I got an interesting comment to my recent post about museums and galleries policing their artists as part of their deals with governments that don’t share Western views about free expression. Here’s the most pertinent part:
The rulers of Abu Dhabi are not “unenlightened,” as you put it;…. rather, they recognize that this is an extremely sensitive subject within the Arab world, and they know that they and their American and French partners will have to find the right balance between Muslim tradition and a progressive agenda as they introduce Western-style museums and exhibitions to this part of the world. It’ll be quite interesting to see how popular attitudes are tested in Abu Dhabi once these museums open; my bet is that, inevitably, taboos will be broken by art, as they always are.
I can agree with that in part, which I suggested in the portion of my own post that talked about the usefulness of cultural exchange. The Guggenheim deal with Abu Dhabi has already been a good thing in as much as it means that an Arab Emirate has not only welcomed a museum with Jewish founders, but one that will be designed by Frank Gehry, who’s also Jewish. Which no doubt will be another reason why the Guggenheim will be on its best behavior in Abu Dhabi.
But as mentioned, the Guggenheim’s promise that the art in Abu Dhabi will not offend Muslim sensitivities means that an institution that’s usually more comfortable defending the prerogatives of art will now be holding up each work to the light to inspect it for any ingredient that could offend local sensibilities. That may be the price you pay for incremental progress in the field of cultural understanding. But it’s bound to put the Guggenheim in an uncomfortable position.
Or to put it another way, goodbye Ghada Amer.