When Art Turns into a Sales Pitch

Umberto Eco once took a trip to the United States of America (USA) in the 70s, with an amazing plan to visit national museums and attraction parks. A book about this journey was published under the all inspiring title “Travels in Hyperreality”.

The main idea was how copies of real things particularly stimulate the fascination of the public. The fact that a real object is presented in an artificial space produces an amplification of feelings: horror, beauty, terror, inspiration, etc. Among the copies and reconstructions he analyzed, we find President Lyndon Johnson’s Oval Office, a medieval witch laboratory, a statue of the Mona Lisa and a copy of the Venus of Milo. His conclusion was that the culture of fake is built on the idea of retrieved reality. If you read this 1975 book now, you can see how a region develops a mania to be the central attraction of the world, and therefore buys everything, even if it is not necessarily authentic.

The fascination in the American parks and museums comes from the fact that the copy should be as close to reality as possible. Nowadays this culture of fake has been transferred to another part of the globe, the rich kingdoms of the Gulf, such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. In this transfer we witness a new step further from reality. If the American culture of entertainment is based on the principal of the perfect copies of the world, in the new lands of fake, the copy of the copy is also somehow fascinating. Las Vegas has its copy of the Egyptian Pyramids. This is fascinating. When you look at the big cities of the Gulf, you feel they are making copies of Las Vegas.

´The fascination in the American parks and museums comes from the fact that the copy should be as close to reality as possible. Nowadays this culture of fake has been transferred to another part of the globe, the rich kingdoms of the Gulf, such as Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia´

It is not surprising for a city to want to combine economic prosperity with the culture of entertainment. But when it comes to the art world, things can become problematic. We enter the Louvre or the Guggenheim and we immediately know that we are in the fascinating world of simulacra, that we step out of the real reality. In a couple of years there will be not one single Louvre, the one in Paris, nor one single Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the one in New York, as copies of both are planned to open soon in the city of Abu Dhabi. You step into one of those copies and you know that you are in a double layered simulacrum. What special fascinating effect will this have?

One thing sounds even more intriguing. In the world of museums and cultural institutions the exchange of exhibitions or collections is common practice. Thus National Museums of the United Arabs Emirates (UAE) could normally develop a collaboration policy with these prestigious museums. Is there a need to build copies of all museums? Where is the prestige? In the fact of owning copies or in the ability to truly attract the entire world? What is the real point to making copies? To develop a truly artistic dynamic or to fill the region with artworks? All this has more to do with the art market than with cultural and artistic concern.

Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” and Mark Rothko’s “White Center” can no longer be seen in the most prestigious galleries of New York, London and Paris. They are henceforth hosted in Qatar. The first was bought for the modicum sum of 72,840,000 USD; the other appears to have been sold for 250 million USD. Rothko’s work was seen in western galleries for the last time in 1998 and 1999 when it travelled from the National Gallery in Washington, to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York before it arrived at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. The last journey was made more recently to the East; from now on it is to be seen in the galleries of Doha, the capital of Qatar, or in some Qatari private collection.

Not only works of art are emigrating to the Persian Gulf, so are the major actors in the world’s art scene and market. The biggest companies are delocalizing. The Fine Art Fund Group from London is operating in the region via a partnership with NBD, the Emirati bank based in Dubai. Others like JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank have also established art funds in the region. Everybody has, or wants to have his Middle Eastern Branch in the Dubai International Financial Center or in one of the towers of Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh or Jeddah. Don’t be surprised then if you see high-profile artists such as Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami or the French sculptor Louise Bourgeois exhibiting in the museums of these cities. With its 11 billion and still rising value, the Middle Eastern art market is becoming the center of the world’s transactions of art, according to Sarah Hamdan, journalist for the New York Times.

What is true for art also applies to many other cultural domains. It is the same when it comes to cinema for example. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha all have their own international film festival which are constantly becoming larger. They are able to screen the most recent films and to invite the biggest stars. Winning a prize at one of these festivals is a major argument for any filmmaker to take part. Prizes range from 20,000 for best actor/actress to 100,000 USD for best film. Nowhere else in the world will you find this, not even at the most prestigious festivals such as those of Cannes, Berlin or Venice. Only in this part of the world is it permitted to believe that the 1001 nights is not merely a fairytale. This is how these young festivals practically stole the leading roles of prestigious older ones in the so-called Arab world, such as those of Carthage (Tunisia) and Cairo (Egypt).

´´Winning a prize at one of these festivals is a major argument for any filmmaker to take part. Prizes range from 20,000 for best actor/actress to 100,000 USD for best film. Nowhere else in the world will you find this, not even at the most prestigious festivals such as those of Cannes, Berlin or Venice.´

It sounds as if the Gulf attraction of the art world is, in some sense or another, a Faustian invitation. You enter these new cities and you accept you are in a world of fake and illusion. They are all like the Las Vegas of the Middle East. You go around in any capital of the small kingdoms of the Gulf: Kuwait, Bahrain, Emirates, and you will feel as if you are in the attractive neighborhoods or even in one of the casinos of American cities. In only a few decades hundreds of skyscrapers where literally built on the sand. Architecture and styles come from all kinds of fantasy; you are in the world of superlatives. Hence it is not surprising to know that the tallest building in the world is not in New York, Paris or London. The tallest building in the world is no longer the Freedom Tower in New York City, but Burj Dubai in the UAE. You can’t help feeling that it is too easy and that it is more like toy cities being built in empty spaces thanks to a huge effort of engineering and human intelligence. But the main reason it takes your breath away is the smell and the color of money. It is as if all these buildings were made of banknotes and coins.

The Italian writer made a statement that undisputedly applies in this case: the world of fake, whenever it comes to art, is built on the basis of a “sales pitch”. What makes the value of a work of art increase is that it is bought by one wealthy person from another wealthy person. This doesn’t mean that these buyers and sellers necessarily know the artistic value of what they are doing. They are clients of international agencies specialized in these kinds of transactions. The auction houses, such as Christie’s Middle East branch of the famous London based company, regulate the circulation of the collections and control the entire market. The question then is who is using who? Is it the rich emirs who are using these companies to enter the world of the art business or are the others using the money of the richest Gulf families to enhance the value of the works of art and reintroduce them to the market?

On a more global level, it is also a matter of transaction between riches. The whole philosophy of building is based on the most savage western capitalism. The biggest building projects in our time and all over the world are symbolically associated with commercial prosperity. Every flourishing city has to have its own World Trade Center(s). Out of the tallest buildings in the world, most are in the Gulf: Alhamra Firdaous Tower (Kuwait City), Etihad Towers (Abu Dhabi), Burj Khalifa (Dubai), Infinity Tower (Dubai), The Kingdom Tower (Jeddah). They are competing with the big world trade centers such as those of Shanghai and Singapore. Trade and tower construction always go together. Wherever and whenever there is money, there is a desire to be the biggest. In any epoch, man tried to be bigger than his neighbor. Every Pharaoh wanted a taller Pyramid. In our time we also have our pharaohs. If you look at the cities in the Gulf region you will see that they are also competing among themselves, and all of them are trying to copy the American skyscrapers: the Freedom Tower or the Empire State building. In the end the capitals of all these kingdoms and emirates look like districts in a metropolis.

There is indeed something related to excessiveness in this copying phenomenon: towers and the desert don’t suit each other. From the perspective of town planning, skyscrapers are associated with big megalopolis with millions of inhabitants. But all these countries have small populations: Qatar for example has no more than 300,000 nationals and Dubai barely has one million inhabitants. What legitimates the construction of such frivolities and whether they respond to a real need, depends on who is building them. Most of the time, if not always, the architects come from the western world. Adrian Smith and Gordon Gill Architecture, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill supervised the most important projects. The copy of the Louvre has been designed by French architect Jean Novel, the one of the Guggenheim by Canadian architect Franck Gerry.

Cultural projects are also directed by non locals, most of the time. Jean-Paul Engle left the prestigious auction house Christie’s (London) for a more profitable position as director of public art programs at the Qatar Museum Authority (Doha). The director of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is the American Peter Scarlet and the first director of the Dubai International Film Festival was the British Simon Field, former director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival seems to be a partnership between the Doha Film Institute and the New York based Tribeca Enterprise. Both the festival and the institute are led by American journalist Amanda Palmer.

All these projects and the way they are made give the idea of a turnkey or a “subcontract” culture. Whether it is about architectural plans or other cultural projects, it is always a question of a fake copy of fakeness. To say it in short, it is as if you have an empty plot of land which you want to fill. You fill it with buildings for trade and business and when you have enough gold – read: black Gold- you can buy more luxurious products like works of art and art projects. But then, if things are not really assimilated, adapted, transformed, you have a kind of hysteric caricature of culture and modernity. In that game, money is the key tool to overpass unfortunate countries which could in the past develop important and historical tradition in culture: Egypt, the Maghreb, and Syria. When you are able to recruit the best professionals and the most experienced programmers it is easy to move the centre of the globe or at least to pretend to.

What makes these futurist oases, as if from a science-fiction movie, emerge in the middle of nowhere? This area was, until the sixties, nothing more than a desert with Bedouins and fishermen. Some of them were happier because they used to fish pearls. Since the discovery of oil, towers started to grow like palm trees but in metal and reinforced concrete. In a few decades these small kingdoms emerged like new forces in the region, right on the crossroads of old civilizations like the Mesopotamian, the Persian, the Phoenician and the Roman in the North and the Yemenite in the South. Nowadays they represent a huge power in the region. They inherited an historical religious power (Mecca, the holy city of Islam is in Saudi Arabia). Economically they are also so strong that they are able to impose a political leadership in a region reaching from the Middle East to the Maghreb, from the Persian Gulf to the African coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

Umberto Eco was of course right when he talked about the power of money in the art world in general. But when you look at what is going on in the kingdoms of the Gulf in perspective of the world order, you may think that the cultural policy is not without any connection to some plans. Being themselves organically connected to western economies in general and to the American one in particular, they are the main suppliers of energy, they are among the most important buyers, they are also the politically strategic allies in the region. The leadership that countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia hold, can be seen concretely and clearly in the manipulation of the current Arab uprisings that they try to stifle. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, when you consider that their influence has been going on for decades already.

In this game, culture is secondarily important. One thing is clear when you look at all this: there is no real intention to develop local talents so that something authentic could emerge from this region. What matters is commerce, and if culture sells, then why not? This is possible as long as the pumps are working. But when cars start to use other fuel than oil, when there is no monopoly like that of traditional energy sources, when the world’s oil reserves dry up… no one will have the monopoly of the sun anymore, nor the wind.

Sarah Hamdan, “An Emirate Filling Up With Artwork”, in the New York Times of 29 February 2012.

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

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