James McNeil Whistler and modern Middle Eastern artists share quite a disappointing characteristic: their art was not fully appreciated, or even recognized, during many of their active years. For one reason or another, society did not “find” their work on a mainstream level until either a literal or figurative revolution had taken place. In the 1870s, society encountered difficulties embracing Whistler’s experiments with what we would today call abstract expressionism, or even recognizing his pieces as art. He was, instead, accused of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” It was not until the 1920s, after Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque had shocked and intrigued the art world with cubism that art critics and enthusiasts began to revel in the dramatic and unique work of Whistler.
For many Middle Eastern artists working in the mid-20th century, they encountered a similar problem, but instead of the world not being receptive to their art, the world was unable to even see their art. Due to the turmoil of the last 50 years, art produced in the Middle East struggled to find a spot on the international stage. Even today, Iranian artist Ahmad Aali had to get permission from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control to display his work at a 2013 exhibition in New York.
Both articles reflect the apparent fact that society will only stop glancing over a new form of art when they have been distracted enough to it. Picasso and the cubism movement drew the world’s attention to abstract art, and the recent economic boom in the Middle East has drawn the world’s attention to Middle Eastern culture. This is even exemplified in the opening of a new branch of the Guggenheim Collection in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Jessica Morgan, a curator at the Tate Modern in London, puts it well for both Whistler and the artists from the Middle East: “often the work had not been shown simply because there weren’t conditions for showing it.” Why would a curator in the late 1800s put up a Whistler if people were not even recognizing it as art; or, how would a curator even acquire Iranian art if the country’s government had declared war against the West? However, the curating of art from previous years can offer an interesting contrast to more recent work, especially now that current Middle Eastern art is more readily available for Western viewing, in no small part thanks to the internet. Something is always waiting to be found.