There are so many painful and damning moments in Molly Crabapple's understated new piece for Vice, "Slaves of Happiness Island: Abu Dhabi and the Dark Side of High Art." Yes, the Guggenheim and the Louvre are being built on the backs of abused workers. Yes, what the rich UAE is doing is exactly what the rich Americans and rich French and rich British did when they built the original Guggenheims and British Museums and Louvres. Yes, this is only part of the fact that our lives would collapse, and we would literally starve, if labor were not exploited every day.
Two generations ago, the Emiratis were Bedouins, nomadic desert people whose main economic activity was pearl diving. They built wind towers, trained falcons, and composed swashbuckling poetry. Emirati culture was rich, but Emiratis were poor. Now they are wealthy. From the lens of European dominance, Emiratis can seem like improper overlords.
Or perhaps Europeans are just jealous. The UAE’s oil money could have disappeared in the coffers of Western energy companies or corrupt leaders. Instead, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founding father of the UAE, built a munificent welfare state. Emirati citizens get free education, health care, and electricity, as well as generous wages subsidized by the government. They pay no taxes. But the foreigners who compose 90 percent of the population don’t share in this largesse.
UAE artists who are Emirati citizens are mum, except to point out the good things. They don't want to get involved. UAE artists who are not Emirati citizens have to be mum.
Read the whole thing. Molly Crabapple (not her real name) is also founder of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, which has an active branch in Seattle. You go and sketch live burlesque models, rather than pretending, as in regular art school, that there's absolutely nothing sexual about a live nude model in front of you. Hyperallergic has an interview with Crabapple about the Vice piece. In addition to writing, Crabapple makes drawings of what she found in the UAE. To get a sense of her style, at right is her book cover for a different socially conscious project she recently finished. Click to enlarge.
Can you have art without freedom? Splendid objects get made for the highest bidder. Challenging ideas require something more than the Emirates may care to provide.
I put this question to a young artist born in the UAE. He told me: “By entertaining any vision of a culturally engaged metropolis, [the UAE] has opened up a Pandora’s box. Critical culture is forced into a more subversive form. This subversion itself can be a form of poetry. I have to think like this, because I live here and I need to survive the aftermath of my own thoughts.”
The artist is well off but not a citizen. Afraid of being deported, he asked me not to use his name.