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If You Love Me, Why Am I Dying?

CounterPunch: 2015  


“The most insidious effect of this shift is that after a few years of Molson concerts, Pepsi-sponsored Papal visits, Izod zoos and Nike after-school basketball programs, everything from small community events to large religious gatherings are believed to ‘need a sponsor’ to get off the ground…we become collectively convinced not that corporations are hitching a ride on our cultural and communal activities, but that creativity and congregation would be impossible without their generosity.” -- Naomi Klein



Almost unnoticed, oil companies have taken over a big chunk of the world’s culture. Shell sponsors the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, ExxonMobil supports dance and the symphony there.  In Washington DC, ExxonMobil sponsors the Smithsonian, the Shakespeare Theater, and the Washington National Opera, and also works with Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft to sponsor the National Gallery of Art. BP (British Petroleum) helps to fund the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 


In the middle of the Canadian tar sands, the China National Overseas Oil Company sponsors several cultural institutions while Norway’s Statoil backs the Calgary Stampede. Italian oil company Eni has sponsored exhibitions in the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In Brazil and Australia, oil companies sponsor theater, dance, and the symphony. The French company Total Oil funds a program called “Sharing the World’s Cultures” through which Total puts its stamp on exhibitions from the various regions of the world where it owns oil fields.


Coincidentally enough, the sponsorship of cultural events often comes in the wake of community opposition or an ecologically damaging accident. Shell sponsors folk festivals in rural Ireland where there has been a campaign against Shell’s Corrib gas pipeline in County Mayo for over a decade.  Canadian oil companies began sponsoring museums across the country only after First Nations and enviro groups built very public campaigns against tar sands. 


“Oil companies claim affection for the arts because doing so establishes their position as heroes rather than parasites,” writes Mel Evans in Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts ($22, Pluto Press). “In the theater of the global public relations industry,” Evans adds, “arts sponsorship becomes a way for the global corporation to offer a pretense of corporate responsibility for the corporate profiteer; and becomes an illusionary act of cultural relevance for outmoded industries.”


Evans’ story in Artwash focuses on the huge Tate Museum in England and on the role of BP.  In April 2010, eleven people died on the BP Macondo rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The fireball of the rig’s explosion was visible 35 miles away.  After being charged with manslaughter and other serious crimes, BP was forced to pay the US Dept. of Justice $4 billion as a settlement in 2012. At the very moment that Macondo blew up, the Tate Museum was in the midst of celebrating twenty years of BP sponsorship. 


Tate Director Nicholas Serota dutifully stepped forward to protect the museum’s meal ticket, saying that “We all recognize they have a difficulty at the moment but you don’t abandon your friends because they have what we consider to be a temporary difficulty.” 


Who are these friends that the Tate Museum stands by so proudly?


Five years before Macondo, an explosion at a BP oil refinery in Texas killed fifteen workers. Following the incident, BP CEO John Browne was personally censured by US safety authorities.  Now retired and knighted, Sir John Browne chairs the Tate Museum Board of Trustees, sealing the cozy relationship between oil and art. 


BP and death have many links. The company was a close ally of  the Egyptian military dictatorship run by Hosni Mubarak. In 2003 the company egged on the US/UK invasion of Iraq, as can be seen in the minutes from a meeting between British Petroleum and the British Foreign Office: “BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity.” 


BP employs thousands of scientists yet would have been on the wrong side at the Scopes monkey trial.  In 2010 BP announced that it provided funds to the Institute for Economic Affairs and admitted that it was aware of that organization’s key role in promoting the idea that climate change is a hoax.


So much for “temporary difficulty.” The crimes, indictable and otherwise, of BP are only one part of the oil industry’s fossil fuel onslaught. There have been nearly ten thousand oil tanker spills so far and oil train catastrophes are now a regular occurrence. Fracking continues to cause earthquakes and health problems wherever it goes. In 2012, 154 people died on the Chevron KS Endeavor exploration rig in Nigeria while over 2500 people in the country have been killed in oil pipeline explosions.   


Toxic chemicals released during gas flaring done in conjunction with oil extraction cause chronic health problems. Even though Shell pledged to phase out flaring by 2008, the company refuses to actually do it. In 2010 Shell burnt off 22 billion cubic meters of gas during flaring. In Canada, where the Alberta tar sands are bigger than England, extraction methods have been linked to increased cancer rates. 


It isn’t just oil-driven military invasions which highlight the international violence of the oil industry. There are also the bullet-backed security apparatuses in the poor countries whose oil makes foreign bankers rich. Their level of violence rivals that of a drug cartel. In fact, as pushers of a substance more dangerous than heroin, the oil companies are a drug cartel themselves. As Mel Evans writes, “With each drop of oil unearthed and burned, the cloud of carbon dioxide wrapping itself around the planet thickens.” 


Despite Big Oil’s artwashing efforts, resistance to oil industry destructiveness continues to grow, as opposition has been mounted to nearly half of all global extraction projects. This combative relationship with civil society shows the contempt in which democracy is held by “corporate citizens” such as BP and Shell. 


Mel Evans was part of a protest at the Tate Museum: “Invisible to the casual passer-by, we were carrying ten liters of oil-like molasses into the gallery under our skirts…When we reached the champagne reception, we spilled our precious cargo across the polished stone floor of the gallery. Across the Atlantic, BP was attempting to plug the dire spill, and here at Tate we replicated their messy clean-up mission.” 


Activists in New York were arrested for protesting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s opening of the David H. Koch Plaza, named in honor of the Koch Brothers, the founders of climate science denial. 


When the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize, they released a statement: “Asking the Toyota Motor Company to help cover the tab for this gala, during a summer when the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the Internet, IS FUCKING INSANE.” 


The Reclaim Shakespeare Company formed in 2012 in response to BP sponsorship of the Shakespeare Festival. Before the beginning of a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Much Ado About Nothing in London, two actors took the roles of BP and the Royal Shakespeare Company and addressed the audience.


RSC: You seek my help in being virtuous?

BP: Nay, I seek your help in seeming virtuous.

For a thousand ducats, thou shall proclaim

My innocence to these simple people

To wash away the memories of my misdeeds

Distract them from the destruction of the earth.

RSC: A thousand ducats: Tis a fine price

BP: By your reputation, I will mine own mend


It’s no coincidence that current oil trading routes follow the same paths across the Atlantic that the slave ships did. The slave trade began in London, the home of BP and the Tate Museum.  Evans writes: “London established itself as a global financial center in the founding of insurance companies, such as Lloyd’s of London, that insured the ships on which people were abducted — the Middle Passage on which an estimated nine million people died. The arts and culture have a history intertwined with politics and economics. The buildings, collections, content and discourses of art galleries and museums all relate to the colonial empire, whether by theft or by theme.”


If the oil and gas companies were properly taxed, the resources would be available to fund all aspects of the arts, not just the gallery world, and we could entirely avoid the deal with the devil known as corporate sponsorship.


More fundamentally, since we have eliminated one Atlantic triangle—the slave trade—why not make it two? As long as the fossil fuel industries continue to exist, neither humans nor their culture will be safe.


What if the sun don't rise when it's supposed to?

What if the birds stop flying?

When will the air turn thicker than water?

If you love me, why am I dying?


— Boxing Gandhis


Lee Ballinger:

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