"The Gulf Art War" by Negar Azimi, The New Yorker, December 19 and 26, 2016.
As anyone knows, the Arab World is currently in the middle of an economic spotlight. Globalized trade of the oil market on a massive scale has poured wealth into the Arabian Peninsula, and Emirati rulers and royals want to expand this economic spotlight to a cultural one as well. In the mid-2000s, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates met with the director of the Guggenheim Museum to discuss plans for a $27 billion “island of happiness” in the middle of Abu Dhabi, with a cultural district as its centerpiece. A Guggenheim Abu Dhabi began the process of becoming reality, but artists realized harsh labor conditions faced by immigrant workers coming from the Indian subcontinent. With circumstances similar to 17th-century indentured servitude, with sponsored passage across the Gulf, human rights violations of the laborers rose to the forefront of the conversation about the new museum. Artists as part of the Gulf Labor arctivist coalition protested the conditions of the museum’s construction and withheld their art from the new collection.
I view this as an important resistance to the notion, seemingly widely prevalent in the Arab World recently, that enough money can make anything happen: a World Cup, a UCI World Championship, a Guggenheim Museum… seemingly endless purchase of entertainment for oil moguls and royal families. Cultural evolution has to occur willfully, if not naturally, and cannot be forced on the world to take place in the desert--especially on the backs of unfair labor. However, I do recognize the importance of efforts to bring young countries like the UAE into the global marketplace of ideas, especially while trying to combat the spread of terrorism in the region. Hopefully, modernization and cultural advancement will eventually spawn the Emirates’ own cultural identity beyond that of purchasing a Western one.
The idea of art as an instrument for provoking change in the world is an umbrella that extends across many media: installation art, performance art, murals, protest art--all draw from that same idea. With social practice art, however, there is a distinction in this general purpose, which states that the art itself is the change.
While audience participation and performance installations are old ideas, it seems as though the concept of change as art is new, and revolutionary: making the world more beautiful and expressive in ways that benefit communities. Artists can bring art into areas where its power is neglected or yet unrealized, transforming the community into a thriving exchange of ideas.
There seems to be an interesting differentiation between whether the art is the product of change--the absence or reduction of lead in water, or the “human encounters” that occur in a South Bronx neighborhood--or the intent to create such change. The latter is referred to by Mel Chin as an “invisible aesthetic, a change that people can’t perceive.” As for “human encounters,” the debate is between whether the exchanges, conversations and discussions themselves, or the physical thing or idea that facilitated them, is the “art.” Art can inspire such encounters, but it can also be the subject of them.
Is there something aesthetically beautiful about human conversation and interaction? Is something aesthetically beautiful necessary to provoke those exchanges?
Art often gets at pointing out or highlighting the ills and shortcomings of society, including issues of racial and economic privilege of opportunity or institutional neglect. But instead of just drawing the attention and maybe sympathy of those typically unaffected by the issues portrayed, social practice art intends to provide solutions for the very problems it is inspired by. Artists wield significant social influence and power in their art, and social practice “arctivists” have set out to channel that influence towards the greater good of stronger, more engaged and healthier communities.