"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.
We went to visit the VCU's Business School on October 17th to take a look at Noah Scalin's newest creation. Scalin, a prominent Richmond artist who gained national recognition for his "Skull-a-Day" series, had been asked to serve as the Business School's Artist in Residence, a move designed to highlight VCU's commitment to innovation and the arts. Despite his disciplinary differences to those around him, Scalin seemed decently stoked on the new challenge. The Maggie Walker piece is very striking, and personally seeing the amount of thought and planning that went into a seemingly simple arrangement of clothing was really cool. The entire arrangement carries the slight air of a publicity stunt, which wasn't helped by the questions asked by the audience, who actually asked Scalin if he specialized in making portraits of Maggie Walker out of clothes. But, it definitely is a step forward to exposing more people to cool art in Richmond.
The contrast between the actions of Russian authorities and those of Rudy Giuliani's office shows a lot about the differences between a "free" state and one that is not. The very fact that such a show as "Sensation" would be funded by taxpayer money, even if facing controversy, is a Western reality that would never exist in Russia. And, that the city of New York tried to impose their view in the courts instead of by political arrests and exiles shows another way Western society has come a bit further than Russia. But, the lawsuit itself shows a stark lacking in tolerance and openness that is remarkably similar to that of what was, and to some extent remains, a police state.
Russia's status as such is not only visible in the arts, but also in their handling of other affairs, including several journalists' investigation into possible government involvement in the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings, a coordinated terrorist attack of a cluster of communist-era apartment buildings that left over 300 dead. The finding of a special forces-issue bomb that had been installed and then later dismantled in a fourth building led many to question that the attack was an inside job designed to be blamed on Chechen Islamists, prompting a brief, successful bombing mission of Chechnya that encouraged nationalism and support for new Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his party. One of the journalists involved in investigating the bombings after a government commission ruled them the fault of Chechen terrorists was caught at a stoplight, asked to step out of his car and open his trunk. While his car was being searched, an officer threw a gun into his trunk yelling "he has a gun!" The journalist was arrested on the spot for possession of the weapon, and served five years in prison.
This is a long way from asking a Brooklyn gallery to take a show down, but the government deciding how to write history or what constitutes appropriate culture are both examples of a police state. On top of all of this, Giuliani showed incredible disregard for "separation of church and state." There is no official state religion to offend. The government cannot regulate anyone's expression of religion or disdain of such, it has absolutely no business doing so.
In censorship attempts and general attitudes towards tolerance and openness, we have to ask ourselves--are we really as far removed from, or superior to, the former Soviet Union?
While doing some further research after reading Holland Cotter's October 27th article on "Globalism's New Spin" in mainstream New York galleries, I came upon another one of his articles from nearly a year ago. Titled "Toward a Museum of the 21st Century," Cotter laments on the art world's seeming lack of awareness of what a 21st century museum really is, despite being fifteen (at the time) years into it. A museum for the new century, the global century, is not simply a museum labeled for "contemporary" art with gigantism-based architecture that is really a piece of abstract sculpture in itself. Many new "contemporary art" museums feature work that was, indeed, pioneering in the late-20th century- at least in terms of content and media. Performance art, Conceptualism and photography were indeed new forms of art but were not new in subject matter and attitude: the views of the artists who made such pieces were formulated before the feminist movement, before the Black Panther movement and long before the global age. Plus, museum-goers are still by and large upper-class whites. A true 21st century museum will be built around a global view, with work from all reaches of the planet represented, and, possibly even more importantly, will draw far more people than just intellectual-class whites through its doors.
When the American economy began to dip into a deep trough In the 1990s, the American art market was suddenly bombarded with an influx of work from previously afterthought parts of the world, such as the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. However, the extreme prevalence of using "globalism" as a marketing tool tainted the many perceptions of art from large swaths of the world. Recently, however, globalism has seen a resurgence as a lens for major New York curators to see the world, allowing them to search for and display art from non-Western, undeveloped nations. This includes large galleries, who have often been far slower to respond to cultural diversity than small, community based New York galleries such as the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. This is helped in part by a growing notion of globalism in art as being a separate trend than economic globalization, making it less hackneyed for content. ("In the Art World, Globalism’s New Spin" by Holland Cotter, The New York Times, October 27 2016.)