When artspeak masks oppression

The language we use to describe art is often fraught with obfuscation -- and can easily be described as propaganda

By Mostafa Heddaya

Published March 7, 2013 10:48PM (EST)

 New York's Guggenheim Museum     (Wikipedia Commons/figuura)
New York's Guggenheim Museum (Wikipedia Commons/figuura)

This article originally appeared on Hyperallergic.


“Without its special language, would art need to submit to the scrutiny of broader audiences and local ones? Would it hold up?” So asks online art publication Triple Canopy’s widely circulated essay “International Art English,” in which the authors catalogued the death of meaning in the language of contemporary art. It’s a perceptive study, though after offering a half-alternative (“the elite … will opt for something like conventional highbrow English”), the article ends in media reswith a sarcastic shrug: an evocative morsel of IAE — a press release — reformatted into a prose poem.

By so abstracting their position into parody, the authors misread the most significant consequence of this new language, loosed upon a world in which prisoners of conscience languish in the jails of the world’s emerging contemporary art superpowers. The unsurprising reality is that a specialized language fraught with euphemism and obfuscation is better known as propaganda.

This omission came to a head at an event last week at the Guggenheim, in which Reem Fadda, an associate curator of Middle Eastern art at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, endeavored to “delve into the history” of the UAE art scene. This consisted of a 40-minute lecture describing the history and major figures of the Emirati contemporary art world followed by a conversation with Mohammed Kazem, “a leading conceptual artist,” and culminated in a brief Q&A. More generally, it was a spectacle in International Art English as a subtle instrument of human rights abuse apologetics.

At the beginning of her talk, Fadda was sure to frame the history of the UAE in terms familiar to the audience that filled most of the 280 seats in the Peter B. Lewis Theatre: “If you compare Dubai and New York in the 1970s, you’ll see a desert and a booming city.” She continued:

There is always this question of comparison with other cities. For example, if you want to compare the scene in New York to the scene in any city in the UAE, you find that there is a misbalance, and I think it’s because the tools that we look at in terms of gauging the development of this art practice is this kind of misbalance. Our understandings of modernity and our shaping of modernity is what causes this kind of balance.

In short, though one might be tempted to make the comparison between places — don’t. The UAE emerged from a period of inexcusable British colonialism and “gushed” forward into the late 20th century, and so our current “approach should be way different, it’s about a different kind of development.” According to Fadda, this was a people “constantly being rammed in” by the buffers of colonial oppression, and that consequently must be held accountable to no Western yardstick. Pre-empting the growing international condemnation of the UAE’s human rights record, Fadda alluded throughout to the homegrown criticism that Mohammed Kazem and other contemporary artists in the UAE have ostensibly undertaken against their government. At one point, she showed a photo taken by Kazem (whose previous career was in the military) of a laborer’s shoe amid construction rubble.

Although she never directly named it, Fadda’s comments about self-criticism and workers’ rights toed a neat periphery around the recent controversy arising from the labor being used to construct the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat (“Happiness”) Island. When a younger audience member directly raised the question at the end of the session, framing the abuse of laborers as neocolonialism in its own right, Fadda’s answer revealed what her earlier comments only suggested:

Regardless of the way other artists from the outside world view what is happening within the UAE, the UAE itself has these questions … And I think that is something we also have to ask ourselves, that kind of ethical positionality, about what is the society itself looking and introspecting and commenting and criticizing on its own. Criticism is not imposed. Let’s look at labor here in New York … (1:06–1:08 here, emphasis added)

A brazen comment to make in front of an audience at the Guggenheim. Such insinuations of ill-meaning on the part of foreign critics are familiar to anyone who followed the Chinese state’s defamation of Ai Weiwei:

It is reckless collision against China’s basic political framework and ignorance of China’s judicial sovereignty to exaggerate a specific case in China and attack China with fierce comments before finding out the truth. The West’s behavior aims at disrupting the attention of Chinese society and attempts to modify the value system of the Chinese people.

The passage above is excerpted from the CCP’s English-language newspaper Global Times, but the cultural organs of the Chinese state are versed in IAE, as Triple Canopy points out in their essay. Tackling the Chinese state’s convincing adoption of the IAE lexicon, the authors cite a passage promoting the 2006 Guangzhou Triennial and weirdly dismiss the Chinese state’s wielding of the language as an English-acquisition problem: “This is fairly symptomatic of a state of affairs in which the unwitting emulators of Bataille in translation might well be interns in the Chinese Ministry of Culture — but then again might not.”

China’s smearing of Ai Weiwei’s defenders, though executed in a more transparently propagandistic style, isn’t far from Fadda’s “ethical positionality” response: Even in matters of universal human rights, we need to take an approach that rejects the non-native critic.

With “outside” activists like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch summarily dismissed, the field of possible subversives is narrowed. But we’re still left with the threat that arrived at the Gulf’s doorstep two years ago in the form of the Arab Spring. There, too, we see a similar acrobatics. Take, for instance, this “Tahrir Square” installation from UBIK, an expatriate artist living in Dubai, which he describes as follows:

“Tahrir Square,” at a glance, could be a simple interpretation of the whole Egyptian revolution, but the piece deals with a lot more than the political face-value of the situation. On some levels I’m trying to explore the urban symbolism of the Square itself; the idea that whoever controls the square controls the State. Also, by creating the installation as a game, whoever controls the centre of the board has more advantage than their opponent. The square has become an official place to gather and protest now, but will this trend continue in to the future, even after democracy has been achieved in Egypt ? If it does, how will people relate to the Square then? On some levels, the politics of the installation questions the pros and cons of this newfound freedom. The transition to democracy has become a spectator sport with the whole world watching closely.

Thus UBIK glibly neuters the bloodshed of Tahrir Square and the sacrifices of Egyptian activists, a genuflection to the Emirati state’s political agenda. The installation, though cloaked in ostensibly subversive language, is an indifferent, art-lingo-inflected scopophilia (“spectator sport”) masquerading as concern, a pantomime of support for human freedom in which UBIK strokes his hosts while goading an uncritical audience into dismissing emancipatory movements. As if auditioning for one of the many ethically suspect K Street lobbyists facilitating the UAE’s capture of liberal culture, UBIK asks, is democracy even worthwhile? What are the “pros and cons” of freedom?

The payload is delivered. And thanks to International Art English, the artist can still appear vaguely subversive and the host state committed to openness, a mutual saving of face. The genius of IAE is that the propagandists can sit back and watch the hits roll in. Reem Fadda also commented on the UAE’s artistic solidarity with the Arab world, at one point in her lecture likening the Gulf states to a “postwar New York” for Arab artists. A suspect claim historically, and one flatly denied by the recent cancellation of a pan-Arab academic conference in Dubai. An Egyptian education rights activist, Motaz Attalla of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was quoted on this Emirati hypocrisy: “The Emirates is claiming for itself a lot of credit for being a beacon of higher education in the region. It’s highly problematic to claim that credit and position in light of its non-compliance with a fundamental aspect of one of the requirements of being an actual center of knowledge production, and that’s academic freedom.”

It wasn’t always so — and not everyone in the art world is willing to play ball with tyrants. In fact, few have made the case for cultural activism as a bulwark against oppression as passionately as Reem Fadda once did. A PhD candidate at Cornell and a Fulbright scholar, Fadda was previously a Palestinian arts activist who, in defending her support of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel at a 2009 Art in General event in New York, unambiguously made the case for the type of wholesale takedown that has been directed at the UAE by members of the Arab and international art community. The exchange is illustrative:

Audience member: The individual [Israeli] artist is giving their work to the center, so it’s their work, it’s not like it’s the [Israeli] state’s work.

Reem Fadda: But what you’re doing is you’re giving it to the state, so the money that you’re giving them is toward supporting an institute [sic] that is basically killing people [and is] in violation of international law.

Fadda’s erstwhile boycott of any cultural or academic institution associated with a state in violation of international law makes her current stance patently hypocritical, but that would still be better than the alternative. Namely, that the curatorial task, full of the increasingly foggy abstractions of international art language, has clouded the instincts of an otherwise conscientious person.

Criticism of the UAE’s commitment to liberal and humanitarian values is hardly absent (see, for instance, this recent editorial in the New York Observer). What’s troubling is the ease with which the institutions of global art have appeared open to capture, lubricated by a mono-tongue amenable to a repugnant smoothing over of rights abuses. The triumph of International Art English is that it is now possible, on some of contemporary art’s most hallowed stages, to hold forth with arguments so yellow they make Pat Buchanan look like George Orwell.

And speaking of George Orwell, this art-language exegesis is hardly groundbreaking. More than a half-century ago he famously warned, in “Politics and the English Language,” of the dangers presented by a degraded language, a smokescreen through which even the most offensive political strategies can be made palatable. Ai Weiwei may yet pay with his life for his artistic subversion, as prisoners of conscience have and will in the UAE, China, and the world over. International Art English is not a cute inside joke, or merely a specialist’s dialect impenetrable to laymen. It is, as demonstrated last Tuesday, a real language spoken by real people who use it to sanctify oppression.

Mostafa Heddaya

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Art Guggenheim Hyperallergic Modern Art Oppression Propaganda United Arab Emirates