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June 15 2011

Climate activists target BP Portrait Award

Protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery showing the impact of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

Climate activists on Tuesday night targeted the BP Portrait Award ceremony in protest against sponsorship from the oil giant.

Demonstrators claimed BP was using the arts in an attempt to divert attention away from its impact on the environment.

But the National Portrait Gallery said the support of the global company was beneficial to artists.

The protesters displayed a collection of portraits outside the gallery that showed the impact of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

One of the pictures, entitled First Splash Since Spill, pictured a child playing in oil-covered water in Louisiana after being told it was safe.

The artist, Beverly Curole, said: "I captured Max, my grandson, on the first day the beach was opened and supposedly safe.

"Max was so excited he jumped in the water and made a huge splash. I then noticed flecks of oil at the tide line and knew something was wrong.

Some 14 portraits from the US Gulf Coast were submitted for tonight's award by campaign group Facing the Gulf.

Despite none of them being selected by the judges, the organiser Nancy Boulicault hoped they would force the gallery to look again at its link with BP.

She said: "We think the National Portrait Gallery needs to start asking themselves some questions about this relationship, in the same way as the people of the Gulf have had to ask themselves very serious questions."

She went on to say that the artists had some sympathy with the gallery.

"They understand the complications that come when oil becomes part of your life, because it's part of their lives.

"But what became quite important to everyone is the fact that we need another vision without oil in our lives.

"Our cultural institutions are about trying to create another vision, but when they are in bed with oil it's very hard for us to find that vision through our arts."

Facing the Gulf and direct action group London Rising Tide invited Sandy Nairne, the gallery's director, to view the alternative exhibition ahead of tonight's ceremony but said he declined.

A spokesman for the gallery said: "The National Portrait Gallery, while principally supported by grant-in-aid from government, is pleased to work with a wide range of companies in support of its exhibitions and displays.

"The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 22nd year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 09 2010

Deepwater Horizon from the air

In the three months before the Deepwater Horizon well was capped, almost 5m barrels of oil gushed into the pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Flying high above was award-winning photographer Edward Burtynsky who has spent 30 years capturing the impact of our exploitation of the natural world

It's high noon in New Orleans, and the heat feels like a blast furnace. We are taxiing for takeoff in a tiny Cessna 185 seaplane. Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky is up front with the gear, beside the pilot; I'm tucked in behind. Looking out the window as the engine's roar approaches full throttle, we see two snow-white egrets taking flight, flapping their wings lazily, heading out to the marshes. As we lift up, the air cools and we wheel above storage yards filled with miles of neatly stacked gas pipe. Higher now, we glimpse the profiles of the refineries that dot the horizon. Soon the wetlands are opening up beneath us – not the shallow fringe one might imagine, but the broad brow of the Mississippi river delta, which stretches out for half an hour as we fly south to the Gulf of Mexico. The marsh is a vast web of life – fragile, verdant, delicate as old lace.

I am here to watch Burtynsky photograph the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 50 miles off the Louisiana shore, 100 miles from where we are now. For 30 years, Burtynsky has made it his practice to record, in large colour prints, the human imprint on the natural world, photographing mines and quarries and railway cuts and, more recently, the impact of oil extraction and use around the world, from the freeways of Los Angeles to the shipbreaking deltas of Bangladesh and the oil fields of Alberta and Azerbaijan.

We love oil, and oil is killing us. "Like all animals, human beings have always taken what they want from nature," Burtynsky tells me before our flight. "But we are the rogue species. We are unique in our ability to use resources on a scale and at a speed that our fellow species can't." Greed, he said – the rampant pursuit of comfort, ease and sensory gratification – is part of our primal nature. But mankind is also endowed with reason. Which side will prevail?

Along the way, Burtynsky has attracted numerous accolades – from the inaugural TED Prize in 2005 to the ICP Infinity Award and an appointment to the Order of Canada. His photography books, like his landmark volume on oil and his study of contemporary industrial China, are among the most luxurious books being produced by any living artist. A touring show that debuted last year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC was a career highlight. But all this isn't making Burtynsky any less itchy to get down to work.

He has flipped open the aeroplane's side window now and has started shooting – leaning out the aperture with his Hasselblad, his shirttails flapping inside the cabin. I know what he has his eye on: the arbitrary, man-made lines that traverse the wetlands, some of which indicate the presence of under- water pipelines, others dredged to add fresh river water to the delta's saline mix, stabilising the ecosystem altered by the levees. Already we are looking at a landscape heavily mediated by man. But there is no sign yet of the oil we are looking for.

As our Cessna's shadow crosses the last of the vegetation, though, we see a few of the outermost islands with their dark oily wreaths, the first to succumb. Further out, passages of dark ochre begin to be visible beneath the surface of the ocean, rusty menstrual streaks that could at first be misconstrued as mud of a darker shade. But as we continue, these stains intensify, and when I borrow the polarising filter that Burtynsky offers me, the true horror snaps into focus: a striated underwater mess that deepens and thickens the farther south we travel.

"When you think about it, oil is just past life, compressed and condensed," Burtynsky had said to me earlier that morning, philosophising over a plate of scrambled eggs in a diner near the Ninth Ward. "But here it got out of control. It's Pandora's box."

Drilling deep, drilling dumb, we have unleashed a monster. Burtynsky described a conversation he'd had with Greg Baiden, a professor of mining engineering at Laurentian University, about how human development had been fundamentally altered and accelerated by the advent of drilling – for water, for minerals and for oil – expanding our capacities exponentially. It may be our most quintessential human endeavour.

We talked, too, about the paradox of Burtynsky shooting environmental catastrophes while flying around in aeroplanes and driving in cars, and using toxic chemicals in the photo-processing lab he owns in Toronto. We are in the grip of "collective cognitive dissonance", he said, making excuses and engaging in "myside bias" to appease our guilt. He's planning to buy more land to protect some Ontario forest, in an effort to offset the carbon footprint of his peripatetic lifestyle, but it doesn't really solve the problem. Like the rest of us, he's enmeshed in these conundrums.

Burtynsky directs my gaze to a tiny orange dot on the horizon. It's the site, and as we approach it over the next 15 minutes, the spot grows larger, revealing itself finally as the twin flames of two emergency vessels, torching methane from their sides in giant saffron flares, a haze of smoke floating upwards. Other ships are spraying dramatic arcs of water to cool down the fiery pipes, preventing them from melting. Around them is scattered a ragtag flotilla of coast guard and oil-industry vessels, some of them spewing dispersant from their flanks.

At first it looks like a scattering of children's toys over an expanse of blue carpet, but as we move closer it takes on the look of chaos, a solution held together with Band-Aids and desperation. The sea now bears the surface sheen of a rainbow slick, stretching towards us in a wide fan from above the wellhead. The day before, an undersea robotic device had dislodged the cap on the well, releasing more than 1m gallons of crude before it could be refitted. Our timing has turned out to be tragically auspicious.

"The dark water of the true gulf is the greatest healer that there is," Hemingway wrote, describing how the old fisherman, exhausted from his struggle with the giant marlin, trailed his torn and bloodied hands in the ocean to soothe his cuts. Overcoming this injury, though, will not be so easy.

No television camera could really help us to appreciate the magnificence and scale of these marshes and the pristine, sparkling Gulf of Mexico, upon which hundreds of drilling platforms now sit like waterbugs, scattered as far as the eye can see. One can't register the scale of the catastrophe without first taking the measure of the innocence and beauty of what has been lost. Burtynsky's pictures help us to feel that.

This can't be fixed. We can only hope that, finally, it can be understood. This is the miracle planet as we have blunderingly defaced it. Here, looking long, we see our writing on the wall.

To see more of Edward Burtynsky's work go to © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Deepwater Horizon: Drilling deep, drilling dumb

Award-winning photographer Ed Burtynsky's has spent 30 years studying the effects of oil on our lives. Here, we show his extraordinary images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill

July 02 2010

Can Tate afford BP?

The oil company might give generously to arts organisations, but Tate and other museums must live up to their ethical commitments. It's time to ditch this tainted sponsor

Jonathan Jones has some simple words of advice for national artistic institutions currently feeling the financial squeeze: "If they can get money from Satan himself, they should take it." The phrase is deliberately provocative, but succeeds in reaching the heart of the debate over BP's sponsorship of the arts. The argument is straightforward enough – it's time to batten down the hatches and ignore the storm of protest, because without organisations such as BP the arts might simply cease to exist.

Responding to Jones yesterday, the artist John Jordan suggested one problem with this approach: that art risks selling its soul. BP's money is tainted, and it is hard to see how the company's reputation won't have a long-term impact on those who accept it. The spill in the Gulf of Mexico is the environmental scandal of the decade, but it won't be the last. And as BP strives to extract the last drops of oil from ever more remote regions of the planet, a whole new kind of reputational risk begins to emerge. Shocking images of oil-soaked pelicans will not be around for ever, but the consequences of climate change will be with us for the rest of the century.

Tate director Nicholas Serota needs to consider this risk carefully. Does his institution want to be associated with one of the world's biggest single sources of pollution? One that has actively lobbied to undermine clean energy, pouring huge sums into industry groups that campaign to lower carbon taxes and weaken climate legislation? BP's alternative energy business is a plaything of former boss Lord Browne that has been consigned to the corporate rubbish tip. For these reasons and others, BP is certain to remain the focus of environmental resistance and public anger for years to come. Similarly, those who choose to lend the company an air of acceptability by receiving corporate sponsorship will continue to be seen as legitimate targets for protest around the world. This movement is still in its infancy, but will only gather in strength.

The second problem simply concerns credibility. The Tate website proudly proclaims its ethical policy, announcing that it will not accept funds from a donor who has "acted, or is believed to have acted, illegally in the acquisition of funds". As lawmakers on Capitol Hill put the final touches to a series of massive lawsuits, and criminal prosecutions loom on the horizon, it is hard to find a single individual who claims that BP has acted in compliance with the law. Far more compelling, though, is the Tate's stated ambition to demonstrate "leadership in response to climate change". If ever there were a moment to show such leadership, this is surely it. Tate has a unique opportunity to demonstrate that one of the UK's most progressive institutions is prepared to take meaningful steps to show its opposition to carbon-intensive industry. Currently, it refuses to even acknowledge BP's record as an issue, relying instead on bland statements that mention only the longevity of BP's financial support. There is clearly a disconnect, and behind closed doors there must be real uneasiness in the boardroom – not to mention the membership.

The issue here is not sponsorship per se, but choices. Over the past few days a number of commentators have pointed out that tobacco companies are now seen as an unacceptable partner for any self-respecting artistic body, but for some reason oil companies are still welcome to the private view. This comes despite human rights abuses, refinery explosions, the destruction of entire ecosystems, and political interference on a historic scale. You have to wonder why. Sure, BP probably offers slightly more money than the other companies vying for the sponsorship deal. They probably don't interfere too much, either (some might say that they know a thing or two about secrecy and discretion). But the fact is that there must be a host of other companies out there who actually fit the existing ethical policy of these organisations, and a relatively small financial hit is surely worth the reputational protection such a deal would provide.

By now you might be asking what all the fuss is about. After all, it's only a small logo on a programme, a discreet thank you at the bottom of the catalogue. Jones says: "I must have seen the BP logo a thousand times on press releases and it never lodged in my mind." But ask any branding expert: it's exactly this kind of subliminal association that gives a brand its identity. Until the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP's green sunflower was found only in carefully selected locations designed to give the company an air of clean, British authority: Covent Garden, the National Portrait awards, a new exhibition at the Tate. These are some of our best loved pastimes, and for BP this feelgood factor is simply priceless. Their executives do not sponsor the arts as a way of "giving something back", or because they truly believe in opera, or painting, or culture. They simply believe in winning political and cultural aquiescence in the ugly business of oil extraction, and the sponsorship deals allow them to do just that. The millions BP spends on our artistic institutions represents an absolute bargain. Unfortunately, it is the rest of society that is being ripped off. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 01 2010

Will BP lead Tate into artistic hell?

Art risks selling its soul if it looks to corporate sponsorship as the only way out of the funding hole

"Go to any Tate museum and the only ideology you will encounter is anti-capitalist," wrote Jonathan Jones on his blog recently. As an artist who has spent the last 20 years working within anti-capitalist movements – and occasionally at the Tate – I wonder which planet Jonathan is living on. It certainly isn't the one that's being fried by a climate catastrophe.

It is difficult to see how Tate – founded, after all, on the money from the slave trade and which shows many artists groomed in the Saatchi stables – can be called an anti-capitalist organisation. Yes, the collection contains pieces from art movements – Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism – that were explicitly against the society of their time. Artists can do what they want once they are dead, because only their objects remain. But it's a different story when a gallery such as Tate commissions "activist art" such as that created by an art collective I co-founded, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii), as Bibi van der Zee reports in today's paper.

"What does BP get for its money?" Jonathan asks. Well, art acts as a great detergent, and being involved with a gallery enables the company to host glitzy events at which it can foster vital relationships with ministers, journalists and foreign dignitaries. Time was, BP would have to host such events in the halls of its Finsbury Circus head office; now, as a headline sponsor for major cultural exhibitions, it gets to use places such as the British Museum, where art openings are transformed into corporate shindigs. More than this, though, corporate sponsorship creates an insidious climate of self-censorship that keeps art trapped in the disease of representation: a tool for preserving the status quo rather than showing us how to live differently. At a time of systemic crisis we should be asking ourselves fundamental questions about the role of art, not just who funds it. It may depend on whether we choose to make art at the service of art, or art at the service of life.

In the end what sponsorship buys, I'd argue, is the assurance that the only anti-capitalist art allowed in the museums is either made by dead artists or is art about politics – representations of protest, pictures of anti-capitalism, not anti-capitalism itself. As art critic Brian Holmes once wrote: "Basically, what I have to say here is simple: when people talk about politics in an artistic frame, they're lying."

Jonathan Jones and others say it would be a disaster for the arts if there was no BP money. Tate has refused a Freedom of Information request on this issue, stating that the information is "commercially sensitive". So no one knows how much money Tate actually receives – but we do know that BP gives £1.5m to 10 major organisations. If you estimate that Tate gets £500,000 (it's a guess, but a fair one), then this is surely a drop in the ocean – as a BP CEO might say – when you consider Tate's £200m income in 2008–09.

If, as Jonathan Jones says, art takes money "from Satan himself" to keep itself going, then art will sell its soul, surrender all moral integrity. Half a millennium ago, the legend of Faust reminded people that this road only leads to one place: hell. If our present culture collaborates in celebrating the burning of fossil fuels, it may lead us to a place with very similar temperatures. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 30 2010

Crude awakening: BP and the Tate

The Tate is under fire for taking BP sponsorship money. Does corporate cash damage the arts — or is it a necessary compromise? We asked leading cultural figures their view

Grayson Perry, artist

I don't know if Louisiana fishermen really care much that BP sponsors the Tate. When I was up for the Turner prize, I joked that I was looking for a sponsor for my dress, and I suggested BAE Systems. I thought it would be funny.

The whole "sponsorship is evil" line is easy to trot out when you're a penniless student with nothing to lose. Corporate sponsorship of the arts is vital. The counter-argument is, does it really "greenwash" them? I think a lot of the time the main motivation is to give their executives and clients a nice jolly and some privileged access. I don't think that when people come out of an exhibition, they think: "Oh, wow, I'm going to buy BP petrol now."

I haven't really had sponsorship before, but for the show I'm working on now I've said right from the start that if we need a sponsor I'm going to play with it. I'm going to incorporate the sponsor into one of the pieces. I'm interested in medieval northern European altarpieces, where quite often the patron would be painted meeting the Virgin, or carved standing at the side of St Peter or whoever; that was part of the deal.

Part of my shtick is that I rebel against the rebels. I find that kneejerk, internet-paranoid-conspiracy thing a bit annoying, so I suppose my devil's advocate side wants to poke them in the eye a bit. I'm understanding of the need for corporate sponsorship.

Mark Ravenhill, playwright

Making art is presenting a gift to the world. Business is the act of making a profit from the world: the two things are in direct contradiction.

I would prefer more public funding. At the moment we have a policy that says the arts are for everybody, but artistic directors spend more and more time talking to people from business. If the arts are for everyone, then the funding should come through taxation.

Relationships with sponsors distort the arts in two ways. Corporate business is keen on community projects, and theatres have often undertaken work they do not have a commitment to – because sponsors want to be seen working with the homeless or another group. They want to be associated with the biggest openings. It makes arts organisations contradictory: one evening they are putting on corporate events, the next, it's a play with refugees.

People want to make art, but then they have to wedge into it a community project and a lavish dinner for 25 bankers. The first three rows on opening night are filled with people who don't want to be there, but have to be seen to be there.

Cornelia Parker, artist

BP has changed dramatically in the past few years; its green credentials have been tarnished and it's seen as the world's worst polluter. The Tate's stock has risen as theirs has declined. Really, they should be sponsoring the Tate to the tune of millions, not thousands, to make up for the free ride they've had.

I'm not opposed to sponsorship; it can be complex, but complexity can be interesting. Public funding can have strings attached, too, and you have to tick all sorts of boxes. Your creative freedom goes out the window.

I have used sponsors – like the British Army, at a time when they were unpopular after the first Gulf war. It was part of the challenge of the work.

John Browne, former CEO, BP

I didn't start any sponsorship partnerships, but during my time at BP it became more focused. The major sponsorships were for the Royal Opera House, helping the Tate show new work, and with the British Museum. It's a way for companies to demonstrate they are alive and not just an entity working to extract profit. It's also cheaper than sport.

In America, sponsors might sit on the board; in the UK, that's not the case. They are public appointments. Tickets and free access are very, very small.

I am on the board of the Tate and was a trustee of the British Museum. I have an interest in paintings and drawings of 16th- to 18th-century Venice.

I hope business will pick up the slack in the public sector, and I don't think it has any effect on the type of art created. I'm confident there is a complete separation between sponsorship and content; there is dialogue, but in the end, it is the museums and galleries who decide what goes ahead.

Of the protests, all I would say is, everyone has a right to comment.

Christopher Frayling, former chair, Arts Council England

At the Tate's summer party on Monday evening, I got into an animated conversation with one or two demonstrators. Since the party was celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship, why, I asked, had it taken them 19 years and 364 days to start complaining? The dreadful accident off the coast of Louisiana was one thing, but the wider principle of sponsorship by oil companies in particular, and large corporations in general, is another. Just walk around London today: at the National theatre you have a play sponsored by Shell; at BFI Southbank, there are archive films expensively restored thanks to Mobil; at Covent Garden, the outdoor big-screen relays are sponsored by BP.

Isn't it a good thing that large corporations are giving money to the arts? They don't have to. Tobacco companies and arms manufacturers are no longer seen as respectable partners. But should an organisation turn down money from an airline because one of its aircraft has gone down? Or money from a bank because we don't like it behaving like a casino? Or money from the government because of Iraq?

As the chancellor tightens our belts, there will be a lot more debate about the ethics of sponsorship. It could go either way. Some may even be tempted to ask for a rethink on tobacco, when things get really tough.

As the British Museum's current exhibition of drawings (sponsored by BP) shows, the Florentine Renaissance was deeply dependent on the bankers as patrons, and some of them weren't particularly nice. As Leonardo might well have said, now is not the time to get squeamish.

Lionel Shriver, author

Right now, the arts can't afford to be picky, if they ever have been. Basically, you take the money where you find it. I've always been amazed that corporations sponsor any artistic projects, given the nominal kudos that it accrues. The explanation may be simple: the money involved, to big companies, is chump change. I can't imagine that many more punters are inclined to sign on to Orange's telecom services because they sponsor the Orange prize [which Shriver won in 2005]. Hilariously, in the US, to the degree that Americans are aware of the prize at all, "the Orange" is associated purely with the fruit.

Richard Wentworth, artist

I don't think it's particularly interesting to point the finger at BP. All money is filthy. Put your hands in your pockets and take out a tenner: while you're holding it, it's clean, but something it did yesterday, or what it will do tomorrow – it's all vile. Of course, I have received money, by being an exhibiting artist. I don't have some lovely slush fund. These things are funded by a little bit of private vanity, a bit of corporate dosh, some state help.

The thing is, I do respect people for making a point about it, and I'm not in any sense taking up the extreme other position. But if it wasn't BP, it would be another company. However you feel about them, I don't know that I can proffer a world [where we don't rely on oil companies] until we can, I don't know, start running cars on toilet water.

Liz Forgan, chair, Arts Council England

I think BP is a fantastic funder of the arts. But artists aren't there to be quiet and agree; they should argue and yes, demonstrate – that's creative life.

I think this argument has been transformed in the last decade. I can remember a time when the idea of corporate sponsorship and artistic integrity were considered incompatible. I don't think there's a credible institution in the land that thinks that now.

It's impossible to answer the question whether funding affects the art created, but I think we get the best of both worlds. There's no doubt that if you work closely with a private sponsor, over time you see your output through someone else's eyes. We might not like the vision, but it's good for all of us to see ourselves in an unfamiliar light. It can be destructive, however, and at that point, an artist has to walk away.

John Keane, artist

If artists are doing anything at all inventive or creative, they should be asking difficult questions. The letter [of protest against BP's sponsorship of Tate, published in Monday's Guardian] has helped open up that debate and I was happy to put my name to it.

All of us are compromised, because we all depend on the oil industry, but that resource is finite and we ought to think about what will happen as the supply dwindles. We should get these corporations to ask questions about what they are doing – should they be looking at alternative sources of energy?

One of the arguments is that if BP wasn't the sponsor, it would be another company. No corporation is perfect, but I think it is apposite that BP should be hauled across the coals in this kind of debate. I remember when the BP Portrait award used to be the John Player Portrait award, until sponsorship from a cigarette company was seen to be unacceptable. Will oil companies become unacceptable? It depends if they clean up their act.

David Edgar, playwright and president of the Writers' Guild

Making galleries free was one of the jewels in the crown of Labour's arts policy, but it does make them very dependent on sponsorship. You could fund the arts the European way and massively subsidise it, or do it the American way, which is to rely on private patronage. Britain sits somewhere between the two.

Arts organisations are careful about not taking money from companies that are perceived badly. But I think it's difficult if they are sponsored by companies that are behaving irresponsibly, as BP is. [The protest] is a warning about the dangers of over-reliance on private sponsorship: who you accept money from says something about the way you are.

I was a beneficiary of Travelex's sponsorship of the National theatre (which put on a play of mine, Playing With Fire, in 2005) and their £10 ticket scheme. That has been a terrific initiative, which widened the audience and countered the criticism that even subsidised art is too expensive.

Ian Rickson, director and former artistic director of the Royal Court

The situation is driven by need. Almost all organisations are underfunded and scrabble around for corporate gifts, competing with each other. Some increase their leverage by offering more and more, which means others end up following. If a theatre offers funders attendance in the rehearsal room, for example, it can be difficult to receive money from other donors once this line has been crossed. Fundraising departments have mushroomed. Meanwhile, big companies such as BP can finesse their brand by choosing fashionable cultural connections.

As the oil seeps out and the chief executive goes sailing, those canapes at Tate's party will have tasted a little more bitter. But artists will have benefited from that patronage, which is why it's a complex web of interdependence. If the arts were better funded, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Colin Tweedy, chief executive, Arts and Business

In 1976 our founding chair said: "I don't care where the money comes from - it could be laundered by the Mafia. If it comes to the arts, it's good money."

There's always another needy mouth to feed if the arts don't want the money. And what happened [at the Tate party] was not helpful. Who's to say what's good or bad money? BP is one of the biggest corporation tax payers; so many of our pension funds have BP shares - we are all involved. BP is the most scrupulous of sponsors and they have never infringed; they have sponsored art that is challenging and difficult.

Come the cuts, we are walking into a catastrophe if we don't have private sector sponsorship. Most philanthropy also comes from business people now; it's not the landed gentry anymore.

Every arts organisation has the right to turn down sponsorship. But the question is, how do we go forward when the cuts could be up to 25%? I don't think there's any way we can say the arts scene has been distorted by corporate money; what distorts the arts scene is not having any money. We have to have private, public and earned income.

The money is there [in the private sector], but it won't be given if people don't buck up their ideas. If a company is legally allowed to operate in the UK, they should be allowed to sponsor arts. If people don't like it, they should lobby the government to make the company illegal.

Alistair Spalding, artistic director and chief executive, Sadler's Wells

I think any arts organisation right now, faced with cuts, has an absolute requirement that we have some sort of corporate sponsorship. Unfortunately, it is going to become increasingly important that the income stream is there. If people want there to be a healthy arts field, there has to be some support from the private sector. Sponsors don't interfere. They may not choose to sponsor certain things we are doing, but we give them a choice. If a work may be controversial, you tell them, but some sponsors actually like that cutting-edge nature of it.

We get 11% of our money from the Arts Council, so 89% of it comes from audiences, individuals and corporate support, which is obviously hugely important in order to deliver what we're doing. Then it's a matter of making a decision about who you will and won't deal with. Luckily, we have a list of organisations who are enlightened partners, so we haven't had to face that question. We would have to think about sponsorship from tobacco companies, companies within the arms trade; there's a list and BP have suddenly come on to that list because of recent events. I think it's a difficult question for arts organisations where they draw the line.

Home truths: how the Tate sowed the seeds of discontent

Pity the Tate bright spark whose idea it was to ask a well-known activist to run a workshop for them, called Disobedience Makes History. The result has been some of the gallery's worst publicity in its recent history.

In late 2009, the Tate asked John Jordan, one of the founders of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, a man with a long history of activism through Reclaim the Streets and Climate Camp, to host a workshop on art and activism. They came up with a two-day workshop to be held this year, which would look at, as the Tate put it, "the most appropriate way to explore political issues within a publicly funded institution".

"And then, just before the workshop was due to start," Jordan says, "I got an email from the Tate saying: 'It is important to be aware that we cannot host any activism directed at the Tate or its sponsors.'"

For an artist planning a workshop entitled Disobedience, this was a gift. "We started the workshop and I projected the email on to the wall, and asked the students what they thought of it," Jordan says. "The member of Tate staff present started to get very worried. The students, working on the principles of consensus decision-making, got really excited and came to the decision, after a lot of discussion, to stage an intervention. Immediately afterwards, I was summoned to a meeting." But it was too late; Liberate Tate had been born.

The group's first intervention was low-key: the words Art Not Oil were held against one of Tate Modern's windows. The next, in May, saw black helium balloons tied to dead fish released in the Turbine Hall; staff had to shoot them down with air rifles. On Monday night, they poured five gallons of molasses down Tate Britain's stairs.

If oil had not spilled from the Deepwater Horizon rig, perhaps the Art Not Oil campaign would not have had legs. But the lesson is: never ask activists to teach your visitors how to campaign against you.

Bibi van der Zee © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 29 2010

Tate is right to take BP's money

Despite disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, cultural institutions must be prepared to deal with companies such as BP – not least if they're to survive arts cuts

It's an easy enough observation to make with the Gulf of Mexico blackened and burning. I did it myself the other day, referring in a Guardian article to the controversy surrounding BP's sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery's portrait prize. It's always seemed strange to me that BP's name was so prominently associated with an artistically conservative prize, as if big business were imposing its own aesthetic on the arts – British oil for British oil painting.

What I didn't know, had literally never noticed, was that BP also sponsors the anything-but-conservative Tate. Nor did I anticipate the holier-than-thou missive in yesterday's Guardian, or last night's protest outside the Tate Britain summer party. There are demands that Tate sever its ties with this capitalist behemoth.

But what is BP getting for its dosh? In all the years I've been seeing exhibitions at Tate's galleries, I have never once encountered anything that could conceivably have been construed as an advertisement for this or any other corporation, or for capital itself. Very much the opposite. Just yesterday at Tate Britain I was looking at a portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby of the children of Richard Arkwright. The lovely clothes and kite in the painting, points out the caption beside it, in case you have forgotten your Engels, contrast with the miserable childhoods of young workers in the Arkwright mills. Go to any Tate museum and the only ideology you will encounter is anti-capitalist.

So if BP doesn't get pro-oil, pro-business propaganda for its money, what does it get? Good PR, presumably … but as I confessed above, I wasn't even aware of its Tate sponsorship – until now. If supporting Tate is meant to associate BP with cool art, it is a failure. I must have seen the BP logo a thousand times on press releases and it never lodged in my mind. I have never thought Tate=BP, let alone Tate=BP=oil is good.

Let's drop the liberal self-deception (the same liberal self-deception that can dress a Thatcherite budget as "progressive"). The arts are about to be savagely cut by the state. Museums are going to feel the chill. They will be under pressure to charge, for starters. Do we want our museums to flourish? Do we want them to buy art, to put on good exhibitions, to support artists as Tate does?

Old Marxists such as Hans Haacke, a prominent signatory of the Guardian letter, can get stuffed. The reality is that our museums need to stay strong and stay free, and are about to face the hardest challenge in their history. If they can get money from Satan himself, they should take it. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 27 2010

Crude culture

Tonight, the Tate Britain is holding a summer party in which it is also celebrating 20 years of BP sponsorship (Galleries and museums face summer of protest over BP arts sponsorship, 25 June). As crude oil continues to devastate coastlines and communities in the Gulf of Mexico, BP executives will be enjoying a cocktail reception with curators and artists at Tate Britain. 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 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.

Hans Haacke, artist

John Keane, artist

Caryl Churchill, playwright

Matthew Herbert, electronic artist and composer

Suzi Gablik, art critic and writer

Gordon Roddick, art philanthopist

Rebecca Solnit, writer and art critic

Lucy R. Lippard, writer and curator

Davey Anderson, playwright

Adam Chodzko, artist

Beverly Naidus, artist and professor

Suzanne Lacy, artist

Chris Jordan, artist

Cat Phillipps, artist

Martin Rowson, cartoonist

Robert Newman, comedian and writer

Sonia Boyce, artist

Barbara Steveni, artist and initiator of Artist Placement Group

Peter Fend, artist

SaiMuRai (Simon Murray), writer, poet, artist

Ackroyd & Harvey, artists

Aidan Jolly, musician, community artist

Jon Sack, artist

Matthew Lee Knowles, composer

Theodore Price, artist

Scott Massey, artist

Ben Mellor, writer, performer, educator

Gary Anderson, The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, artist collective

David Haley FRSA, ecological artist and Senior Research Fellow

Alana Jelinek, artist and curator

Rachel Anderson, creative producer

John Volynchook, photographer

Jackie Brookner, artist

Suzanne Lacy, artist

Neil Callaghan, artist

Jonathan Baxter, artist and arts organiser

Mark McGowan, artist

Catrin Evans, artistic director and theatre practitioner

James Stenhouse, artist

Charlie Fox, artist and producer

Roxanne Permar, artist

Jane Lawson, artist

John Jordan, artist and writer

Hemant Anant Jain, illustrator

The Space Hijackers, art interventionists

Clare Patey artist/curator

Matthias von Hartz, Director Hamburg International Festival

Lois Keidan, Live art Development Agency

Lucy Neal, artist and producer

Lise Autogena, artist

Marcelo Expósito, artist and critic

Steve Duncombe, cultural theorist/writer

Cameron Davis, artist and professor of art at Vermont University

Kim Stringfellow, artist/associate professor, SDSU

Ros Martin, poet and playwright

Amy Balkin, artist

John Hartley, artist

Amber Hickey, artist

Christian Nold, artist

Isabeau Doucet, painter

Jean Grant, creative director

Hayley Newman, artist

Christian de Sousa, artist and photographer

Immo Klink, artist

Susan Kelly, artist and art lecturer

Aviv Kruglanski, artist

Steve Stuffit, artist

Helen Spackman, artistic director and senior lecturer in performing arts

Lorena Rivero de Beer, artist

Janey Hunt, artist

Gregory Sholette, artist and writer

Mem Morrison, artistic director

Lars Kwakkenbos, artist and writer

Tom Besley, producer

Jane Trowell, Platform, arts/activist organisation

Fran Crowe, artist

Sharon Salazar, filmmaker/director

Leah Gordon, photographer, filmmaker and curator

Alke Schmidt, artist

Monika Vykoukal, curator

CJ Mitchell, deputy director of Live Art Development Agency

Julian Maynard Smith, director of Station House Opera

Sue Palmer, artist

Brett Bloom, artist

Kerry Burton, artist

Isa Fremeaux, The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, art/activist collective

Anna Francis, artist

Ana Betancour, artist and architect

Simone Paterson, new media artist and academic

Ian Teh, photographer

Alejandro Meitin, artist

Simone Kenyon, artist and producer

Milena Placentile, curator

Nick Turner, artist and designer

Fabio Sassi, artist

Ruth Ewan, artist

Raoul Martinez, artist

Robert McAdam, painter

Katy Fattuhi, arts marketer

John Holt, artist and writer

Katy Hallett, director, Art Programme

Judy Price, artist

Stephanie Thieullent, photographer, artist

Felix Gonzales, filmmaker, artist

Rafael Santos, artist

Adrian Arbib, photographer

Ian Hunter, Director, Littoral

Ele Carpenter, curator

Helene Aylon, activist artist

Pamela Graham, artist

Louise Jones, director, Lemon Street Gallery

Ciel Bergman, artist/environmental activist

Glauco Bermudez, Cinematographer

Marianne Soisalo, artist

Mariana Bassani, photographer

Michele Petillo, artist

Siobhan Mckeown, artist

ZEV, tex/sound artist

Mira Schor, artist and writer

Judith Knight, Director, Artsadmin

Gill Lloyd, Director, Artsadmin

Danielle Frank, artist

Stuart Bracewell, artist.

Beverley Dale, Digital Artist

Vahida Ramujkic, Artist

Mark Vallen, painter, printmaker, writer

Toni Martinez-Solera, artist

Lucy Fairley, artist

Noel Douglas artist, designer, activist

Gareth Evans, writer and curator

Stevphen Shukaitis, arts /media/cultural publisher

Kuljit Chuhan, Creative producer and digital media artist

Calum F. Kerr, artist

Lisa Wesley, artist

Jody Boehnert, designer, artist and writer

Heide Fasnacht, visual artist

Michelle Jaffé, artist

Jan Brooks, artist

Peter Harrison, propeller arts collective

Deanne Belinoff, artist

Michelle Waters, artist

Fern Shaffer, artist

Harmony Hammond, artist and art writer

Simon Whetham, sound artist

Mimi Poskitt, director

Michaela Crimmin, curator and critic

Wallace Heim, writer and academic

Ciel Bergman, painter

Ali Sparror – artist

Lucy Reeves - Film designer

The Vacuum Cleaner, art/activist,

Robby Herbst, artist

Anja Steidinger, visual artist

Claire Hildreth, photographer

Loraine Leeson, artist

Kayle Brandon, artist

Peter Offord, artist

Julie Green, painter

Murray Wason, artist

Christina Moore, production designer

Emma Byron, artist and performer

Miche Fabre Lewin, artist-cuisiuniere

Kate Rich, artist

Madeleine Hodge, artist and curator

Kirstin Forkert, artist

Martin Nakell, poet, fictionalist

Liam Hurley, writer, theatre director, story teller

Mike Perry, artist

Phil Maxwell adn Hazuan Hashim, artists

Greg Pact, artist

• Recent catastrophic events in the Gulf of Mexico have brought to a head a situation that for many years has been uncomfortable, but tolerated. Now we find it necessary to stand up and deplore the Tate galleries' sponsorship by BP.

The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management's Arts and Environment Network (AEN) was formed in 2007 to put creativity at the heart of environmental policy and practice. Its members represent cultural institutions, universities and agencies entrusted to care for the environment.

As the world and indeed Tate have learned to flourish without support from slavery, tobacco and alcohol, we and they must learn to emerge from the culture of fossil fuels and the insidious oil industry. BP, Shell and all other petrochemical corporations must be denied control of our arts and cultural institutions, right now. As Tate is about to celebrate 10 years of funding from BP, we call on the trustees and director of Tate to put a halt to the tyranny of oil patronage and cleanse the oil stains from art. We also call on Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, to use his powers as the responsible minister to ensure this happens.

Dave Pritchard, David Haley, Nick Reeves, Emily Doyle Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management

• It is understandable that, as you report, many artists and green groups are protesting against arts institutions receiving sponsorship from BP – but it is important to describe what such corporate charitable donations are – and what they are not. They are not in any way ever a meaningful contributor in a company's overall obligations to its stakeholders. The amounts are collectively too small and the selection of recipients is far too random for the largesse to be anything than incidental in the context of a big company's finances.

While some companies might seek to suggest that donations to good causes are part of their commitment to "corporate social responsibility" the public is unlikely to be fooled – you cannot buy yourself a good reputation or build brand approval by making such gifts. In reality one of the main reasons that big companies donate to arts institutions is to buy their directors privileged access to events, such as to premium seats at the opera house. For the arts institution it is a harmless and valuable source of funds to pander to the vanities of a few corporate fat cats. No wonder they are rallying round BP at the moment.

Paddy Briggs

Teddington, Middlesex

• The concept of magnificence is as old as the fact of wealth and exploitation, and public arts without money from the swollen coffers of scurrilous industrialists would be a thin stranded thing. When individuals and institutions strive to launder their reputations with their grand donations it would be churlish to carp at the sight of a little sweat or blood or a few oil-soaked feathers, especially with our government preparing to withdraw so much of their seed from the local tiller men. How did we imagine such crude and dispensable profits were derived in the first place?

BP will thrive without the arts, but art gets smashed when the barbarians are banished from the citadel.  

Julian Firth


• What's the difference between the reckless and irresponsible banking culture and reckless and irresponsible exploration by giant oil companies? If the government wants to regulate banks by splitting them up when they become to big or too profligate, why not apply the same principle to oil giants, media behemoths and defence goliaths which ride roughshod over the interests of the environment, societies and human rights? The real point is that western business management (and regulation) is not and never was all it was cracked up to be. A clever myth has been well watered by mainly MBAs as they spew out from business colleges, voraciously looking for companies to infect with their asset stripping takeover obsession. It's time to rethink the entire way we do business and manage firms for stakeholders instead of shareholders.

Bruce Whitehead

Edinburgh © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 24 2010

Summer of protest over BP arts sponsorship

Prestigious institutions defend links with oil firm as artists and green activists plan action

The summer season of events at Britain's most prestigious galleries and museums will be picketed by artists and green groups intent on portraying BP's arts sponsorship as a toxic brand.

Protests are planned next Monday by an eco-alliance styling itself "Good Crude Britannia" at Tate Britain's celebration of its 20-year association with the international oil conglomerate.

Climate change activists, artists and musicians opposed to the fossil fuel industry are determined to highlight BP's link to the arts in the context of the company's international embarrassment over the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

But the main recipients of BP's corporate largesse – the Royal Opera House, Tate Galleries, British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery – today issued a joint statement defending the connection and signalling their determination to preserve the commercial relationship.

The calls for cultural institutions to distance themselves from the oil industry comes at a time when government spending on the arts is about to be slashed amid efforts to cut public debt.

Many of Europe's leading artists, donors and cultural supporters are expected to be greeted at the glittering annual Tate summer party by Lord Brown of Madingley, chair of the Tate and former head of BP.

The planned demonstration next Monday follows protests this week by a group of artists calling themselves the Greenwash Guerrillas, who distributed leaflets outside the National Portrait Gallery at a BP-sponsored arts event. Greenpeace campaigners followed up with an "alternative exhibition" at a private viewing at the gallery.

The oil company has refused to divulge how much money it donates to the arts in Britain but it is thought, along with Shell, to be one of the most generous donors. In 2005 the figure was estimated to be more than £1m a year. BP also sponsors the Almeida theatre, the National Maritime museum, and the Science and Natural History museums.

"Organisations like the National Portrait Gallery help shape public attitudes towards the big issues of the day and if the gallery is serious about climate change then the sponsorship deal with BP has got to end," said Robin Oakley, Greenpeace's campaigns director.

In a separate development, musicians including Lady Gaga, Korn, Disturbed, Godsmack, Creed, and the Backstreet Boys said they planned to boycott BP on their national tours this year.

"It is absurd that the Tate should be sponsored by a company that is as irresponsible and polluting as BP," said Matthew Herbert, an electronic artist and composer who will headline the jazz stage at Glastonbury this weekend.

The oil industry has been a target for artists and activists for many years. Shell was widely boycotted in the 1990s for its involvement in the Nigerian government's decision to hang the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Last month a group called Liberate Tate entered the gallery's main turbine hall and released dozens of black balloons attached to dead fish in protest against the Gulf oil spill. Gallery staff had to shoot the balloons down with air rifles.

The press opening of the BP Portrait Awards was gatecrashed this week by a film crew from the Don't Panic collective who distributed wine glasses filled with thick black liquid symbolising the spill.

"In the past Imperial Tobacco used to sponsor the portrait awards," said Heydon Prowse, one of Don't Panic's film-makers, "then it was considered no longer acceptable. Perhaps the same should be considered now for BP given its attitude to regulation and tar sands."

The Tate gallery said it had an ethics committee which regularly reviewed its sponsorship deals. "BP is one of the most important sponsors of the arts in the UK supporting Tate as well as several other leading cultural institutions. Tate works with a wide range of corporate organisations and generates the majority of its funding from earned income and private sources. The Board and Ethics committee regularly review compliance with the policy," it said.

The National Portrait Gallery said: "The sponsorship of the annual Portrait Award by BP is now in its 21st year and their support directly encourages the work of artists and helps gain wider recognition for them."

A joint statement – from the Tate, Opera House, British Museum and Portrait Gallery – added: "The income generated through corporate partnerships is vital to the mixed economy of successful arts organisations and enables each of us to deliver a rich and vibrant cultural programme.

"We are grateful to BP for their long-term commitment, sharing the vision that our artistic programmes should be made available to the widest possible audience."

Suggestions that the massive bills being shouldered by BP for the clean up operation in the Gulf might force it to scale back on its support for the arts were dismissed by the company. Many of the deals are subject to long-term contractual agreements. Abandoning them would generate adverse publicity at a sensitive time.

"Everyone has a right to protest," a BP spokesman said, "but we feel sad they would choose to do so since we are doing the best we can to deal with a difficult situation.

"In the States, we have offered grants for research on the impact of the oil and detergents and there are people looking to get that sponsorship. I'm not aware of any arts institutions in the USA or the UK withdrawing [from sponsorship deals]."

Maurice Davies, of the Museums Association, which represents UK galleries and museums, doubted that any institution would immediately disown BP given the firm's record of sustained commitment to the arts. "Museums make judgements about who is a suitable sponsor," he said. "No one would take [money] from tobacco firms or arms companies. BP has a long and distinguished record of sponsorship. No one will rush to judgment on a company that has been a loyal supporter for such a long time. I don't hear a national clamour for BP petrol stations to be shut down." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 22 2010

BP's beleaguered Tony Hayward disappears from view

Whether he was really seen on a yacht at Cowes is debated – but there was no sign of him on dry land as oil bosses met at a London congress

After Saturday's ill-advised attendance at a sailing event at Cowes, complete with disputed photographs that may or may not have shown him on board his yacht, Tony Hayward might be excused for resolving to keep his head down.

But the beleaguered BP chief executive's position came under renewed pressure tonight after he failed to show up at a gathering of the oil industry, having also ceded day-to-day control of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Shares in BP touched a new 13-year low after Hayward delegated a keynote speech to his chief of staff, Steve Westwell. He also cancelled a scheduled appearance at the National Portrait Gallery in London tonight where he was due to open an awards ceremony.

By dodging the World National Oil Companies Congress in London, Hayward avoided coming face-to-face with several Greenpeace protesters.

They guaranteed more bad publicity for BP by briefly halting Westwell's speech to urge an audience of oil experts and energy ministers to break their oil dependency.

"Assembled guests – because BP is incapable of telling you the truth, I'm going to tell you what you need to know," Greenpeace's Emma Gibson said, shortly after Westwell had begun by apologising for Hayward's absence.

"We need to speed up progress and make a push to end the oil age," Gibson added, before she and fellow activist Katie Swan were removed from the stage by security, along with a banner which read "Go Beyond Petroleum".

BP blamed Hayward's no-show on his busy schedule. But the company refused to discuss his whereabouts, which added to speculation that he might already be meeting with the Kremlin to discuss BP's future. Its Russian joint venture, TNK-BP, is responsible for a quarter of its production.

Amid the uncertainty BP shares fell to 328p, virtually half the value when the Deepwater rig caught fire and sank.

Security had appeared tight at The Grange St Paul's hotel today but Greenpeace managed to reach the conference room by the simple, if expensive, tactic of buying tickets, and went ahead with the protest even though Hayward was not present.

"We wanted to use the opportunity to speak to BP and push it to change things. BP shouldn't be drilling in deep water and it shouldn't extract oil from the Canadian tar sands," Swan told the Guardian after she and Gibson were released by hotel security staff.

Swan ,said she was concerned about the environmental and economic damage caused by the spill. "It looks like irreparable damage has been done. People's lives will have been changed forever," she said.

Gibson said BP was in "severe trouble" because it had not listened to activists, and had instead pushed on with increasingly risky projects.

"If they had heeded our advice over many years about the need to deliver genuine renewable energy sources, they would not be facing a $40bn (£24bn) disaster today," Swan said.

Even before the conference began today, the environmental movement was taking the opportunity to lobby Big Oil. About 200 Climate Camp activists marched to the hotel complete with a samba band on Monday night and held a mock trial of the industry for its actions around the world.

Shares in BP ended the day down 4.3% at 334.2p, their lowest close since the crisis began.

Hayward, whose PR gaffes have added to the recent criticism of BP, has now given control of the Gulf clean-up to Bob Dudley, BP's American director. City analysts are speculating over how long Hayward can continue as chief executive. "He will remain at the helm for the near term but ultimately, this fiasco might prove career-shortening for him," a fund manager from one of BP's top 20 investors told Reuters.

Westwell said Hayward was "genuinely sorry" to miss the event, before insisting that BP was committed to fixing the disaster. "When the media have left the Gulf coast, we'll still be there helping the community recover. When the headlines are focused elsewhere, we'll still be cleaning up and dealing with claims for economic losses."

He signed off with a line from Abraham Lincoln which may yet serve as Hayward's epitaph. "I do the very best I know how – the very best I can; and I mean to keep on doing so until the end."

With or without Hayward, BP will remain under the shadow of huge compensation payments and fines – and possible prosecution.

Meanwhile, tonight, the oil companies congress is holding its gala dinner, with the promise of "fine wine, exquisite food and the company of some of the greatest minds in the energy business". For the oil industry, even with a temporary halt on new deepwater drilling, it remains business as usual.

Tony's travels

Where's Hayward been?

The BP chief executive flew to America shortly after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on 20 April, with the loss of 11 lives. He returned to the UK for a flying visit in May to celebrate his birthday, and came back to the UK again last week following his savaging by Congress on Thursday. Spending Saturday yachting at Cowes proved the latest in a series of blunders.

Where's he now?

BP refuses to say, arguing that it never reveals its chief executive's location – even when he has abandoned a keynote speech at the last minute.

Where should he be?

In Russia, for a meeting with president Dmitry Medvedev, who has admitted he fears that BP could be destroyed by this crisis.

Reassuring the City about the company's long-term prospects would also be wise, as they face up to a dividend freeze. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 18 2010

Letters: Art from the sublime to the ridiculed

A lot is being made of the 400-years-since-he-died stuff on Caravaggio's bones (Report, 17 June). Artist on the run from a murder etc. As though Rome wasn't a violent city in 1600. I suppose you could walk anywhere late at night etc.

The critics say he invented chiaroscuro, or dramatic shading never seen before. A lot is known about Caravaggio's studios, more than most of his contemporaries. They describe the dark walls and a hole in the ceiling (known because he was sued). A few people have made serious suggestions that optical projections were used, and as there are no known drawings, and no record he ever made one, the evidence is very strong indeed.

No conventional historian has bothered to ask how these paintings were made. They think it is of little interest. It is of major interest to us now. The similarity to today's Photoshop techniques is fascinating. This seems to me to make him a more interesting artist, not less. It accounts for the new kind of space he opened (like TV close-ups), it accounts for the dark walls and the hole in the ceiling. His bones are neither here nor there because of this – a minor event compared with the implications for our time of his new techniques.

Sometimes I'm not sure what "art history" really is. It ignores picture-making techniques, has never known how to deal with photography, and cannot connect the past with today very well. Look at it a little differently and there is a much bigger and more important story for us today than a bag of old bones.

David Hockney


• I agree with Mark Brown (Report, 9 June) that the figure wearing a lion's head in the restored Tintoretto must represent Hercules. But Hercules frequently symbolises Fortitude (see, for example, the campanile of the Duomo in Florence) and fortitude is closely associated with magnanimity, so closely according to Aquinas that magnanimity is simply one of its subordinate parts. Seneca describes magnanimity as the most resplendent of the virtues, to which Latini adds that one leading characteristic of the magnanimous is that they are careless about small expenses. Lorenzetti, in his fresco cycle in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, offers a celebrated illustration of these ideas, showing the figure of Magnanimity crowned, with shining garments, ready to dispense gold coins. I wonder if this may tell us something about Tintoretto's crowned and shining figure to the right of Hercules, who is allowing gold coins to spill from the goblet at his feet?

Quentin Skinner

Department of history, Queen Mary, University of London

• Lucy Worsley is spot-on (Comment, 18 June). Just what we need – less intellectualism in history and more sexing up of flaky evidence (cue arched eyebrow and hanging question mark). I was particularly impressed by her hard-science pig-squashing experiment to prove that Henry VIII was a complete proverbial because of a bad joust day. I intend to drop my heaviest tome on my cat this afternoon in an attempt to confirm her findings. While wearing roller-skates.

Jim McDermott

Woodford Halse, Northamptonshire

• I have enjoyed the political caricatures created by Steve Bell and Martin Rowson for more years than I care to recall. Their cameo appearance on BBC4's excellent Rude Britannia (Last night's TV, G2, 17 June), where they discussed the history of 18th- and 19th-century English cartoon/satire, was fascinating. Why is there so little biting satire directed at the royal family today, unlike those times?

Dr Paul Clements

Goldsmiths College

• The statue of Eadgyth (Remains confirmed as those of a Saxon princess, 17 June) is surely one of the earliest examples of Rude Britannia. She is shown lightly caressing her bosom with her right hand while her left is daintily pulling up her skirt to reveal her right leg.

N Bailey

Saffron Walden, Essex

• Did anyone else notice the similarity between the photograph of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (G2, 15 June) and some of Monet's "water lily" paintings? Oil or watercolour? Or both?

Greg Hetherton

Hove, East Sussex © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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