Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Sweet White Poison

Unplugged flute tooter, Powis Castle

I was pretty much off-grid last week, in a cottage without wi-fi, situated in a part of Mid-Wales where the erratic appearance of a two-bar phone signal is an Event. From a creative point-of-view it's something I should probably do more often. Like the boredom of childhood in the 1960s, it's a great stimulus to getting out and doing stuff during the day and also, like the computer- and phone-free nights of my youth, no impediment to just sitting around and thinking about stuff. I had some good ideas for more work that may or may not bear fruit in the coming months.

Sitting around idly one evening, a random, amusing thought that struck me was the hypocrisy of the Tate Gallery deciding to sever its ties with the "tainted" cash of the Sackler family. If you haven't been following this saga, it goes something like this:

Once upon a time, in the days before accumulating riches beyond the dreams of most small countries became a conscience-free competitive sport, the embarrassingly wealthy would seek to avert the all-seeing eyes of envy and equitable redistribution by doing Conspicuous Good Works. Institutions such as libraries, galleries, museums, and universities would bear the names of the wealthy, philanthropic families that had paid for them to be built, filled, and staffed. Later, other wealthy benefactors might pay for a new extension, endow a fund that enabled more stuff to be bought, or even donate their personal collections of stuff (generally as a tax dodge, it's true, and usually with the stipulation that the family name be attached in perpetuity). The Sackler family are one such: they made piles of money from pharmaceuticals, trading under the name Purdue, and over the years have funded many "Sackler Wings" and the like around the world.

However, one product associated with Purdue (and thus the Sacklers, even if indirectly) is a notoriously addictive opioid painkiller called OxyContin. Uh oh! As everyone surely knows, there is an epidemic of opioid addiction and abuse in the USA, with OxyContin as Exhibit A. It seems photographer Nan Goldin – who achieved notoriety and A-list success with her unblinking documentary photographs of her circle of friends, blithely mired in New York's heroin, gay, and drag subcultures – had become addicted to OxyContin herself, and decided to launch a campaign to encourage the art world to reject Sackler money because, well, OxyContin, yeah? Which might seem just a little hypocritical, given the nature of her career launchpad (street heroin = romantically decadent; prescription painkillers = work of the devil). But one outcome of this campaign has been the cutting of ties with the Sacklers' sacks of "tainted" cash by the Tate Gallery in London, as little better than suitcases of grubby notes from the MedellĂ­n Cartel.

Phew, got there, at last! So, anyway, I had this amusing thought: Tate - Sackler - Goldin - hypocrisy - heh. Why? Because the Tate family, of course, had made their fortune from pushing sugar (though not, it appears, from exploiting Caribbean slavery). There had to be a blog post there, surely? But it seems Private Eye (a fortnightly satirical magazine of long standing, M'lud [1]) had beaten me to it, and done a far better job. I quote:
As the controversy over unethical arts funding continues, the Sackler Trust today announced that they want nothing to do with any gallery bearing the name of the discredited sugar magnate, Henry Tate.
  Said a Sackler spokesman, "Sugar has done irreparable harm to society, causing obesity, tooth decay and life-threatening diseases such as diabetes. Tate & Lyle is synonymous with this addictive white substance which has ruined so many lives."
  She continued, "Tate sullies the good philanthropic name of the Sackler family and this connection with the evil sugar trade is proving an unwelcome distraction from our hugely popular opioids."
Private Eye 1493, 5 -18 April 2019
So, leave satirical commentary to the professionals, I say.

But, FFS, you galleries, take whatever money you're offered, and stop being so prissy and faux-PC about it: all extreme wealth is "tainted", one way or another, from the Catholic Church and the Medicis on down. The patrons of art are always the privileged oppressors or the pushers of product, aren't they? But if you really don't want the money, please pass my details on to that nice Mr. Sackler, and let him know that I'll happily change the name of this blog to "The Idiotic Sackler Hat", or whatever he wants. Although I will be wanting payment in cash, not kind...

Sugar-rush shepherdess, Powis Castle

1. It occurs to me that, as well as describing Private Eye, I may need to explain this conventional British joke format to overseas readers. An English judge is addressed by lawyers as "My lord", pronounced "M'lud". It is considered amusing that, typically, judges will be (or pretend to be) entirely ignorant of popular culture, for example asking "Who are the Beatles?" (Answer: "A popular beat combo, M'lud").


Andrea said...

So... OxyContin is freely available over-the-counter, yes? No? What do you say, it is a prescription drug under doctors control, that is usually prescribed to people that really needs it? And that the addicts usually buy it illegally from criminals?
Well, so all this ruckus is idiocy...

Mike C. said...


It's not quite as silly as that. AFAIK, OxyContin is prescription only in the USA (though there is an illegal market for it) but was misleadingly marketed by Purdue, mainly by concealing its highly addictive nature, and was massively over-prescribed by doctors as a panacea for all sorts of things, creating a whole generation of unwitting opioid addicts.

I suppose my points are (1) the Sackler philanthropic fund (like the Wellcome trust in the UK) is a separate organisation and does not (AFAIK) derive profits from the current Purdue pharmaceutical products, and (2) the Tate is engaged in what is little more than a variety of "virtue signalling". Worse, it is (to use an English expression) "cutting off its nose to spite its face".

Only this afternoon I was at an exhibition in London where a Sackler-backed "research forum" was being advertised, holding a discussion on "What is the point of museums?" -- the sort of thing it would be an awful shame to lose because of excessive and misplaced fastidiousness about the source of the money.