When Art Meets Activism

Is there a line between art and ethics?

Scrutiny of arts funding is in the spotlight once more. Tate have recently appeared before the Information Tribunal following their refusal to declare the exact amount they receive in sponsorship from oil giants BP. The hearing is the result of the gallery's heavily redacted response to a Freedom of Information request made by Request Initiative, working with the art-activist campaign group Platform. It comes just days after a major interactive intervention organised by art activists took place at Tate Modern. In the tribunal itself, Tate admitted to fears that such protests “might intensify” if the actual sponsorship figures were made public.

We spoke to Hannah Davey of art-activist collective Liberate Tate and Kevin Smith of Platform about the ethics of corporate sponsorship and whether art and politics can ever really be separated.


How and why does it matter that the Tate receives funding from BP?

Well, Tate actually gets less than around 0.5% of its total annual income from BP. But BP gets huge amounts of exposure in return, a disproportionate amount you might say. For example, its logo appears all over Tate spaces while ‘The BP Walk Through British Art’ (the recent rehang at Tate Britain) actually features the oil giant's name in its title. It's a way for BP to launder its image – to make people think less about the environmental destruction it causes all over the world and instead about how altruistic it is. We think that Tate is worth a lot more than that – that our cultural institutions are important and precious and shouldn't be used as a rag to wipe away dirt.

Kevin: We're at a critical point in how we address the climate crisis – it's not just about changing lightbulbs and cycling to work; it's about looking at the dynamics of institutional power and recognising what the blocks are to the systemic change that is so urgently needed. And one of the big blocks is the economic, political and cultural power of oil companies. If we want change and progress, we need to undermine the power base that those oil companies enjoy. That needs to happen on a number of fronts, but one of them is preventing them from getting the kudos and credibility that they don't deserve through sponsoring cultural institutions.

What is worse: the Tate receiving this sort of funding or their refusal to disclose how much they actually receive?

Hannah: The fact that the figure is small isn't even a secret – it's calculated from figures in the public domain. In 2013, BP split £2million between Tate, the Royal Opera House, the British Museum and The National Portrait Gallery. So of course the detail of that figure is important, and it's probably a quarter, but their refusal to disclose begs the question, what else is Tate hiding about its relationship with BP? Which is of course part of the inspiration behind our recent performance, Hidden Figures.

Kevin: They are both inter-related! If the sums of money are as small as we suspect (which is why we think Tate is fighting tooth and claw to keep it secret) then Tate has a lot more flexibility in choosing not to take the money – so it then reflects really badly on them if they are being actively associated with trashing the planet for tiny sums compared to their overall budget.

Do you find other corporate sponsors of the Tate problematic, such as the Bank of America, Deutsche Bank or Morgan Stanley?

Kevin: Corporate sponsorship in general is being pushed on the cultural sector as a salve for the draconian cuts to public spending that the arts have suffered along with other vital services. Many people are articulating the unacceptability of oil sponsorship in particular now because of an increasingly climate-conscious public waking up to the unpleasant reality of oil companies and their many environmental and human rights impacts. But all arts institutions should be developing critical ethical fundraising policies that allow them to proactively assess each individual sponsor, like Bank of America, and see if its congruent with their organisational values.

What is the relationship between art and ethics? Is it up to the funding organisation, the distributor, the collector, the museum or the artist to challenge old while setting new ethical standards? Or might morality be in conflict with or belonging to a different sphere than the production of artistic achievements?

Kevin: It is a normal expectation that all spheres of life, and all individuals in society should act ethically. So in this instance the funding organisation, the distributor, the collector, the museum and the artist should act ethically. This is especially the case in the face of climate change. To act in ways to limit our CO2 emissions requires us to act ethically, to act altruistically, on behalf of others in the long term rather than in our own direct interests in the short term. 

There's a long tradition of artists declaring the production of art, or the private live of the artist, to be outside the realm of standard, or 'bourgeois', ethical life. However the scale of the impacts of climate change, both already underway and in the future, lend a perspective on this tradition that calls it into question. For the artist to claim that issues such as the relationship between their work and the production or oil and gas, the driving forward the emissions of CO2, is no concern of theirs is effectively to side with the continuation with these processes. To make this choice, even by default, is to take an act which has profound ecological and social – and therefore ethical – implications.

Your interventions, such as Hidden Figures and The Gift, have done a great job of garnering publicity and creating striking imagery with which to support your cause. But to what extent do they succeed as art?

Hannah: As artists, every time we perform one of our unsanctioned live art pieces we're making an institutional critique. The Gift – an installation piece where 100 members of Liberate Tate art collective built a 16.5-metre wind turbine blade in Tate's Turbine Hall – is, like Hidden Figures, a multi-layered work. It speaks to the former incarnation of the space itself, the power-generating hub of the power station. And it speaks to the solution to fossil fuels: renewable energy. The Gift was presented to Tate under the Museums and Galleries Act – where the board must legally consider any work donated by an artist to the public for its collection. Note, it must consider, not necessarily accept. But along with the blade itself we submitted supporting artistic documentation which Tate has accepted into its archive where it now sits alongside the other art works not currently on display in the galleries.  

The archival of our work is if course a tacit acceptance of our work as art. But beyond this, interestingly, when we're performing in the various gallery spaces, gallery-goers regularly presume we're a Tate-sanctioned performance. We find this interstitial space, on the boundaries of official and unofficial, a fruitful one. It pushes us to make work that is multi-layered and engages with the gallery-goers enquiring state-of-mind. And if the gallery-goers aren't differentiating between Tate-sanctioned work and unsanctioned work, then they're not calling one work "art" and another something different.

What is the relationship between the arts, activism and politics? Can or should art be ever a-political?

Kevin: The context of art is always political. It reflects the state of a society, for instance in its economy, in who has the power, necessity or leisure to make art (and who doesn't), who places a monetary or cultural/artistic value on it, (and who doesn't). Artists who don't consider their work to be political can end up making a tremendous impact on politics and society through their work. Artists who intend to make political work can fail. But art is part of society and politics nonetheless.

Activism and art is another question. If activism is about making something happen, pushing through a change in the world then a lot of art is activist. If by activism we mean art that politically mobilises, then there is a very long history of artists making work in the service of social change, fighting injustices, challenging power, subverting norms, putting forward alternative visions. Can or should art ever be a-political? Yes it can and often it is: we also need art to soothe, entertain, and provide escape. But even art that is doing those things can be activist... activist art is as varied as the human imagination.






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