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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

As It Was in Iran, So It Shall Be in Qatar: Art as Alibi

Posted by on Tue, Dec 10, 2013 at 1:28 PM

If you were in the streets of Doha, Qatar, today, you might see a large black sedan drive past, trailing a life-size mockup of Damien Hirst's sculpture of a real dead shark suspended in a tank. This is how an exhibition of Hirst's sculptures at Doha's Al Riwaq Art Space is being advertised. It's also being advertised through this massive social media campaign. It's sponsored by the woman named the most powerful person in contemporary art by ArtReview this year: Sheikha Mayassa.

James Panero has a fascinating piece in this month's New Criterion on what the collecting power of certain Middle Eastern states means.

They've imported high-ticket Western art, modern and contemporary. American universities like Texas A&M, New York University. The Guggenheim. Leading architects including Frank Gehry, I.M. Pei, Rafael Viñoly, Jean Nouvel.

There's no question what those entities get out of the deal. It's green. It makes the world go round. Oh, yeah, and there are some niceties.

The cultural partners that Qatar and the other Emirates are importing to their principalities largely claim to be there in the interest of greater global understanding. There is a “conviction that interaction with new ideas and people who are different is valuable and necessary, and a commitment to educating students who are true citizens of the world,” as New York University says of its presence in Abu Dhabi. Of course, our Western elites would show little interest if these countries were still merely made up of poor fishermen and pearl divers. They are there to sell, but what precisely are these countries out to buy?

Soft power, much like the American C.I.A. wielded in the Cold War, and cover for continued basic human-rights abuses, Panero writes.

He tells the story of the Qatari poet imprisoned for 15 years for allegedly insulting the Emir. One of his poems asked the same question Panero poses: "Why, why do these regimes/ import everything from the West—/ everything but the rule of law, that is,/ and everything but freedom?”

Panero then goes on to share the story of the expensive Western art bought under the Shah in Iran, which, in order to avoid being destroyed during the revolution, had to be scurried off into storage—where it remains.

The terrible history of Iran demonstrates what can happen when a modernist culture merely overlays a repressive regime. In such circumstances, artists and organizations might profit by spreading modernity, but they are also abetting a compromised state. The two go hand in hand, liberalizing on the one and oppressing on the other. The art, meanwhile, continues its own transformation, evolving from images of Provençal peasant life and visions of abstract thought into symbols of autocratic power. Should a state like Qatar ever collapse, the results would leave a hole not only in the art market but in the culture of art itself. In the meantime, épater la bourgeoisie has become state policy in the modernizing capital of Doha, while épater l’Emir remains a capital offense.

This "hole in the culture of art itself" is interesting. Does he mean that if a state like Qatar, holding all this art, were to collapse, then the art would either be destroyed or disappeared, and that would constitute a "hole in the culture of art itself"? Like a bullet through the body of Western art?

If that were to happen, I could hardly sympathize with any of the players. (Maybe some of the artists, the dead ones, but certainly not with someone like Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons.) Because the wound is self-inflicted. In fact, a "hole in the culture of art itself" is a preexisting condition. Rich Americans are not Mother Theresas, even if you compare them to rich ruling Qataris. This art is already made of the conditions of widespread inequality, and you might even call it human-rights abuses, when you consider statistics about how the poorest Americans live today.

Panero writes,

Anyone who follows the rise of the art market can safely say that global demand has moved beyond the realm of aesthetics on to other concerns. Blue-chip art has become a speculative sport, a trophy hunt, a diversified hedge, and a means for money laundering. Art now serves any number of functions that have little connection with value and connoisseurship.

When I.M. Pei says he wants culture to be more emphasized in oil and gas states, yet culture at these levels means little more than money, then who is influencing whom in these purchases? It's just money versus money. The rich and the ruling always find their way to each other. The real borders are not between countries but between them and everyone else.

Hat tip to Mister Sean.


Comments (4) RSS

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Fnarf 1
The bankruptcy of Western cultural institutions, art and architecture in particular, can easily be overstated, but what's happening in Qatar is exceptionally destructive -- and indicative of the problem elsewhere. Pei, Gehry, Hirst ARE the hole in the culture of art, and their presence in Qatar is proof positive not just of the vacuity and soullessness of Qatar but of Pei, Gehry, Hirst.

Art has always been tied to money, but it has always been tied to something else besides. That is all utterly gone now. The big-time international art market, whether it is in Qatar, Dubai, London or New York, and the magnificent temples it takes place in, this diamond-encrusted sewer, is going to shock people in the future with its banality, and it would embarrass the people who created it and bought it except for the fact that they will all be hanging like Mussolini and his wife from the gibbet.

None of this billionaire sheik shit has anything to do with art, of course. Big-dollar art stopped sometime after Warhol, sometime before Schnabel. It's a hoard of wealth but it has nothing to do with the world, unless you're talking about a world without interest. Maybe it does; maybe the culture this filth celebrates IS the culture: the culture of slave-owners. In that case, I'll side with the proles. Fuck Damien Hirst. Fuck Frank Gehry. Fuck empty money culture.
Posted by Fnarf on December 10, 2013 at 2:57 PM · Report this
Fnarf 2
It's not just Qatar, either. Read Nick Parmgarten's recent article in the New Yorker about big-dollar art in New York, and try not to wish for the immediate death of every person named within it, starting with Marc Rich (already dead) and Roman Abramovich:…
Posted by Fnarf on December 10, 2013 at 3:07 PM · Report this
cressona 3
Jen, nice riff on the New Criterion piece.

Reading this, I got to thinking of the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Ark., built with Walton family (Walmart) money. I can't speak to the taste of the Qataris, but from what I've seen, I believe the Waltons have shown impeccable taste with Crystal Bridges. And I'm sure if I ever found myself in Arkansas for some other reason, I'd make a point to visit the place, and perhaps multiple times.

I wish the museum were closer. But at least it's in America, not the Middle East. At least it's a museum where the art doesn't appear quite so out of context. At least the Waltons were gracious enough to share their wealth in such a public way. I don't know.

And I'm someone who's shopped at Walmart maybe once in this millennium.
Posted by cressona on December 10, 2013 at 3:07 PM · Report this
I visited Doha (my husband had a conference there). Here's what I saw;
- first thing on the tv (Arabic station) - Beyonce singing Single Ladies
- laying by the pool listening to Enya only to hear the call to prayer over the loudspeakers nearby
-visited a large mall, in the middle of the afternoon, as virtually the only woman in the place (but they did have Starbucks, Burger King and McDonald's
- realizing the only way to tell if someone was from Qatar is if they were a man wearing the long white gown or a woman in a burqua (they import nearly all their workers and they range in style of dress).
- visited the exquisite I.M.Pei designed Museum of Islamic Art, only to realize none of it was from Qatar (mostly Iranian and Syrian).
- you think we're building downtown? Go to any capital city there, including Doha, and it's a sea of cranes.

I get the impression that the men of those countries want one foot in one century and the other foot in another century. Good luck with that.
Posted by westello on December 10, 2013 at 3:52 PM · Report this

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