Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Corporate Philanthropy

Big oil has been in bed with the arts for quite some time. My own generation was probably most aware of the relationship back in the days when Masterpiece Theatre was "made possible by a grant from Mobil Corporation;" but one of the interesting phenomena of twentieth-century economic history was the migration of arts sponsorship from individual philanthropists to corporate entities. One only has to look at the lists of sponsors in the program book for any performing arts event to appreciate the extent of this migration.

One of the unanticipated consequences of that migration is now coming to the surface in unpleasant ways. An excellent example emerged last night when a fundraising event at Tate Britain was disrupted by a protest against BP. Here is how Farah Nayeri reported the episode for Bloomberg:

Activists opposing oil company BP Plc burst into a party at London’s Tate Britain last night, spilling cans of an oil-like liquid inside and outside the gallery to protest BP’s 20-year sponsorship.

Black-clad protesters with veils over their heads splattered the party entrance with cans of treacle bearing the BP logo, then sprinkled bird feathers over the slick. Another group smuggled cans inside, under their skirts, and emptied them in Tate Britain’s columned main hall.

Meanwhile, about a dozen artists wearing black separately picketed the party. “What do we want? Liberate Tate!” they hollered. “When do we want it? Now!”

BP has shed half of its market value after causing the U.S.’s worst-ever oil spill in April. The company is a longstanding sponsor of Tate Britain, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and the National Portrait Gallery. BP has said it will maintain those London sponsorships, which together cost it more than 1 million pounds ($1.5 million) a year.

Liberate Tate? It certainly has a catchy rhyme, but just what does it mean? If Tate Britain is to be "liberated" from dependence on donations from a large corporation that, at the very least, has been sowing the seeds of its own destruction through what may be the most inept public relations campaign in the history of the oil industry (if not the history of public relations), then what organizations will pick up the slack?

Perhaps it is time to consider whether or not the very concept of corporate philanthropy is a good idea. I have no problem with individuals being rewarded with tax deductions in return for applying the money they have earned to worthy causes; but it seems as if, at least in this particular case, viewing a large corporation as if it were just another tax-paying individual is highly misconstrued, not to mention a perfect instance of what Alfred North Whitehead has called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." (As Friedrich Hayek would put it in his critiques of social theory, any individual working for a large corporation, regardless of position in the "managerial food chain," is "concrete;" but the corporation itself remains an abstraction that serves only legal purposes.) The bottom line is that the Tate (not to mention the Royal Opera House, since my own interests tend towards the performing arts) has fallen victim to "financial instruments" that determine tax policy, just as we have all paid the price for "financial instruments" for questionable practices such as commoditizing debt. As a result, we have become victims of an intentional muddling of the distinction between individuals and corporations through mechanisms such as those I recently cited concerning the problem of confusing government with business.

No comments: