By Mark LeVine
28 December 2017
Last month's purchase of Leonardo da Vinci's painting, Salvator Mundi, for $450m by an associate of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) rocked the art world. It also called into question an already suspect anti-corruption drive launched by bin Salman in the weeks before the purchase. MBS' earlier purchases of a $500 million yacht and a $300 million French chateau haven't helped his cause either.
Whatever bin Salman's aesthetic proclivities, it's not surprising that Saudi leaders are attempting to use art to signal a major change in the country's culture and, less so, politics. In the past few months, Saudi authorities have permitted concerts and reopened cinemas, pledged to allow women to attend sporting events and even drive.
All this, along with the recent announcement of the creation of a new art institute under the sponsorship of MBS' foundation, is part of a clear regime strategy to rebrand itself not just as a major patron of the arts, but as a society in the process of opening itself up to the world after a century of religiously motivated obscurantism.
Abu Dhabi, home to the newly opened franchise of the Louvre (where the Salvator Mundi will be housed), as well as Saudi Arabia's Gulf adversary, Qatar, have long used museums and Western educational institutions as markers of cultural and religious modernity and moderation. Along with gaudy Dubai, the Gulf emirates have also used their ultra-modern skylines to demonstrate their mastery of modern engineering and architectural aesthetics.
Jordan doesn't have the wealth for such displays, but it's recently become home to one of the Middle East's most vibrant art scenes.
Across the Arab world, the Moroccan monarchy has promoted for decades music festivals which have become huge tourist attractions. Rabat has used music as the centrepiece of its self-promotion as a leading exponent of "moderate Islam" and of an ostensibly moderate and modern political system.
So important is this process that when a group of young metal heads were convicted of Satan worship in 2003, the government overturned the convictions. Morocco's heavy metal and hip-hop scenes have flourished since.
A decade later, however, when a young rapper named L'Haqed (the spiteful one) began releasing songs highly critical of the government as part of the Kingdom's Arab Spring moment, he was arrested, beaten and sentenced to three years imprisonment before being forced into exile. And the treatment L'Haqed received is the norm for anyone who challenges the Moroccan king, and most every other regional autocrat for that matter.
Political art created by and for ordinary people (often with extraordinary skills) has long been repressed by those in power, precisely because it offers an alternative and usually critical view of societies' political and cultural realities. Its importance has never been greater than today, as demonstrated by the centrality of musicians, singers, poets, graffiti and other artists like L'Haqed to the early successes of the Arab uprisings.
A recent report from the anti-music censorship organisation Freemuse demonstrates how art has become "a space of possibilities… represent[ing] an act of resistance to challenge political oppression as well as breaking the boundaries of what is allowed to be said and dealt with."
The problem is, the more authoritarian governments begin to sponsor artistic production, the less opportunity it has to perform this vital function; to speak truth to power and provide a critical voice from below against the excesses from above. Rather than being an incubator or accelerator of change, art produced, distributed and consumed under the watchful eyes and purse strings of authoritarian governments or wealthy patrons serve to wash away, or at least distract from, ongoing repression, violence, exploitation and even extremism.
In Egypt, where I write these lines, Ramy Essam, the "singer of the Revolution" was forced into exile after the 2013 military coup, while the hip-hop groups who penned some of the most searing commentary of life under toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have largely been silenced under the current regime. Only the burgeoning working class "Mahraganat" scene is able to touch on politics, but only in broad strokes without attacking the regime directly.
Turkey, whose art scene exploded with creativity in the early years of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's rule, is now experiencing repression not seen since the worst days of the country's military dictatorships. Even Syria had seen a controlled opening up of its creative scene in the years before the civil war. But once protests began in early 2011, artists were ruthlessly repressed, with those not imprisoned, or worse, fleeing into exile.
In Morocco, where the king has bought off many of the Kingdom's major pop and rap artists, some of the world's biggest music stars played at the 2014 Mawazine Festival (under the patronage of the king) while L'Haqed was imprisoned. None of the people I approached at the festival spoke out on the issue, even when pressed. Sadly, even as leading artists like Bono and Sting have joined campaigns of major human rights organisations, hardly any fight for the rights of their colleagues in the region, especially if doing so might jeopardise lucrative concerts or commissions.
Israel, which tries to push an image of a country promoting freedom of expression and the arts, routinely represses Palestinian artists. While the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement just scored a major victory with the singer Lorde's cancellation of a concert in Tel Aviv next summer, the Israeli government continues to be one of the region's pioneers in "artwashing" its own abuses through the legitimation provided by the numerous artists who still regularly perform in the country.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, there is little hope that the crown prince's patronage will have any wider political impact beyond legitimising his rule to local and foreign elites. The contradiction inherent in a repressive autocrat engaging in a murderous war while opening the "leading platform for grassroots cultural production, diplomacy and exchange" (the stated goal of MBS' Misk Foundation, which is behind many of the new initiatives) is simply too great to ignore - at least for anyone with a conscience.
Indeed, while the Salvator Mundi was being purchased and senior Saudi royals were being detained in one of history's greatest shakedowns, blogger Raif Badawi, and his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair and numerous other activists continued to languish in jail. Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh is still serving an eight-year jail sentence in a Saudi prison accused of blasphemy and apostasy. Saudis and poor foreign workers continue to be beheaded, their bodies crucified in parking lots, with nary a word of criticism from the global arts community.
MBS might be encouraging a "cohabitation of the traditional and the modern", but it's the worst elements of both that he's bringing together. As long as artists have no space to challenge the dystopian and exclusive vision of the future offered by him and other regional leaders, the Middle East and North Africa will remain mired in authoritarianism, poverty and violence.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California.