There is certainly such a thing as politically radical art; in our time most of it is music, from hippie rock to punk rock to angry rap. But the sort of art that is displayed in art museums is inherently a product of elite culture. Whatever its surface politics it ends up decorating the lives of the wealthy and powerful. Attempts to infuse high art with a radical spirit usually end up as sick charades like the Met's punk fashion gala, which featured celebrity millionaires and billionaires dressed up in diamond-studded versions of the clothes worn by angry British musicians fighting the economic reforms that made the Met's patrons rich enough to attend museum galas. Or like the career of Basquiat, a genuine street artist picked up and made a star by art world insiders, his drug-addled scribbles transformed from desperate stands against oblivion to symbols of the coolest insider cool; he loved his success but it was not enough to save him from the demons that drove him to a fatal overdose at 27.
Consider this story in the Times, about how the art world is being shaken up by the government of Qatar. Awash in oil money, the Qatari royal family has been tossing billions around the planet in support of favored political causes (the Syrian rebels, the Palestinian Authority), satellite television, sporting events, and now art. Their annual budget for acquiring art is estimated to be about a billion dollars a year.
The prices have been record breaking, and startling. More than $70 million for Rothko’s “White Center” in 2007, a high-water mark for that artist. More than $20 million later that year for a Damien Hirst pill cabinet, then a record for a living artist. And $250 million for Cézanne’s “Card Players” in 2011, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.The mastermind of this buying spree seems to be Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 30, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and a sister to Qatar’s new emir. And why are the Qataris shelling out all this money?
“They see themselves as an international center for many cultures,” said Allen L. Keiswetter, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It establishes them as another reason to be a destination for travel, for business. If you want to attract people, you need to have a reason to go there.” Sheika al Mayassa declined to be interviewed for this article, but she has made limited remarks about the role art will play in Qatar’s future. “We are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development,” she said in a 2010 TED Talk. “Art becomes a very important part of our national identity.” In an interview that year with The New York Times, the sheika suggested that establishing art institutions might challenge Western preconceptions about Muslim societies.So whatever the artists who created this stuff intended, it is now being used by oil-rich autocrats to shore up their international reputation and make their capital city into the sort of place prominent businessmen will want to visit.