Something sacred was violated through the way that the opening of Abu Dhabi’s new Louvre museum has been treated by major European and American publications.
The Atlantic Magazine aimed to transactionalize the museum’s structure as well as over a decade of curatorial thought and, most tragically, the artistic treasures that the structure was built to house.
This journalistic rehearsal was doomed to fail. There’s a reason we regard these artworks as priceless. Nevertheless, the magazine conveyed their attempt through a 153-word introduction to a photo gallery. Their brief remarks consisted of a slew of dollar signs and culminated in an accusation that closed their exposition with a single word: "appalling".
The Atlantic allowed a serious accusation, that of mistreating laborers, to be lobbed against Abu Dhabi despite the fact that the accusations have been comprehensively refuted by the French architectural firm that built the Louvre.
"Hearsay and reflexive adversarialism are often confused for hard-hitting journalism"
To support their skepticism of Abu Dhabi’s practices, the magazine cited "some critics" without providing anything further to support their indictment. Nothing new so far.
Hearsay shouldn’t be mistaken for laboriously researched and verified facts, even when second sources cannot be found to seal the indictment of an entire nation. It takes a special type of narcissism, however, to develop assured convictions that manufacture a reality that is verifiably untrue; a reality that stands in stark contrast to an entire national archive, fairly transparent records, and the voices the Emirati people themselves.
In June, following the cyber attack on our Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba’s emails, I explained that those who wish to engage with us can speak to us directly and needn’t resort to stealing from our representatives: "The journalists at The Intercept have presented a singular vision of the UAE as a fundamentally unfree society. We are not. And we are happy to speak with you and explain that we believe in power sharing and we exercise it as we have done for centuries among the tribes of the Gulf. We are not disenchanted with our systems of court and state and we will defend our way of life against all forms of extremism, including the cyber attacks of anarchists and those who promote them".
Critical thought is harder and requires genuine investigation. Year after year, I’ve seen UAE’s verifiable facts and figures met with blind assertions of the "he said" variety from Human Rights Watch. This organization, in particular, is cited in most critiques of the Emirates and often appears as the only source.
Promoting freedom isn’t their objective either. If organizations like HRW cared about our personal liberties and freedom of expression, then they could start by listening to us. We are here. But they have made it clear that their minds have been made up for a long time and that their minds cannot be changed. That sort of intellectual inflexibility breeds extremist thought by stifling self-reflection, questioning and eventually learning.
What astonishes me is the fact that self-respecting journalists come back to the same single source time and again without deploying their well-honed instinct for skepticism to question the motivation of the source.
For the grand opening of the Louvre, though, the general tone of the coverage went further. The Daily Beast peppered their article with adjectives that are usually reserved to describe the worst excesses of human folly and not something like the opening of a museum of fine arts.
"...we, the artists, work in a profoundly humbling profession."
The aforementioned allegations are all dutifully present and they are presented, once again, without proof. But this time we are informed of "ruthless" intent; of bloated budgets and terrifying "ego". Just for good measure, we are also told that our ancestors, the Bedouins and pearl divers of the Bani Yas tribe that once inhabited the Trucial States and managed to survive the harshest environments on earth despite economic hardship, were "pirates”.
But back to the task at hand. I’ve never seen the unspoken norms of artistic immunity so blatantly disregarded. Something like this, from the New York Times, is hard to read as anything other than an implicit assault on culture as a whole.
It’s only a matter of time before their article falls back to the trope of reducing the whole human creative enterprise down to a greedy equation of selfish ego. If the New York Times or any of these publications would truly try their hands at any of the arts, they’d quickly realize that we, the artists, work in a profoundly humbling profession.
"The Louvre Abu Dhabi has been carefully equipped with artistic treasures that chart the journey of our birthright as human beings..."
And that’s where we arrive at the disturbing part in which narcissism appears time and again as the unifying theme behind a series of strange variations. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has been carefully equipped with artistic treasures that chart the journey of our birthright as human beings: high creative thought and the creation of civilization itself.
Many of the works on display have existed and looked at humanity with a sort of tutorly presence. They are emblematic of our fundamental rites of passage and our grandest aspirational visions. Human beings have carried these works with them on solemn occasions and we have learned to treat them with the reverence they rightly demand of us.
In our age of narcissism, it is the artist whose ultimate loyalty must be to the truth as we understand it (within necessarily human fields of vision) is well-suited to articulating the moment of discovering infinite links in that grand constellation of ideas.
In that moment, we experience the ultimate gratification of becoming small. Understanding the form of this practice is invaluable amidst an increasingly insecure global population. There is an unspeakable connectivity in becoming part of something that is larger.
"One journalist described me - and artists in general - as advancers of polemics."
A handful of journalists have allowed me time to express myself (in the true sense) and also given themselves space to listen and think and then ask the truly hard questions that can only be answered in civilized and patient conversation.
Most seek to advance their ideas in a much more transactional and hasty form. One journalist described me - and artists in general - as advancers of polemics. He's wrong. Saying that is not enough in this age of the comments section. I will attempt to explain why he was so wrong and why you should care.
Mature artists are tasked with the creation of things that have to last for generations at least. That has to express something bigger than the self in order to succeed. Much, much bigger. We’re talking about something that is so big that it transcends language, distance, and time itself. If we want to connect minds in opposition to a clash of civilizations narrative then it is essential that we succeed.
The alternative just won’t do. Art, on this level, demands the artist to rise to the conference of civilization and civilizations can’t compete or clash. Civilization is a singular force and a zero-sum game. Either we have it or we don’t.
The Foreign Policy circuit made an appearance too. These salespeople of large and attractively titled geopolitical objects, tailormade to be "tackled" and "solved" by a self-generating profession of “essential” experts that once came up with grand struggles like the "clash of civilizations" and the "end of history", now posited the equally unnuanced idea that human culture can be bought and that something called "soft power" is the name of "the game".
Their latest theory might be their worst exercise in shunning truly critical thought. That is, of course, fertile ground for nurturing attitudes that would take the collective masterworks of some ten thousand years of human creative labor and interpret it as a "power tool".
The best response to that sort of thinking can be found in Stephen Sondheim’s 1984 musical, Sunday in the Park with George, in a song called "Art Isn't Easy".
If I had to pick one article that excels in artificially confounding the large, eternal waves of human motion (let’s call it “the politics of art”) on the one hand with the petty politics of noisy news-rooms competing for air in the economy of attention on the other, the medal would go to the Washington Post.
Take a look at this excerpt:
In the throes of Persian Gulf turmoil, however, there is also the threat of nearby Qatar, whose capital, Doha, has long established itself as a more open center of intellectual exchange in the region: It is home to the Al Jazeera media network, a satellite campus of the Brookings think tank and an acclaimed art museum of its own, designed by I.M. Pei. Doha’s skyline features a prominent skyscraper by the Pritzker Prize-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, later commissioned to design the Louvre Abu Dhabi. As Nouvel said in an interview, “Now is not the time to talk about that.”
Ulrichsen said of UAE officials, “They’re trying to discredit Qatar’s attempt to build up a simple brand, and this will only help them to project an image of benevolent modernization.”
"Our wish is always for more civilization and not less."
This statement embodies my concern over the troubling questions that much of the coverage of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening has raised in my mind.
Most importantly, it does not pertain to the Louvre Abu Dhabi in any way. No matter how one might slice the diplomatic rift between the UAE and Qatar, diplomatic issues are diplomatic issues. They have no bearing whatsoever on the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I’m not sure what sources can be had for creating and printing the comparative distinction of Qatar as a "more open center of intellectual exchange"?
But more importantly to me as an artist is to mention how much work I've seen cultivated by the UAE and how much creative vibrancy I see in the country. The point is that none of the UAE’s accomplishments here discount anything about Qatar. Coming to consider creative exchange as a competitive pissing contest is fundamentally odious to the artist's task and credo. Ideas simply don’t work like that.
Nobody wishes Qatar one less building in their skyline. Our political disagreements have to do with wishing them the opposite: We in the UAE intend to protect ourselves and our sovereignty against those who threaten our buildings with rocket fire.
It’s no secret that accommodating known terrorists and allowing them to walk around freely - as Qatar is currently doing - has never done anything to preserve anyone’s skyline or good health.
Our wish is always for more civilization and not less. We find ourselves at a moment of diplomatic impasse with Qatar because bilateral agreements were broken and joint security was jeopardized as a consequence.
We don’t enter into irrational conflicts with our neighbors because of their great accomplishments in architecture, the arts, sciences or any form of constructive labor for that matter. Diplomacy simply cannot be operated as a petty flourish of whims in a nation with as many advanced global priorities as the UAE.
"The UAE has enacted and continuously labored on improving it’s labor laws in a fashion that is fair and transparent."
Any diplomatic rift with Qatar is based on differences with regards to specific policy and counterterrorism points which the Emirati government has outlined repeatedly. As far as civilization is concerned, there is no rift. Civilization cannot be sequestered.
Our issue is not with the I.M. Pei Museum or the Nouvel skyscraper. It’s with the unrestricted hosting of a Taliban Embassy. The former is welcome. More good is good for everyone.
Accusations of labor issues in the Emirates also take up much space, ink, and tension in article after article. Leave aside the hypocrisy of this particular moralization.
Even if we were to somehow allow for the conceit that the great museums of Europe were built at no cost to the state and with no benefit garnered from the colonial exploitation of stolen goods, we must allow that the 21st century is not the 19th. Truly critical thought would require us to ask about intent when we continue to see the question of labor in the UAE raised in 2017 just as it was raised in the more problematic decades of old.
Questions about the labor force transcend comparative politics and should still be raised if they were accurate and current. But even the bluntly outspoken Jean Nouvel, faced with the outdated, badly-sourced and ever-repeated claims, said: "At the beginning, we saw the places where the workers live and their conditions to check that it was correctly done ... They have the same conditions, even better conditions, than those I see in other countries. We checked and it was fine. We saw no problem."
And he should know. He built the Museum and spent significant time on the construction site. On top of all this, there have been independent committees to verify Abu Dhabi’s record. Why stretch to raise the issue after a decade of contentious accusations during which the UAE simply continued to grow and correct its problems like any other developed nation? Why stretch to raise it when there doesn’t seem to be space or ink to discuss the work of artists in discussions of an art museum?
The UAE has enacted and continuously labored on improving it’s labor laws in a fashion that is fair and transparent. The laws are clear and public. Those who do not abide by the written federal law of the land are breaking the law of the land as they would be doing in any other nation. Let us not confuse the criminal activity of law-breaking employers with the practice of the state.
"An Emirati is currently second in command while a French person is in charge."
But there’s a supremely important point about civilization here that I must clarify as an Emirati and an artist.
The labor laws do not exist as some sort of parade intended to impress mercurial foreign press or universally critical foreign watchdogs with feats of legal showmanship. They exist to protect laborers in the UAE.
Those laborers are human beings. As a composer from the UAE, I have had to read time and again that everything from the scientific breakthroughs to the cultural benevolence of our country is an image and that our progress owes itself to "two things: oil and absolute monarchs".
That is fundamentally insulting to me as an artist and to my accomplishments as a composer. "Oil and absolute monarchs" didn't compose my four symphonies or my operas or any of the over 100 works I have made.
They did not garner my performances by fine orchestras or recordings on storied labels. The UAE set me free to pursue a path to success in life through supporting my education and health needs as our constitution ensures. The pursuit was up to me. They gave me the constitutional guarantees that the state assures to all its citizens. I did the rest.
It should be clear to the Washington Post that there is an irony in an American paper printing an article like this when the founding documents of the US enshrine the right to the pursuit of happiness as the most fundamental of truths. There is also an irony that they criticize free expression in the UAE when we, the artists of the Emirates, are here.
Our work is here for them to see as is the work of our press. They should consider that, in needing to be absent from the opening of the Louvre due to my travel plans changing because of work, I learned about the contents of the museum through an in-depth piece from The National.
The Washington Post, on the other hand, labeled their own work as "in-depth" and did nothing to tell me about the contents housed at the museum. Not a single artist is mentioned in context. The National provided me with fact-checked material including numbers and figures on the building while there are several errors in the piece from the Post including misstating the compliment of Emirati staff at the Museum - they are, in fact, 50 percent.
And the article finally ends with an awkward question about when an Emirati director will take the helm of the Museum.
An Emirati is currently second in command while a French person is in charge. There’s no way to answer the Washington Post’s question without causing offense to the power structure at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as it exists.
These offenses to content the truth and social norms should all be a considerations to the Post as they decide to rail against perceived repressions of press freedoms in the UAE, especially since this discussion of press freedom is just another hit in the latest in a cornucopia of subjects covered by the Post that are not centrally germane to the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s opening and that are, once again, embedded within their article on the opening of the museum.
"Being critical is more than welcome; it’s essential."
American readers looking for vital information could be forgiven for feeling let down; that’s exactly what’s happening through this sort of coverage. Looking at the Louvre reveals that there's more than just a projected image here and certainly more than an accessory of power.
This building houses the beloved treasures of humanity and the works of artistic masters that show the finest strands of human genius and ingenuity. And that includes several vital works by American artists; None of which are mentioned in or even alluded to by the Washington Post in the 1495 words of their self-described "in-depth" article.
Being critical is more than welcome; it’s essential. But identifying the difference between the artistic and journalistic practice of germane criticism on the one hand and reflexively conceived take-downs on the other is as important to the critical practice as the act of thoughtful challenge itself.
It identifies intent and intent is a prerequisite to most thoughtful exercises. The National points out disappointments and shortcomings that they find at the Louvre but manage to keep their criticism relevant and focused on the topic at hand. The National also sheds light on a devastating lapse in vision with these words:
"Displays like the one delivered in Gallery 10 are sure to attract criticism and accusations that Louvre Abu Dhabi’s displays represent little more than humanity’s greatest hits, but as even the works in these busy final rooms suggest, something more profound is also taking place.
Acting as a counterbalance to its A, B, C of Impressionism, Gallery 10 also contains Orientalist works by Delacroix and prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige alongside the work of Gaugin that they directly influenced.
There is also a large central display dedicated to sculptures from Africa and Oceania that are celebrated, not just for the influence on the development of European modernism, but as major works in their own right."
I’ve now read over 20 articles on the museum in European and North American outlets that have not mentioned a single non-European or non-American work.
As an artist, I must say that the importance of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s meaning and intent cannot be stated enough. The continuation of a humane spirit (as embarked upon here) is worthy of the support of all civilization. But the notion that the Middle East, as embodied by the UAE, has expressed a clear articulation of what the region can stand for is so important. Some may think that expressions of "art and politics" are two different things.
They are wrong. That idea could only spring from the minds of people who have forgotten that politics is not the gossip's practice of personal destruction nor is it the passion to break the house. Politics, at it's best, embodies an unencumbered sense of statecraft.
"The Emirates is entering a golden age..."
And what are we crafting a state for? We craft it to build vessels and repositories for civilized discourse. This is, of course, a hallmark of every renaissance. It’s no secret that, when nations undergo periods of light and development, they open temples that speak of grand collaborations meant to celebrate the collective effort of human genius.
The multiplicities and profound complexities contained within the Burj Khalifa, the Zayed Mosque, the grand design of Expo 2020, all the trademarks of ADMAF and Dubai Opera that speak and sing the stories of humanity in all their multiple tongues...
Time and again I've been inspired. I’ve also been astonished by the folly of those who would bet against the elements; those who bet against the ocean drown, yet people do it. But I've never imagined people thinking to take it a step further; to bet against light itself. Humanity has never seen folly like it.
To be clear, this losing proposition is one that I have encountered in many press outlets but not in many American or European people. The omission of substance in American and European papers of record accomplishes one thing alone: the segregation of American and European populations from the vital civilizational discourse that they deserve to be a part of. European and American societies contributed to the development of human civilization and helped to build it after all.
Civilization for them is, just as it is for all others, their birthright. But who could blame anyone for losing track of the way to the light? With messengers like these papers, everyone’s too busy sifting through a loud sea of manufactured cacophony to hear their own thoughts. Let’s pretend that the invitation got lost in the mail. I invite you to join us.
Now might be a good time to clarify a few things about our ancestors.
This invitation, after all, doesn't come from the hands of pirates. The UAE inhabits a corner of the Empty Quarter of the world that has been at the crux of a universal conversation since the iron-age days of Saruq al Hadid and before.
The conversation has seen everything from roads of silk to pathways of fiberglass and optics. Most importantly, it has never stopped. The UAE adds the Louvre Abu Dhabi to a long history of partnerships and symposia at the crossroads. The entire construction of an audacious complexity that seeks to harbor all of humanity under a dome of ever refracting light would be a standard crown in the jewel of any nation that is lucky enough to be entering a golden age.
But we find ourselves in a more complex situation than that. The Emirates is entering a golden age even as all of humanity seeks to drive the force of barbarism from our global doorstep. Our army, the Union Defense Force, and the UAE at large are engaged in a very real and existential fight against the acolytes of a dark age.
In 2017, savages seek to draw a veil across the stars of museums like the Louvre.
Their destructive mission is to extinguish the light of the world. It has always struck me as strange to claim nationalistic pride in works of art and in thought itself.
On one level it's ridiculous. The French cannot "sell out" Manet any more than the Chinese can "sell out" Weiwei and the Americans must come and see and they will not only learn that the ever-nurturing figure of Isis is an eternal goddess and not a temporary group of rowdy misfits.
They will also learn that the gentle hand of Isis raising Horus is kith and kin with the infinite patience of Whistler rendering the holiest object in the world: a mother.
Americans will be able to see Whistler’s divine modulations of gray and brown rendered into the infinite patience of his mother’s gaze. That gaze captivated them back in 1933 when, faced with the seemingly insurmountable trials of the Great Depression, America determined to give humanity a stunning world Expo in Chicago.
Today, Americans have the opportunity to look at their younger brothers and sisters in the UAE who are realizing their own vision for Expo 2020 through Hassan Sharif’s modulation of infinite diversity into infinite variety and unity all rendered as eternal universality.
And all of humanity will learn that these works have no respect for borders. Sound has no respect for borders. Light has no respect for borders. These are our universal treasures and protecting them is our universal responsibility.
So let the whole world, from the Americans to the Indians, the Chinese to the Brazilians, and the Egyptians and the Yemenis to the Japanese and the citizens of all the nations of the world... let them come and see the best image of themselves rendered in light; the best image of what we all can be.
Let them see the true face of a nurturing Isis; the one that we have known for millennia... and they'll see the real America through the humanistic eyes of Twombly... light will emerge on the face of a Buddha taken down when the barbarians assaulted the beautiful Swat Valley in Pakistan.
" I am thankful for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the opportunity it offers my generation..."
They will see the face of Palmyra once again, just as we dreamed of it for these long and terrible years of barbarism engulfed in Syria.
The family of the book, too, rendered in scripture; a Torah from Yemen... a Quran and a Bible. Strewn across the world. They have finally come together again and have been reunited as one illuminated family.
They sit side by side under the dome of the new Louvre as though no time had passed between them. The nations of the world should see what has been done at the Louvre Abu Dhabi for what it is.
And the soldiers of the world, clutching their weapons and each eager protector of their own, should set aside their arms for a moment and this light.
Only then will they see that we are not simply fighting to crush the enemies of civilization as embodied in terror, chaos, and barbarism. Our armies will see what distinguishes them from the savages who clamor at our national gates. They have the opportunity to see what they are defending and just how fragile it all is.
And seeing this will hopefully cause them to join hands in celebration of what we are fighting for. Let them look in the light and see the face of civilization itself. I am thankful for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the opportunity it offers my generation; a generation that needs to meet under one unified dome of civilization.
Whether we do it through the amazing grace of radiance or the awful provenance of incineration, humanity will witness a rain of light.
We must meet. Let us meet in radiance.