Raoul Martinez – artist’s statement

April 20, 2012
by phil
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In the first of a series of extra materials relating to our Tate √† Tate audio tour “Drilling the Dirt (A Temporary Difficulty)” here is the full text of the statement that portrait artist¬†Raoul Martinez wrote and read specifically for this project. A short extract from this reading features near the end of our tour. Martinez was selected for the BP sponsored National Portrait Award in 2011. His notable sitters have included Howard Zinn and the Dalai Lama. He is also working on a documentary series exploring the relationship between freedom and power in democratic societies. [continues…]

Who should be allowed to fund our national institutions? Unless we’re willing to accept the sponsorship of fascist groups and foreign dictators, we clearly believe a line must be drawn somewhere. So the issue is not whether we draw a line, but where we draw it. In the case of BP, I believe there is a strong case for placing them on the wrong side of that line.

1) Oil companies in general, including BP, have a history of using PR tactics to discredit climate science, while lobbying governments not to reduce CO2 emissions. For instance, with other leading oil companies (and car manufacturers), BP was part of the Washington based Global Climate Coalition which staunchly opposed reducing greenhouse gas emissions late into the 1990s. To give an idea of the resources this group commanded, it spent $13 million on one anti-Kyoto campaign.

At a time when the world’s leading climate scientist, James Hansen, is telling us that “Human-made climate change is, indeed, the greatest threat civilization faces” and that “the continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself…” we cannot afford to offer positive PR to those groups who cloud our understanding of climate change, or obstruct the implementation of steps necessary to mitigate its damage.

2) BP is exploiting Canadian tar sands – a highly controversial action due to the fact that the extraction process involved releases up to four times as much greenhouse gas as other forms of fossil-fuel extraction.

3) BP, in common with other oil companies, has a highly questionable human rights record, supporting human rights abusers in South Africa and Colombia among other places.

In the past it was acceptable for tobacco companies to openly sponsor national institutions – today there is a taboo against it (the BP Portrait Award was initially sponsored by a tobacco company). Our addiction to fossil fuels, however, is far more dangerous than our addiction to tobacco – there is no reason, therefore, the taboo surrounding tobacco sponsorship should not be extended to oil companies too. If society decides it genuinely values institutions like the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Modern, it can provide money to support them.

Though there are good reasons to challenge specifically the sponsorship of companies like BP (and Shell which sponsors institutions such as the Southbank), I think it’s crucial to situate this debate about sponsorship and funding in a wider context. As I see it, the problem with arts sponsorship is a symptom of a far greater problem of funding that stems from a system that concentrates vast amounts of wealth in the hands of a few. There are problems of funding and sponsorship in every area of society, from education and health, to the media and the arts. In the US, for instance, almost all forms of media are owned by one of just 5 or 6 corporations. In the realm of politics we see corporations in the US, especially energy companies, giving hundreds of millions of dollars to both parties in election campaigns and many millions more year on year to lobbyists and politicians, thereby exerting their influence in proportion to their wealth – a blatant subversion of the democratic process. The problem of arts sponsorship has to be situated in this wider context – a context that sees the logic of the market (one-dollar-one-vote) and its history of wealth-concentration, supplanting the logic of democracy (one-person-one-vote). And so if we advocate democracy, we must challenge the unaccountable power of corporations taking over every aspect of our cultural and political life. For me at least, challenging forms of corporate sponsorship of the arts is one, perhaps mainly symbolic, way of challenging the wider ‘corporatisation’ of society.

Like any artist I want my work to be seen, and having my work selected to hang in the National Portrait Gallery was a real honour. I did not face a dilemma in submitting a portrait to the BP Portrait Award, as a private boycott on my part, I knew, would achieve nothing. If, en masse, artists decided to boycott BP-sponsored institutions perhaps it could be a worthwhile tactic. However, right now, no such movement exists. The next best thing is for artists associated with these institutions to speak out.

As an artist I certainly don’t want my work to be part of a PR campaign for corporations that are a threat to our democracy and environment. What’s most important, it seems to me, is preventing such companies from benefiting from the good PR associated with arts sponsorship. The acquiescence of artists to corporate interests is a far more significant statement than anything that might be conveyed by their art. Our world is our biggest canvas, and our choices our most important brushstrokes.

The ‘corporatisation’ of society puts everyone, not just artists, in a difficult position. The journalist who must pander to media owners who make and break careers. The politician who must please the powerful corporations they depend on for funding. Professionals in all fields are in a difficult position. To earn a living many of us have to serve interests we strongly disagree with. Progressive change depends, however, on finding ways to challenge the forces that subvert our democracies and trash our environment.

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