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‘Marina Hyde’s “The Rest is Entertainment” Comments on Fossil Free Books and Baillie Gifford Completely Miss the Point’

The politicisation of literary events and artistic institutions began when corporate sponsors bought their way into these spaces, writes Russell Warfield

Photo: Timon Schneider/Alamy

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In recent months, the campaign group Fossil Free Books (FFB) has been pushing for “a books industry free from fossil fuels and fossil fuel finance”.

It has rapidly made headlines, with authors withdrawing from high-profile events such as the Hay Festival, and most notably provoking investment management firm Baillie Gifford – targeted for its investment in arms and fossil fuels – to announce that it would sever ties with a number of literary festivals.

FFB had been exerting pressure on the company since last August, when climate activist Greta Thunberg pulled out of the Edinburgh international book festival, which it was sponsoring.

Baillie Gifford’s decision led to a discussion on the popular podcast The Rest Is Entertainment, hosted by author Richard Osman and Guardian columnist Marina Hyde.

Osman was relatively charitable towards FFB, admiring in principle what it set out to achieve, and admitting that there are some uneasy political tensions in the literary world.

In a clip being widely circulated on social media, however, Hyde rather cuttingly retorted that there is nothing about the campaign that she admires, and that she has particular disdain for the suggestion (as she takes the campaign to be making) that “everything is politics, and that art is the same as politics”.

“Art and politics are not the same, and if you insist that all art must be politicised… then what you are wishing for is a contraction of human experience, a contraction of human possibility, because you are saying these things essentially semantically map onto each other,” she said.

“This is nonsense. Art can exist just for its own sake. The pleasure of these things, just for their own sake, must be allowed to exist.”

A pro-Palestine demonstration at the entrance to the Hay Festival on 1 June 2024. Photo: Steven May/Alamy

I don’t necessarily disagree with what Hyde is saying, but I argue that she is completely missing the point of the fossil fuel divestment movement in arts and culture. The point is not to insist on the politicisation of art – it is to delegitimise and stigmatise the funders of fossil fuels.

I spent some years involved in a campaign to end BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum, survived by tenacious colleagues at organisations such as Culture Unstained. Why did we do this? To answer that, we first must answer the question: why does BP hand cash to a renowned public institution such as the British Museum? 

The implicit, and sometimes naïve, suggestion in arguments such as Hyde’s can be that companies like BP or Baillie Gifford hand over their money to cultural events and institutions out of pure benevolence. This is not the case – not least evidenced by how quickly these funds have been snatched back under the slightest pressure.

Firms such as BP pay to plaster their logos over the walls of respected institutions so that, whenever the latest oil spill or human rights abuse hit the headlines, some of that respect continues to rub off on them.

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This is a pillar of their continued social licence to operate in spite of public opinion mounting against them. It is not a philanthropic donation. It is an investment in their own good public relations. And it’s an investment with a good rate of return to boot, when mere scraps from the table of the billions of profits from oil and gas make their way into arts and culture. 

Divestment campaigners recognise this fundamental truth of corporate sponsorship of arts and culture, and the movement to end this state of affairs is not an appeal to moral purity, but a strategic attempt to drain these corporations of their political power.

Yes, as part of such a campaign, activists might ask authors participating at events to participate in tactical interventions such as protests and boycotts. But what Hyde seemingly does not appreciate is that these are the means, not the ends. 

We did not want the trustees of the British Museum to showcase their moral virtue by making a strongly-worded statement about the evils of BP. We wanted to stop BP from being able to launder its reputation through association with one of our most respected public institutions.

The arts and culture divestment movement has a clear strategic focus. But in that clip of Marina Hyde, the aims of Fossil Free Books are being reduced to a caricature of ‘cancel culture’. 

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Hyde’s odd conflation acts as if Hay Festival was in and of itself art. At the risk of stating the obvious, and as much as I sincerely love the Hay Festival, literary festivals are not art. Even the supposedly ridiculous idealists of Fossil Free Books only deign to call for the “books industry” to be free from the influence of fossil fuel finance, while Hyde seems to suppose that art itself is threatened by politicisation.

It is also interesting to note that this so-called ‘politicisation’ only commences when activists dare to point out that some of the sponsors of these literary festivals have financial interest in genocide and climate breakdown.

This assumes that the corporate sponsored literary tent or exhibition space was the platonic ideal of experiencing art on its own terms, divorced entirely from wider political context. In reality, the politicisation of such events began when corporate sponsors bought their way into these spaces. And they did so for expressly political purposes. 

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For someone who speaks so loftily of the need for art to exist purely for its own sake, it is striking that Hyde cannot seem to even imagine, for instance, children being exposed to literature were it not for the patronage of massive corporations.

But to accept a world in which access to art is mediated by the purse strings of hedge funders, arms dealers, and oil men is to accept the permanent politicisation of culture. If we indeed agree that “the pleasure of these things, just for their own sake, must be allowed to exist” that must mean existing free of such vested financial and political interests. 

Contrary to Hyde’s flawed understanding, it is climate activists who dare to dream of art for art’s sake.


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