EssaysWeekend

What Does It Mean to Be a Cultural Disrupter?

by Thomas Micchelli on January 4, 2014

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Excerpt from the Times “Disrupters” feature (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Coverage of the visual arts in the New York Times hit a new low last weekend in its Arts & Leisure feature, “The Disrupters,” a roundup of interviews with “people who broke the rules” during 2013, “a year of cultural upheaval.”

The rule breaker chosen by the Times and written up by Carol Vogel was Sheikha al-Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, “the 30-year-old chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority.” Dubbed “The Power Broker” in the article’s subtitle, the sheika was responsible for installing “14 monumental new bronze sculptures by the British artist Damien Hirst in front of a women’s and children’s health center on the outskirts of Doha,” a project that “grabbed the world’s attention.”

While the other “disrupters” spotlighted by the Times, whether or not you agree with the choices (Miley Cyrus?), can claim a creative role in music, dance, theater, TV, or film, the visual arts selection — reflecting the priorities not of artists but of those who buy and sell art — is solely about wealth, influence, and connections.

Vogel — who wrote a fawning piece about the opening of Hirst’s retrospective at the Al Riwaq exhibition space in Qatar’s capital, Doha — tells us that the sheikha is a “sister of the new emir,” though she doesn’t elaborate on the country’s political structure, in which the emir, who took the throne in June at the age of 33 after the abdication of his father, reigns as an absolute monarch. Nor does she mention that the Thani dynasty has been in power since the middle of the 19th century.

While it is too early to gauge what kind of ruler the current emir will be, his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (who had deposed his own father in a bloodless coup), “was considered a progressive leader — vocally supporting children’s charities and encouraging education,” as reported by the British newspaper The Independent on the occasion of his abdication:

Although he had wrestled power from his father, Sheikh Hamad’s autocratic reign was reasonably peaceful, and he even went as far as to vocally support the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011.

With a stable government, Sheikh Hamad was able to focus on turning Qatar from a small desert backwater into a major world power by continuing to exploit the country’s vast oil fields, and discovering and tapping the world’s third largest gas reserves.

While The Independent paints the former emir’s opponents as “religious conservative groups in the Arab world, who condemn him for forging links with Western nations, including Israel,” and credits him with developing Al-Jazeera, “the first pan-Arab satellite news channel” into one of “the world’s most respected media organizations,” any criticism of the state — as James Panero points out in an essay titled “The Widening Gulf” in the December 2013 issue of The New Criterion —  “remains a high crime”:

In 2011, Mohammed al-Ajami, a Qatari-born literature student, was arrested for allegedly insulting the Emir and, a year later, sentenced to life imprisonment, reduced to fifteen years after appeal.

Panero also underscores the plight of guest workers in a country of 2 million where only 250,000 enjoy the full rights of citizenship:

Just last month, Amnesty International issued a 166-page report condemning how migrant workers in Qatar are “treated like cattle.” The country’s acceptance of “sponsorship” employment, a practice used throughout the region, ties laborers to their sponsor employers who have imported them into the country. […] The report detailed dangerous working conditions, squalid living standards, wages reduced or withheld for months, and workers forced to offer bribes in return for their passports.  […] At the current rate of worker mortality, one estimate says that 4,000 laborers will die in Qatar as the country makes preparations to host the 2022 World Cup.

The cultural pages of the Times, however, have emphasized only Qatar’s high-flying expenditures on art, which include a quarter-billion dollars dropped on an 1892–1893 version of Cézanne’s “The Card Players,” which the newspaper featured in a front-page story by Robin Pogrebin in July. However, as Hyperallergic’s Mostafa Heddaya noted in a post that appeared the same day, “none of this is actually news. The most recent of these buys, the Cézanne, took place two years ago”:

In fact, the article readily admits that comparatively few artworks have even been directly linked to Qatar’s buying spree — most of the transactions, largely made with auction houses, are executed through a complex web of intermediaries to allegedly avoid spooking the market.

“The point,” Heddaya concludes, “is that five years of blockbuster art buys and nine-figure total expenditures is the tipping point to get out of The Art Newspaper and onto page A1 of the New York Times.”

For the Times to announce “the Qataris have arrived,” as Heddaya suggests, can be taken in itself as an example of the soft power wielded by art and culture. Panero likens the Qataris’ art-buying and museum-building binge to the CIA’s postwar fronting of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the United States Information Agency’s promoting of Abstract Expressionism “as an alternative to Soviet Realism”:

Such initiatives, which were considered scandalous when first revealed, now come off as sound (and bloodless) Cold War policy. It would be nice to see Qatar’s cultural deployment as a similar force for liberalization, but the country’s track record on human rights complicates this interpretation.

The Times casts the sheikha’s activities in terms of aesthetic intervention — the shakeup of a conservative society through art, both Western and Islamic — but the very act of reporting them, and their implied approval by the West, proves their efficacy as statecraft, whether that was the prime motivator or not.

The soft power of culture, in the short and long term, depends on political myopia and historical amnesia as much as it does on public relations and message control. We see it at work in New York today, where the venerable New York City Ballet is now linked to the name of David H. Koch thanks to his gift of $100 million over ten years to renovate the former New York State Theater. How long will it take before Koch’s anti-labor, anti-environmental and anti-health care efforts are overshadowed by his philanthropy?

When we enter Carnegie Hall, the Frick Collection or the Morgan Library & Museum, do we think about the workers at Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills, who endured 12-hour shifts seven days a week for subsistence wages, with only one holiday, the Fourth of July, per year? Or the role of Henry Clay Frick, Carnegie’s virulently anti-union partner, in the breaking of the Homestead Strike of 1892, which left nine strikers dead?

Or J.P. Morgan’s arms dealing during the Civil War, which counted among his earliest windfalls? As Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States (2003), Morgan “bought five thousand rifles for $3.50 each from an army arsenal, and sold them to a general in the field for $22 each. The rifles were defective and would shoot off the thumbs of the soldiers using them.”

In 1889, Carnegie wrote an article for the North American Review called “Wealth” (later republished as Part 1 of “The Gospel of Wealth”), in which he called upon his fellow “rich men” to bequeath their fortunes to public institutions “by which men are helped in body and mind,” thereby “returning their surplus wealth to the mass of their fellows in the forms best calculated to do them lasting good.”

He built his first Carnegie Library in Braddock, Pennsylvania, one of his steel mill towns, where the photographer and activist LaToya Ruby Frazier, a relentless critic of the ravages of capitalism, was born and is now in residence at the library.

Koch, according to his Wikipedia entry, supports gay marriage and stem cell research. He opposed the war in Iraq and the war on drugs. These views, you could say, are of a piece with his free-market, libertarian mindset, but, like Carnegie’s philanthropy, they also reflect the complexities of means and motivations that, since the time of the Medicis, have manipulated society and culture for better or worse.

While it shouldn’t be assumed that the Times’s coverage of Qatar — which has focused solely on the amount of money spent on blue-chip artists, galleries and auction houses — has been going out of its way to skirt these complexities, it is grotesque to suggest that a scion of the kingdom’s ruling family, born into incalculable wealth and privilege, can be considered a cultural disrupter.

If, as Vogel tells us, the Hirst sculptures at the women’s and children’s health center, depicting “the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus and ending with a statue of a 46-foot-tall anatomically correct baby boy,” were never intended “to shock nor offend residents of this conservative Middle Eastern city,” she never follows through on whether or not the residents were offended — a necessary detail in gauging how well Sheikha al-Mayassa’s campaign to “transform this oil-rich capital city into an international cultural destination” is working.

Instead, Vogel blithely transitions to the sheikha’s activities in art acquisition, museum building and introducing art to schoolchildren — “highly educated about art, [she] has deep pockets and has emerged as a power player.” And that, it seems, is what it takes to be a disrupter.

A more credible idea of cultural disruption, however, was put forward by Holland Cotter in his contribution to the paper’s New Year’s Day feature, “Great Expectations for 2014: New York Times Critics on What They Want to See,” in which he writes:

Finally, I’m hoping against hope that the New York art establishment will wake up to the fact that by continuing to pile all its money on a minute handful of artists in a minute handful of galleries, it’s killing this city as a home to experimental new art. Spring’s the time for a palace revolution.

Thanks to Mostafa Heddaya for his help with this article.

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  • fahrender

    Spot on. Do not relent in this kind of reporting!

  • punktoad

    The art world (market) is just a reflection of the “winner take all” society we have come to exist in.

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