18 August 2015

Oil and Music Do Not Mix


There was a demonstration outside the Usher Hall in Edinburgh yesterday against one of the commercial sponsors of the Edinburgh International Festival.  The target of the demonstration was the oil company BP, but the thrust of the demonstrators’ argument was that the arts should not be accepting funding from an oil company.  If that seems superficially odd, bearing in mind that the arts need every bit of funding they can get, the reasoning seemed odder still: the arts are a force for good, while oil is a force for bad.  The former is perceived by many as enriching mankind while the latter pollutes and destroys the environment. 

Quite why those in the arts feel they should have a special affinity with environmental preservation does not stand up to too close scrutiny; the vast majority of the hundreds, thousands, of artists performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festivals do not live in Edinburgh and have, collectively created a massive carbon footprint with their travels from all corners of the globe.  Had they stayed at home, the Edinburgh Festivals could never have taken place, but the natural environment would have been preserved a little longer.  But then, in a straight fight between preserving the environment and promoting the arts, which artists would dare abandon the latter in favour of the former?

Of course, BP is a particular target amongst Americans and those whose thinking is bounded by the indoctrination they receive from American media.  BP was, after all, responsible for a catastrophic accident in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010; small loss of life (11), huge impact on the natural environment and incalculable financial gain made by American legal firms acting “on behalf” of those affected.  Of course, by directing their environmental ire against the British company BP, the Americans were gleefully diverting attention away from their own Union Carbide company’s guilt in creating “the world’s worst industrial disaster” (in the words of Wikipedia) in which 3787 people died and the environmental impact continues to this day.  Of course, most of the deaths were of Indian people; cynics might suggest that in American eyes  1 American/European life is the equivalent of 345 Indian ones; but perish the thought that I should ever be accused of cynicism!

The Edinburgh demonstrators were claiming that the damage the oil companies’ activities wreak on the natural environment rendered them “unethical” as sponsors of a Festival (which, to be honest, has never really put any kind of ethical dimension at its heart).  The Herald, a Glasgow-based paper, quoted one as saying “BP has a business plan for the end of the world, and the Edinburgh Festival is endorsing it”, while a certain Ric Lander claimed to speak for all artists at the Festival when he claimed “World class performers haven’t come to Edinburgh this August to make the oil industry look good”.  He’s right.  World class performers have gone to Edinburgh this August to further their careers and to make money – and very few really care where that money comes from.  Perhaps they should, but is money for the arts from oil companies any more “unethical” than money from governments (against whose policies artists often protest) or, indeed, from insurance companies (who make their profits out of scare-mongering hapless folk).  I could go on; but frankly no sponsor can be 100% ethical in everybody’s eyes.

There is, though, a very unhappy relationship between oil companies and the arts; and those of us who have been involved in the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra would be the first to acknowledge this.  It’s been four years since my connection with the MPO was severed and, despite a number of veiled threats and personal attacks, my silence on the matter has been occasioned more by an unwillingness to give more publicity to a very sorry state of affairs than by fear of reprisals.  Suffice it to say that, much as it hurt at the time (and continues to hurt), I am glad I am no longer involved in an orchestra I helped, in my very small way, establish and about which I have incredible feelings of both loyalty and love.

The MPO tale is, though, the ultimate example of why oil companies should not dabble in the arts.

The late Tan Sri Azizan, a former CEO of Malaysia’s national oil company, Petronas, loved music and had long cherished a wish that Malaysia should have a proper western-style musical environment.  With enormous wealth at his disposal (through the oil company) and with the support of a Prime Minister who, while cynics might suggest he saw in Azizan’s vision a chance to promote his own artistic and cultural credentials on the world stage, actually was hugely supportive of the idea, he set in motion the wheels which, oiled by seemingly limitless finance from Petronas, led to the creation of a full professional symphony orchestra in Kuala Lumpur and a wonderful, matchless concert hall in which to perform.  It was, in the manner of the great Classical-era orchestras, a personal plaything of a couple of benign rulers, one wielding total political clout, the other unlimited finance; and while both men remained in power, all went well.

The death of Azizan and the departure of Dr M (the Prime Minister, that is, not me) unfortunately let in the incompetents, the ignorant and the aesthetic apostates.  With a succession of impossibly inept managerial appointments, including some CEOs who not only knew nothing about music but cared about it even less, the mentality moved away from creating a healthy musical environment into destroying anything which did not immediately make money or promote Petronas to the widest possible interest-based Malaysian population group.  The environment Petronas have utterly and completely destroyed is an artistic one.

I’d love to see a demonstration at the next Formula One race where a group of drivers stand outside the pits protesting against an oil company’s “business plan for the end of the arts”; but somehow I don’t see it happening.  Perhaps it’s the real job of artists to concentrate on what is destroying their livelihood rather than nebulous if well-meaning demonstrations about wider issues.

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