Last Thursday two memorable events marked my day causing a disturbance that needs to be put in words and frame. It went like this:
In the morning I was at the House of Commons attending the session on Afghanistan of the South Asia and the Middle East Forum, upon the kind invitation of its extraordinary chairman Mr Khalid Nadeem (Thank you, thank you thank you, dear Khalid for the opened door 💕.
For isn't it what great people do? Open doors, let in and go towards others, constructing an inclusive and creative space?).
Many good people spoke there on Afghanistan from different perspectives. Men and women talked about Afghanistan interior security, Daash in Afghanistan, Afghanistan's economy, agriculture, differences, Afghanistan and the world etc etc. As most cordial, simple and humane stroke me Lord Dubs, speaking on the issue of Afghan migrants. Which made me wonder do they call him Lord because he's wise and good, or is he wise and good because they call him Lord? Hmm, yes, yes the egg or the hen... Despite all his wisdom and goodness Lord Dubs couldn't answer my question on the basis of what criteria Afghanistan is considered a safe (!!??!!! Right? I know...) country. Instead of an answer Lord Dubs said "Speak to your MP" (?!?! You are an MP right? Why should I speak to another MP?!? . While Sir Barney White Spunner, Former Lieutenant General on the Defence Strategy in Afghanistan said an even simpler "I don't know" (?!?! Who then consults the government on whether Afghanistan is or isn't a safe country?). I can reassure you: no other question went more unanswered than mine. And I would also like to reassure P: Darling there are windows dirtier than ours! Those of the House of Commons!
Anyhow, there I am at La Bohemme in the afternoon and I am just about to have my well deserved lunch, (in addition to the afternoon music, La Boheme has now an excellent crunchy duck breast with crunchy chips on the menu), when I read the following in one of the newspapers they keep at the bar: "Moscow profited from its refusal to boycott a Saudi Arabian conference yesterday, securing ..the promise of lucrative contracts, including a Hermitage museum franchise. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the St Petersburg Museum ...addressed the conference alone after Tad Smith, chief executive of Sotheby's, withdrew from the conference last week". (The Times, 25 Oct 2018)
Curious. Extremely curious I find this phrase "Moscow profited from its refusal to boycott".
Here is a question for you: who had ever profited from a boycott? What did England profit from the boycott of say artistic exchange with the Middle Eastern countries with dictatorial regimes in the nineties and the new millennium? These regimes - Mubarak's, Gathafi's, Bashar's etc., that were good enough to do arms and gas deals with, but not good enough for artists and cultural institutions to attend their theatre and music festivals? What did the English artistic milieu profit from its absence this year at the 25th edition of Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre for example? Or, apart from increasing alienation from the other culture, what was this country's profit from the absence of its artists at all previous 24 editions of the festival? This huge festival that strives to present the best and newest in the theatre from all Arabic speaking countries and beyond.
I am looking at this year's program and marveling: 13 September, Smell of War (Iraq) Al-Salam Theatre. Is it the same cast that performed in 2010, when I saw the Iraqi post invasion version of Brecht's The Caucasion Chalk Circle? Is it the same company of extraordinary actors all above 60, who's play was so good in their version of this extraordinary text that by the first act I was in tears. By the end of the play the whole huge hall was sobbing. I stare at the festival's page and the painful questions from back then come to me Whom will these excellent actors transmit their art to? They who have started their carriers in a relatively stable and prosperous Iraq, can still not retire as there is nobody to replace them. Further in the festival's 2018 program there is a pleiade of Arabic companies Syria (how interesting to see), Kuwait, UAE, Tunis, Algeria, Egypt; and also others like Switzerland, France, Italy, Poland, even China and Russia, of course, why would they miss? For this is how it usually is, the only one missing is the absent one. Did I miss to see the list of British artists cancelling their tours in the States because of the election of Trump? No, right? Because we know that at least half, if not most of the Americans have nothing to do with Trump. So why do we think that all Egyptians had to do with Mubarak; are at present doing with either the Generals or the Muslim Brotherhood; and in a word are aliens that either only obey and pray or flood squares and rape women?
Art is usually militant and engaged. Yet, its means and ways are, different from those of business and politics. No matter how much business and politics influence, penetrate, submit, conquer and corrupt it; art always finds new gaps and ways; always sets itself free.
Therefore, here, I find a radical mistake in the concept. We defeat dictatorial regimes by art. More art. More and more art. The absence of art strengthenes regimes. We defeat dictatorial regimes by communicating with their people, not by ignoring them.
In the context of a dictatorial regime, each album with reproductions of Caravaggio is a window open towards a blue sky; each musical record is a fresh breeze in the stuffy cell.The Sex Pistols and Iron Maiden have contributed more for the fall of the Berlin Wall than any English politician.
Now, what do I understand from Sotheby's chief executive's withdrawal from the conference last week? I understand that Mr Tad Smith doesn't find the conditions in the Saudi Kingdom attractive enough as for Sotheby's to run their business there. Fair enough.
How would I insist to read Mr Mikhail Piotrovsky's presence in the Saudi Kingdom, despite knowing that it doesn't mean this? "Oh, sod the tyrant; we have worse. Art will save us all".
There is a subquestion here: Why Russia delegates the director of their majour museum, while Britain delegates an art dealer; be it the representative of the biggest art dealing institution? Art empowers people. I am happy that the Saudi women, men and children will have a franchise of the Hermitage. I would like them to have a franchise of the National Portrait Gallery too. And of Musee d'Orsay.
Art empowers people. Art makes people better. Maybe if the Saudis have plenty of art they will stop being overweight and suffer from respiratory and heart diseases and will suddenly stop seeing Yemen on a good day as their private brothel; on a bad day as their private boxing bag.
The absence of Mr Tad Smith in the Saudi Kingdom is a business, not an art loss. The systematic absence of interactions of the native English-speaking artist with their colleagues in the Middle East has only one effect: the increase of the "War of civilizations".The last half a century of exclusively arms, drugs and gas deals contacts have only led to an increasing demonisation of the other in the eyes of the general public of both sides.
And while we know exactly where England stands in regards to Freedom of Sprach; we absolutely don't know where it stands in regards to Freedom of Arts. Judging by the events mentioned, there isn't English art where there isn't English Establishment.
In conclusion, I will write to the honourable Mr Khalid Nadeem and politely suggest that hereon at the sittings of the South Asia & Middle East Forum one of the presentations to be on the art activities of the particular country; and the forms of humane (not war and business) exchange between Britain and the country in question. So that we may not forget that people have a bright, human side to which we should appeal and with which we should communicate.