There’s no such thing as ‘clean’ money for the arts

Posturing luvvies like Mark Rylance hate BP but think the British state is free of sin.

Tim Black

Tim Black


Mark Rylance, Oscar-winning actor and Shakespeare conspiracy theorist, performed the role of the Beautiful Soul last week, when he resigned from the Royal Shakespeare Company because of its £7.5million sponsorship deal with ‘world-killing’ oil multinational, BP. In a lengthy missive, published on the tellingly titled Culture Unstained website, he protested: ‘I do not wish to be associated with BP any more than I would with an arms dealer, a tobacco salesmen or any company or individual who willfully destroys the lives of others alive and unborn.’

Rylance was hardly swimming against the tide. This year alone, there have been several high-profile confrontations between the arts and business worlds. In January, the hedge fund Man Group ceased its sponsorship of the Man Booker Prize, following longstanding grumbling among novelists about having to slum it with grubby venture capitalists. Or as Birdsong author Sebastian Faulks put it, hedge funds and their financialised ilk are ‘kind of the enemy’ – writers of the world unite!

Then, in March, the Tate group announced it would no longer accept any gifts from the Sackler family, who own the US maker of OxyContin, the prescription painkiller heavily implicated in the opioids public-health crisis in the US. Even Rylance’s own protest against Big Oil actually followed a years-long vomit of disgust from the bowels of the artsworld about oil-company sponsorship, be it BP’s support of the British Museum or Shell’s former sponsorship of the National Theatre a decade ago.

It appears that many in the culture industries labour under a curious delusion – the delusion that the cultural sphere somehow ought to be pure, its hands undirtied by cash. The delusion, in other words, that culture is pristine and entirely separate from the busy-busy philistinism of the business world, on to which it is then able to pour its righteous scorn.

Culture is not pure, of course, and never has been. From the dramatic triumphs of Ancient Greece, the time and leisure for which was afforded by the slave labour of others, to the humanist wonder of Renaissance Italy, patronised into existence by ruthless bankers like the Medicis, art has always been thoroughly implicated in the society from which it emerges. Not that it can’t transcend those social conditions – or criticise them. It can and frequently does. But that’s because while a Medici might pay for a Michelangelo, or a hedge fund might sponsor a literary prize, none of these should ultimately determine what is produced. That’s artistic freedom for you.

But those protesters pouring an oil-like substance over themselves in the foyer of Tate Britain, or the likes of Rylance, Vanessa Redgrave and Miriam Margoyles slamming BP’s RSC sponsorship, are too blind, too self-important, too caught up in the increasingly woke monoculture of the UK’s cultural sphere, to grasp this. From within this bubble of groupthink – in which climate change is an emergency, Brexit a catastrophe, and Big Oil evil – they imagine the arts, and themselves, to be above and against it all. These distinction-craving producers and consumers of high culture really want to bask in the warm glow of moral superiority.

But it’s delusional. Because bills are always due, and artworks do need to be paid for. So the arts-funding activists have to perform a trick. They have to imagine that alongside the dirty, tainted money of the world-killers – the Big Oils and the arms dealers – there is good, pure money to be had from elsewhere. Which, means, of course, the British state.

Yes, that British state. Historically complicit in colonialism, two world wars, and countless other more recent murderous escapades, from Iraq to Afghanistan. The British state, unlike BP, which Rylance compared to an ‘arms dealer’, really is an arms dealer. In 2015, British defence exports took £7.7 billion in turnover, to which the British state contributed between £104million and £453million in direct subsidy, and between £483million and £576million in indirect subsidy. The British state literally helped arm some the world’s most brutal, repressive regimes (including, of course, Saudi Arabia).

Moreover, from where on earth do the moral arbiters of arts funding think the state acquires its revenue, if not, in part, from taxing the very evil businesses they so loathe? It is as if they believe that the state somehow morally launders the taxable wealth of BP et al – that, through its state-regulated circulation, money sweats off its sin.

Rylance contends, of course, that through sponsorship, as opposed to taxation, a BP or a Shell is directly associating its brand with the arts. And that, in doing so, it is burnishing its reputation, or, to use the parlance, indulging in art-washing. In this, he and other funding-watchers are right. No doubt, some oil companies or financial institutions, given their low public standing (certainly among our cultural elites), even want to salve their conscience publicly, by ostentatiously paying something back into the community. But that shouldn’t be a cause for complaint. Rather, it is an opportunity for arts institutions to exploit – a means for, say, the National Portrait Gallery to remain free to the public. If anything, British cultural institutions should be demanding more money from BP or Shell, not less.

If there is a drawback to corporate sponsorship it lies not in its provenance, but in the uses to which it is put. An expensive, flash new room at an art gallery, bearing the sponsor’s name, might sate corporate vanity, but it is sometimes difficult to tell how it benefits the viewing public. But if the RSC wants to use BP’s ill-gotten gains to offer discounted tickets for teenagers, or the National Gallery wants Credit Suisse to fly several da Vinci paintings over to London, then all power to them.

There are two problems with the arts-funding row. The first is that culture is being used, to its detriment, as a means of virtuous posturing. And the second is that it distracts from the questions that really ought to be facing the art world. Instead of asking where is the art world acquiring its funding, we should ask to what uses it is being put.

Tim Black is a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 12:56 am

It’d be interesting to hear whether his concerns for the “unborn” extend to protesting against the modern fad of infanticide-as-contraception.

Steve Roberts

2nd July 2019 at 6:48 pm

Brilliant points from Black, and as we come to expect from these “luvvies” and their narcissism they not only want to appear virtuous to each other in their private social circles, this chattering class need to be seen expressing their “superior” virtues to the wider public.
But they don’t want to be touched and tainted by us the great unwashed morally inferior, they think there virtuous bubble will protect them from been tarred by our dirty brush.
Get the gear out lets do some tarring.

Neil McCaughan

2nd July 2019 at 12:13 pm

Rylance did an interview after the glutinously slow and over-rated Wolf Hall. He came over as pitifully ill-educated, rather dim, but full of sanctimony and self-regard. There is no case for anyone subsidising him, or his fellow bores. If the petite bourgeoisie want to go to the theatre, let them pay an economic price for the ticket.

Jonnie Henly

2nd July 2019 at 5:06 pm

In other words…… he didn’t share your worldview and therefore he’s evil.

Do you ever tire of being so square?

Hana Jinks

3rd July 2019 at 12:58 am

Are you a hippie?

Neil McCaughan

3rd July 2019 at 12:56 pm

Oh poppet. Have you thought of getting treatment for that trembling lower lip?

Jonnie Henly

3rd July 2019 at 6:04 pm

What sort of a question is that? Oh dear oh dear oh dear…

Neil McCaughan

11th July 2019 at 2:24 pm

As usual, you can’t answer the substantive point. Why should poor people in the provinces subsidise the theatre tickets of metropolitan dimwits?

Puddy Cat

2nd July 2019 at 11:54 am

What a miracle of monocular representation Mr Rylance is. These people may be able to object to donations but what about the composition of their audiences? How many people do they play to that work for industrial giants? That own, possibly ‘polluting’, business? But of course they love adulation from whatever quarter while leaning back on Government grants and prosper.

If Mr Rylance’s roots are in socialism and art funding can be the spoils of taxation, or money tree policy, then I would expect that, as in good old Soviet Russia, the players, no matter how elevated, should be asked to appear in worker’s canteens, appear in the north of England, away from their London lairs (or perhaps the use of transportation might conflict with their Puritan aims).

It’s OK for some to talk of valid criticism as being caricatures but when the caricature fits it is acceptable shorthand for conversational fashion, all too frequently displayed by people who confuse popularity with status. Excused beggars prostituting their art, left to personify themselves as humanist and intellectual hiding behind the true intellect of those whose words they spout.

So choose your caricature. No doubt it will be compliant with your defence of whatever ism you inhabit, which is OK as long as those are the rules. If you can be free to define the habits and mores of others craftily, as a tranche, as in a category, then others are within their rights to deploy the same tactics.

Margolyes was perfectly cast as Flora Finching in the amazing Jacobi production, ‘Little Dorrit’; an inveterate chatterbox who provided a rambling, white noise background to that masterful production. Fantasised agonisingly about a singular obsession.

Phil Ford

2nd July 2019 at 5:34 pm

I enjoyed reading that, Puddy Cat. Very well written! Exactly how I would aspire to express my opinion on Mark Rylance’s tedious posturing (if I could write that well!).

Jonnie Henly

2nd July 2019 at 10:52 am

are too blind, too self-important, too caught up in “the increasingly woke monoculture of the UK’s cultural sphere, to grasp this. From within this bubble of groupthink – in which climate change is an emergency, Brexit a catastrophe, and Big Oil evil”

That would be the bubble you just made up. Why is it you can only ever argue against caricatures and invented stereotypes? Is it because you’re aware how flimsy your arguments look otherwise?

Neil McCaughan

2nd July 2019 at 12:22 pm

Cluck, cluck, cluck. Why, when you have nothing to say, do you persist in posting? You’re jealous of Brendan O’Neill. We get that. You’re annoyed that he and the other writers here offer an articulate and reasoned critique of your municipal certainties. We know. Your own world view is swallowed up in your suburban self-righteousness. We’ve noticed.

Please bore off.

Jonnie Henly

2nd July 2019 at 5:05 pm

Neil, no matter how much you whine, I’m not going to stop posting simply because you disagree with what I say.

You can keep your head shoved up Brendan’s backside, I’ll keep pointing out their lies and poor arguments.

I couldn’t care less whether elitist drones like you have “noticed” or not.

William Murphy

2nd July 2019 at 8:39 am

I guess Mark Rylance and his purer-than-pure buddies will refuse to use any electricity in any context (especially artistic) if it is not 100% ecological? If they are performing in the dark or by candlelight, they should stimulate the audience’s imagination even more.

christopher barnard

2nd July 2019 at 7:54 am

People in the ‘arts’ probably don’t have a clue where the state gets its money.

That’s the problem. Like most liberals, they think money grows on trees, probably ones in the back garden of 10 Downing Street.

The fact that other people first have to earn the money they are generously given by the state or anyone else completely escapes them.

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