A Pop Culture of Oil Primer

Panel discussions at global hydrocarbon summits are more likely to center on enhanced recovery techniques and fractional distillation than they are on music videos by Mos Def or an avant-garde oil painting in Paris.

But even oil wonks, steeped as they are in the minutiae of oil policy and economics, cannot overlook the indelible ‘soft’ impact that black gold has had on the cultures of oil-producing and oil-consuming nations.

In the early twentieth century, during the rise of global mass media, German thinker Walter Benjamin perceived technology’s ability to transform human consciousness. Similarly, our globalized oil-driven economy has changed the way we see the world – our politics, our environment,  our history and future – and generated a broad spectrum of artistic reflections on this change.

Let this serve as a primer on some of the areas in which the oil industry has penetrated popular culture.

Visual Art

The unconventional paintings of Shiva Ahmadi, an Iranian-born artist now living in Michigan, explores the social and political dynamics of oil in the Middle East. With her emphasis on the role of capitalism in Western dependence on oil, Ahmadi is perhaps best-known for her series of oil paintings that use actual oil barrels as their canvas – literally oil on oil. Her work evokes a symbolic surrealist language to deconstruct ancient Persian myths and wrap her country’s traditional culture around one of the defining facets of Middle Eastern society today.

German artist Manfred Breuersbrock, meanwhile, has carved out a niche in the art world with his novel approach to oil painting, by which he limits himself to using nothing but crude oil as paint. Breuersbrock has become something of an oil-spill-hunter. After the 2001 Baltic Carrier and 2003 Prestige oil spills, he traveled to the contaminated beaches of Denmark and Spain, respectively, to take the photographs and collect the crude that would form the foundation of his Crude Oil on Canvas series.

Of the artists presented here, Russian conceptual artist Andrei Molodkin goes furthest in presenting oil as the essential ingredient in modern capitalist society – literally its flesh and blood. In 2009, he made waves when he revealed his plan to boil down human bodies into oil for his sculptures, a process he imagined would produce a “yellowish sweet crude”. He is best known for his three-dimensional sculptures consisting of oil barrels, compressors and piping to pump transparent acrylic boxes full of Chechen or Iraqi oil.

Molodkin’s fascination with oil began when he served in the Soviet army, where he worked on an oil-powered train ferrying missiles across northern Russia. There, soldiers burned oil to keep warm and sniffed it to get high, and Molodkin learned to transform oil from an organic resource into an artistic form. Now, his art raises questions about the role of oil in society, using simple but effective metaphors. His sculpture Democracy, for example, is an empty vessel filled with oil, resting atop a prism of blinding white light.


Peak oil – the controversial theory that we have reached, or will soon reach, the maximum rate of global production and that oil scarcity is imminent – has been a favorite among writers of speculative fiction for years. The post-oil doomsday scenario has captured the imagination of a generation of writers who use the collapse of our oil-based civilization as the basis for their futuristic thrillers. Many of these titles share a disdain for materialist, consumerist industrial society and revel instead in the peace and prosperity of nature, praising the self-sufficiency of local, small-scale enterprises that crop up by necessity in a post-oil world.

English environmentalist John Seymour’s 1996 novel Retrieved from the Future describes a utopian post-oil world in which renewable energies power a feudal society that keeps its citizens happier and healthier than they were before the oil crash.

James Howard Kunstler, who warned of the imminent peril posed by peak oil in his 2005 bestseller The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, also wrote the 2008 novel World Made by Hand. The book describes a post-oil community built from the ground up, in which a new barter and trade economic system replaces globalized capitalism, local institutions replace corporations and federal governments, and people return en masse to religion and traditional gender roles.

Other peak-oil thriller titles include Last Light by Alex Scarrow (2007), Ausgebrannt by German writer Andreas Eschbach (2007, in German), and Shell Game by Steve Alten (2008) , which links September 11 to the Iraq war and a neo-conservative agenda to invade Iran.

In the vein of more current (and more realistic) oil literature is the work of Indonesian writer Nelly Fatma Mulia. Under her penname Puti Lenggo, she offers a peek into the dirty side of the Indonesian oil industry in her 2005 novel Cinta di Marindo Oil (Love at Marindo Oil). She originally wrote the book in English, fearing she would be unable to find an Indonesian publisher willing to publish the book in Bahasa Indonesia. Over the course of her 25-year career at Jakarta-based state oil company Pertamina, Mulia gained an inside look at the rampant corruption of the Indonesian oil industry during and after General Suharto’s 32-year rule. Cinta di Marindo Oil centers around a love story in an environment characterized by scheming elites dipping into the lucrative Indonesian oil industry – perhaps not the most romantic backdrop, but perfect for a tale of political intrigue.


The peak-oil question mentioned above, speculative as it is, has also found a receptive audience beyond the literary world. A rousing performance by soul and R&B group Tower of Power, titled Only So Much Oil in the Ground, communicates the peak oil message clearly and concisely: Can’t cut loose without that juice / If we keep on like we doing things for sure / Will not be cool – It’s a fact / We just ain’t got sufficient fuel.

The song fits the big-picture approach that most of the writers and visual artists discussed here have tended toward, but other music about the oil industry seems to crop up situationally, in reaction to specific events.

The most recent of these was BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which spawned a litany of musical responses. One of my personal favorites of these is a collaboration between rapper Mos Def, guitarist Lenny Kravitz, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans, Trombone Shorty, and actor Tim Robbins, entitled It Ain’t My Fault in a nod to BP’s apparent attitude to the spill. The spill also generated a range of home-video musical responses.

The death of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed in 1995 for his leadership role in a movement protesting the displacement of the Ogoni people by the multinational petroleum industry, has made a lasting impact on the global musical community.  Shortly after his death, the Finnish group Ultra Bra dedicated their song Ken Saro-Wiwa on kuollot (Ken Saro-Wiwa is dead) to his memory, while more recently the hip hop duo Reflection Eternal take on the execution, along with broader oil industry issues, in their protest number Ballad of the Black Gold.

The above is just a taste of the media generated by global oil, and we’ll be updating the blog with more colorful reflections in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, we encourage you to send your own oil-culture findings to us at amrit.naresh@openoil.net.

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