realise that any occult value might derive from having its greenwash logo attached to a polite bit of British art.
And while I am not the person to exonerate a dirty and dangerous energy company, who has the methodology to calculate whether an oil spill causes more damage to civilisation than mendacious and greedy bankers? Perhaps the misery caused by the wicked speculations of Lehman Brothers was, in the long run, more injurious to human dignity and well-being than a dirty-and-dangerous oil platform. Lehman Brothers supported the Lincoln Center, the American Ballet School and Kathleen, wife of the notorious CEO Richard Fuld, was vice-chair of the Museum of Modern Art.
In the long run we are all dead, declared Keynes. In the meantime, let's do what we can with what we have got. Frieze Art Fair is a very good thing, even if Deutsche Bank funded the Gestapo. Tate Britain is a very good thing, which is made even better by oil money, although we do all wish BP were a little more fastidious about its day job. Only a peevish hypocrite would deny these things.
As I left Tate Britain and picked my way over the sluicing mops and buckets, I remembered something the great Italian designer Ettore Sottsass Junior said about sponsorship: "Industry should not have to buy culture, because industry is culture." By happy accident, this is also proved right now in Tate Britain where Fiona Banner has presented two military aircraft as sculpture. They are so thrillingly beautiful and morphologically complicated they humble the flabby, expressive crudities of Anish Kapoor.
So, with this epiphany of admiration for machines, Tate Britain has now discovered what design zealots have been saying for 30 years: art does not stop at the gallery's steps. It's out here. Leaving the mops behind, I looked up at an Airbus A319 arcing gracefully through the sky on final approach to City Airport, no doubt burning its last few pounds of BP Avgas on its descent.
If we began to appreciate how beautiful the everyday world is, we would no longer need to "buy" art. And that would, actually, be the end of the problem. Until the protesters move into the airport.
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