Walking through London’s Trafalgar Square this evening, I happened upon a small but vocal protest against Shell Oil funding the Rembrandt exhibition, which recently opened at the National Gallery.
As I stop to observe, a casual conversation developed with one of the protesters. Although respectful to the principle, and sympathetic to the underlying point the protest was attempting to make, there was a certain amount of simplicity that I found uncomfortably, and I often find implicit within the disapproval being cast by such demonstrations.
It is important to state a kind of conflict of interest in that Rembrandt’s painting are the most powerful that I have ever viewed.
I enquired after the protest and had some aspects of the sponsorship pointed out before I asked how all this squared with the fact that Rembrandt actually painted in oil. “Not in great amounts” was the response before continuing that Rembrandt painted about the human condition and self-reflection. I replied that the great man spent much of his formative years, and mid-age life, painting barons of Amsterdam and beyond, many who are likely to have made their money from slavery or slave conditions. It was “a good point” I was informed and with this a chant started about ‘art for free’ and not being bought by oil companies etc, completely missing the point that much of London’s great galleries were actually built on commerce and companies of the day, like Shell!
There is often a lack of rigorous thought or greater understanding of the broader issues lying at the heart of the debate about art as a medium for discussing fundamentals of how we inhabit our planet. It is way too easy to blame. It is essential that people moan and look for ways to challenge but it needs to be more robust in approach and with better understanding of the underlying context. Dialogue is what is essential and an acceptance that most of us are hypocrites and contribute to the problem. Not beginning with a holier than thou start point could help lift the conversation to a more realistic position.
Creator of the Waste.Agency
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