The most intriguing and intricate cultural history I have read is Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. There are many lessons in it, one of them that enormous wealth brings both opportunity and confusion, even—surprise!—also deterioration.
This was what finally happened to Holland, and it happened also to Spain and Venice—three of the once richest and most powerful polities of Europe. But their histories unfolded organically, from the inside, so to speak, both rise and fall.
Over the last two decades, the West has vested its new tormentors, the class of the Arab rich whose coinage is oil, oil, oil and cash, with journalistic holy auras that mesmerize and function, as the guide to a contemporary computer game puts it, as “melee fighter and secondary spell caster.” The latest of these paladins is Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architectural critic of the New York Times, and very powerful, indeed. Why so powerful? Because the architectural critic of the Times is the only architectural critic people read. Well, you know what I mean. Like the summer truism: “everybody is in East Hampton.”
But left me be fair to Ouroussoff: he is not afraid to name New York City’s candidates for demolition, and he is persuasive as to why they should go. f course, the museums of the Emirates are not exactly organic outgrowths from the primitive desert sand and sheikh societies that characterized these rich little monarchies, larger than Monaco and Luxembourg but not really much larger. In any case, there will be many exhibition spaces built across the buff soil. But not designed by Muslim or Arab architects, except for Zaha Hadid who has several projects going in Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi.
So will Gehry, Pei, Tadao Ando, Norman Foster and perhaps a dozen others create, as the headline on the Ouroussoff story in the Times puts it, create “a Fresh Arab Identity?” The millions of near-enslaved or, more accurately, rightless Asian workers spread across this hard-edged construction culture are more authentic and indigenous (and fundamental) to these societies than the Andy Warhols and Robert Rauschenbergs that we are told will be wildly displayed in the cultural splash by the royals.
One ironic feature that Ouroussoff points out is really contra Edward Said. His accusations against “Orientalism” used to be dogma in many universities. It still is, of course, all over Columbia University, and with the politics that usually accompanies it. And Harvard? Well, yes, though to a much lesser extent. This is not the extent of the falsifications.
But Said thought that many European artists -Delacroix, Gericault, Gerome, just as instances- lied about what they saw in North Africa and elsewhere in the region.
Please read the these five paragraphs carefully.
“My father often says, in order to have peace, we need to first respect each other’s cultures,” said Sheika al-Mayassa Bint Hamad Al Thani, the emir’s 28-year-old daughter and the main force behind the museum building program in Qatar. “And people in the West don’t understand the Middle East. They come with bin Laden in their heads.”
The museums, she hopes, will help “to change that mind-set.”
The newer national collections, parts of which will be unveiled to the public over the next few months, will take that idea into more provocative territory. The Orientalism collection in particular seems like an improbable focus for a museum in the Arab world. The collection, displayed in a town house until its new home is completed, centers on depictions of Arab life by 19th-century French and English artists. In one room a caricature of a squatting North African warrior hangs near a painting of Algerian women performing a seductive dance. There are also portraits of sultans and pashas by Italian artists, extending back to the 16th century, when the cultural scales were tipping away from the Ottoman Empire and toward Renaissance Europe.
To a Westerner, the 19th-century paintings can be especially uncomfortable — they present what now seem clichés of Arab life that reflect back our own prejudices. But to many Arabs they are also vividly detailed historical records of a period that is otherwise undocumented. Realistic painting did not exist then in the Arab world; photography was not common until the late 19th century. As Sheik Hassan saw it when he was building the collection, these were the only records of a life that was fast fading from memory.
“I recognize this life,” Sheik Hassan said. “The sheik sitting in his tent, I know these costumes are 100 percent right — even the tint of the button. The hare, it is from North Africa.”
Why should Westerners be made to feel “especially uncomfortable” by the 19th-century paintings? They are not really “cliches of Arab life that reflect our own prejudices....” They depict more of the Arab truth than the grand display of artifacts from the Guggenheim or the Louvre and American faux campuses ever will.