Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:04 am

The walls of ignorance

Perhaps the most important lesson of western art history is that cultural and political freedoms must go hand in hand

About 15 months ago, I received an invitation to visit a country which was planning a “major cultural initiative” that it wanted to tell the world about. The country had an extraordinarily rich heritage, dating back 100,000 years, and it had ambitions to present itself in a new way to the international community. I was invited to a “Cultural Landscapes Forum”, and to meet the woman in charge of this “transformation” of the country’s museums and heritage sites. The country, you may have guessed, was Syria, and the woman in question was Asma al-Assad, wife of the president, Bashar al-Assad.

My invitation was not so much overtaken as trampled on by events. Nine days after its issue, 20 protesters against government oppression were reportedly killed as 100,000 people marched into the city of Daraa. Events escalated sharply, and the situation in Syria today is such that “cultural landscapes” are not, I am guessing, the focus of discussion in the country’s ravaged streets.

Just what is it about the wives of dictators, monarchs and absolutists that make them, in a neat reversal of the chilling Nazi dictum, reach for culture whenever they hear the sound of a gun? I have little doubt that Asma al-Assad’s plans to discuss Syria’s cultural future were interesting and worthwhile. But they were grotesquely inappropriate. Where there are cries in the street, they will always drown out the refined whisperings of the gallery or concert hall.

There is a tradition of culture-crazy consorts wallowing in the soft embrace of art while their husbands play hardball with political opponents. Farah Pahlavi, wife of the Shah of Iran, possessed a highly educated eye and built a fabulous collection of contemporary art during the 1970s, at what we would now call knock-down prices. She built a museum to house the works, and founded the Shiraz Arts Festival, which brought avant-garde art and electronic music to the city.

But her modern ways were not to everyone’s taste. A certain Ayatollah Khomeini expressed his concerns from an Iraqi mosque in 1977: “Indecent acts have taken place in Shiraz and it is said that such acts will soon be shown in Tehran too, and nobody says a word. The gentlemen [clerics] in Iran don’t say anything. I cannot understand why they don’t speak out!” They soon did.

The decadent ways of western culture may not have been a major cause of the Iranian revolution, but they proved that the Shah’s regime was out of touch with its people. Cultural freedoms had not been accompanied by political reform. It was an explosively dysfunctional formula, and the Pahlavis paid the price. To this day, billions of dollars’ worth of splendid works by Picasso, Pollock and all the rest languish underground, rarely displayed in Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

The use of culture to add lustre to non-democratic regimes continues today. Of course, Qatar is not to be compared to Syria, but another example is that of Sheikha Mayassa al-Thani, the widely-feted daughter of the Emir of Qatar, who is masterminding the Gulf state’s mind-boggling art acquisition and museum-building programme with no little flair and sophistication.

Educated in the US and France, Sheikha Mayassa says all the right things about the enlightening effects of great art, and seems to mean them. In a Tedx talk from Doha in December 2010, she talked of her wish to “break the walls of ignorance between east and west” through her cultural patronage of projects which would “grow organically” from within the country. Women, she said, were better able to appreciate the role of culture in “connecting people”.

But some of her country’s initiatives have the unmistakeable feel of vanity projects. Although she constantly emphasises the need to encourage and promote local artists, Qatar’s headlining cultural projects – a Takashi Murakami retrospective that closes later this month, and a big Damien Hirst show in 2013 – have a depressingly familiar ring to them. They might have taken place anywhere.

. . .

In the absence of proper democratic reform in states that have no such tradition, western art has assumed a vital importance, acting as both a pressure valve and a propaganda tool. It is smart politics to allow freedom of expression in the art gallery while keeping it off the streets. For one thing, the messages contained in art works speak only to elites. The radical intent of a shark-in-formaldehyde is as nothing compared with the thumping verdict of the ballot box.

But perhaps the most important lesson of western art history is that cultural and political freedoms must go hand in hand. To be properly understood, they have to feed off, and cast light upon, each other. There is no appreciation of the tragedies of Aeschylus without considering the riven Athenian society from which they emerged. The comic twists of The Magic Flute are meaningless unless they are seen as part of the broader debate over the nascent Enlightenment movement.

It is only when allied with democratic values and respect for human rights that the arts can find their rightful place, as a forum for free inquiry and an unimpeded investigation of the human condition. Outside their proper political context, they too easily become no more than a luxurious adornment.

Or so it might seem. But the truth is that culture is not so pliable. Here is another lesson of western history: if there are cracks and flaws in the polity at large, artists will find them, address them, satirise them. The arts can be a beacon of what humanity can achieve; but they can also spread through the flimsily conceived foundations of unenlightened politics like dry rot.

peter.aspden@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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