March 16, 2007

Hypocrisy surrounding the Louvre / Abu Dhabi deal

Posted at 1:03 pm in Similar cases

An insightful analysis of the criticism that has been received by the Louvre for its decision to collaborate with Abu Dhabi in exchange for funding.

Arabian Business (UAE)

Last updated: Thursday, 15 March 2007 04:00 UAE time
Less than artful criticism
by Ben Flanagan on Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Reading some of the West’s coverage of Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s recent forays into the art world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Louvre Museum in Paris lets people in for free, or that London’s Tate Modern pays for its art with chicken soup and crayons rather than cash.

“Appalling!” was how one of the Louvre’s honorary curators described Abu Dhabi’s $1.3bn deal to borrow the Louvre’s name and hundreds of artworks. “It’s a shame to see France selling out its heritage,” he said.

Appalling? Hardly. The museum has thousands of works in storage, denied to the public. And given that items plundered during the Napoleonic wars – some of which were returned, some not – bolstered the Louvre’s growth, this is fundamentally hypocritical. At least the UAE is paying for it.

But making a connection between money and art is, for some, more distasteful than acknowledging the plunderous histories of the Louvre, and also the British Museum, whose possession of the Elgin Marbles is still contentious in Greece.

Posturing liberals in the West seem disgusted at the fact that Abu Dhabi is paying billions of dollars on art for its new Saadiyat cultural district, or that last week’s DIFC Gulf Art Fair in Dubai actually had works available for sale.

Don’t they know that the art worlds of Paris, London and New York are worth tens of billions of dollars, with canny business people working at all the top galleries?

What is really behind this is snobbism over the ‘nouveau’ art scene in the UAE. Visiting journalists from the West see the wealth here, gawp, and are jealous that their own – also wealthy – countries are not putting more money into arts and culture.

Jealousy is one thing, but racism is another. And sadly a report in last week’s Observer newspaper – an otherwise well-respected UK Sunday title – crossed this line.

Written by the journalist Peter Conrad, it damned Dubai’s arts scene for being driven by money, rather than pure artistic appreciation.

That would be a fair enough criticism, were it not all backed up by a string of racial slurs, or – at the very least – severe disdain for Arab culture. Many comments resembled those you may expect from a quizzical but hapless colonial-era tea merchant.

“As he swept off with an entourage that resembled a laundry load of linen drying in a stiff breeze, I noticed that one of his hands clutched a set of prayer beads,” Conrad wrote of the Dubai International Financial Centre’s governor Dr Omar Bin Sulaiman.

“A long chorus line of grizzled men dressed in towels and sheets filed from an office lobby, shuffled into a semi-circle, and began a tribal chant, rhythmically jabbing the air with canes that should have been used to discipline their camels,” was how Conrad described the Gulf Art Fair procession.

Conrad says that the terms ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ are ‘oxymoronic’. But the two are strongly linked in London or New York – just less obviously so, because of the wealth of cultural history in those two cities.

This aside – do the artists themselves care about where the money comes from? The Louvre may be without the now priceless Mona Lisa if wealthy patrons had not bestowed funds upon the artist, Leonardo da Vinci. It’s just the art snobs and journalists that object.

Talking of journalists, many visit Dubai on free press trips – which often include business-class travel and five star hotel accommodation – from all over the world.

On their return home, some write gushing reports of the place, others write fairly. But a few choose to put the boot in due to some misplaced and hypocritical sense of journalistic objectivity.

But one thing is for sure: as the art scene grows in Dubai and – especially – Abu Dhabi, the UAE will increasingly be on the West’s cultural radar. We’ll wait to see how visiting journalists – who will, by then, have to pay their own air fares – react.

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