The art scene in the UAE is now exiting its nascent phase. A substantial local and international art base has developed in the country’s cosmopolitan centres, with artists, collectors and curators establishing identities and networks.
There are, however, a number of missing links in the ‘art scene’ that have resulted in often hollow and static expressions. Primary among these issues is the lack of a culture of critique. In a society sensitive to criticism, this is no simple matter.
Local and international artists, collectors and commentators, media and institutionally-based critics find themselves in a singular dilemma, the exponential development of the ‘art scene’ without a functional culture of critique.
Local artists — young and not so young — are today producing a quantity and quality of art and design that would not have been possible at any stage in this country’s history. This has resulted in a vibrant and diverse art scene tackling social, political, cultural and idiosyncratic expression that is both unique and thought-provoking.
This is an achievement to be proud of as a society and it proves and displays a maturity in our expression. However, we as a society remain bound by certain particularities that are harmful to the growth of our art scene. The possibility or notion of insult seems to cause much controversy in this country, the line between criticism and attack is non-existent.
Works of art, design, film and literature traditionally have had a very close relationship with journalism, this is a symbiotic relationship that is generally mutually beneficial. The artist gains exposure while the journalist gains a story, but this exposure and this story is often a relationship of love and hate.
The journalist will act in many cases as a commentator and critic, giving an impression but also an opinion, and this is what a social art scene is all about. You either love a movie or hate it or feel a variety of different feelings that lie between those extremes, including indifference. This is the beauty of expression; it touches something in the individual that is emotional in nature.
Journalism in this country, however, has failed its artists and its social art scene. The commentary that emerges from newspapers, magazines and online media is predominantly explanatory and shallow; it tackles the object from a detached and almost indifferent perspective.
This is a generalisation and does not reflect the works of individual journalists, but there is a sense that journalists are meant to document art exhibitions, shows and the like rather than engage in constructive criticism. This harks back to the issues pertaining to the culture of critique, the roots of the issue are societal and cultural.
A culture of critique is something that both benefits and livens up a society, whether it be satire, graffiti, op-eds, blogs or rants, it adds the necessary ingredient of diversity, of shade to the black and white. What society in the UAE lacks is an approach to critique that is constructive rather than destructive, that enables rather than demeans.
There is a need for a revised understanding of the terms and expression of criticism that embraces and acknowledges cultural norms, but also adds value to society. Many international and regional artists have found refuge in the UAE as it has done well to establish an environment conducive and attractive to art, design and creative expression.
Institutionally superior to any regional competitor, the art scene now seeks to compete with international hubs such as New York and London. This is a big ambition, but one that appears far more realistic with a visit to an Art Night here.
Artists of an international calibre are used to criticism as international media has few rules or restrictions on journalistic expression, with common sense a given. Therefore although they form part of the art scene in the UAE, criticism can come from a London based blogger or magazine based in Hong Kong.
This unfortunately is not true of the majority of the local artists, designers and creative individuals, who due to a variety of factors do not interact with this critique scene. The coverage and discussion of their art is limited to local and regional newspapers, magazines and blogs. The feedback received in person is often timid and congratulatory. This is a danger to the local artist as it creates and reinforces an ‘information bubble’ that can create false egos.
If we are to support our local talent and give them the best chance to develop and create work that reflects a diverse and colourful society we must give them all the support we can, and that includes the occasional, “I hate it, because ...”.
The growth of the art scene is something to be commended, but the lacking culture of critique is its Achilles’ heel.
Gaith Abdulla is a Dubai-based writer.