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Sunday, November 30, 2008

There’s a Slow Train Coming: You Get What You Pei For

Sometimes I feel so low-down and disgusted

Can't help but wonder what's happenin' to my companions,
Are they lost or are they found, have they counted the cost it'll take to bring
All their earthly principles they're gonna have to abandon?

Who knew a song written nearly 30 years ago would be so relevant three decades later? I don't think any of us would put it past Bob Dylan.

Now, the last I want to do is knock the arts. Artistic expression—in whatever form it bubbles to surface—is something that should be praised, protected and preserved.

So why am I out to tear the arts a new one? Because there is a slow train coming, my fellow Disgruntled Dylanologists, and it ain’t running on coal—it’s running on oil.

The future is bright in the Persian Gulf. The horizon, it seems, is even brighter. Because in the months to come, oil derricks won’t be the only structures rising up from the white-hot Arabian sands.

In the last year alone, nearly every member of OPEC has commissioned a ‘cultural arts’ center. Shining, sparkling, glowing celebrations of the world’s artistic heritage in a land formerly awash in sand dunes.

First, there’s the King Abdulaziz Center, a sprawling, 400-acre compound consisting of a museum, library, theater, cinema and more. And here’s the best part… the whole thing is dedicated to one, singular objective: The history of oil in Saudi Arabia. This, of course, makes complete sense when you consider who’s footing the bill—Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil company.

And then there’s the newly-commissioned Louvre Abu Dhabi, set to open sometime in 2012. Let’s be honest. Most of the world couldn’t find Abu Dhabi on a map if they tried. And while the city has been in existence for nearly 3,000 years, it wasn’t even on the map until 1958. Guess what they found in 1958? (HINT: What’s black and gold and greases the palms of politicians the world over?)

No museum, however, is more impressive than the Museum of Islamic Art, which opened last week in Qatar. But it isn’t what the Museum of Islamic Art houses that’s so impressive— it’s where it houses them.

One of the guidelines for the project enacted by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei was that his 376,740-sq.-ft. museum rise from its own island in the Arabian Gulf in Doha Qatar. An island in the middle of an Arabian oasis. It drips with irony, not to mention $1.6 billion in oil money.

Listen, I’m not coming down on the OPEC nations for wanting to celebrate the arts. And I’m certainly not criticizing them for wanting to preserve their own cultural heritage. The fact that anyone is willing, much less able, to make an investment in the arts in this day and age is something we should all stand up and take note of. And that’s precisely my point…

A large part of the reason that arts funding is being cut faster than a punk in a back alley knife fight in America and abroad is that the world economy is in shambles. Money that should be spent on schools, roads, education, and the arts is being siphoned off at an alarming rate to fund a war to protect the countries who are crippling us in the first place.

I guess there’s an upside to the fact that Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are building monuments while the rest of the world build ships and boats. At least we’ll know everything that’s important to us will be safe when the deal goes down.

The irony, of course, is that we certainly had plenty of forewarning. Bob saw that slow train coming nearly 30 years ago...

All that foreign oil controlling American soil,
Look around you, it's just bound to make you embarrassed.
Sheiks walkin' around like kings, wearing fancy jewels and nose rings,
Deciding America's future from Amsterdam and to Paris
And there's a slow, slow train comin' up around the bend.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know you have to keep up your disgruntled persona Mr. Grasty - but I think it's a little mean-spirited of you to come down on Qatar for trying to build a cultural outpost in the Gulf when most of its neighbors are concentrating more on glitz and bling (just take a look at Dubai and you'll see what I mean).
It's not just the Museum of Islamic Arts - they are also investing heavily in education and medical research, something to be applauded, not criticized by some ignorant hack who's just trying to be controversial in order to sell his book....
Finally, the reason that the Museum was sited on reclaimed land in the bay was because architect
IM Pei did not want this cultural beacon to be overshadowed by the high-rise buildings that would inevitably overshadow it in the future.