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.
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.