Arab audiences aren't enthusiastic about Arab art
Nearly 30 years ago, a German song called 99 Luftballons topped the charts in the United States, one of the only foreign-language songs ever to do so.
Americans loved the song's catchy, infectious hook but had no idea that the lyrics were in fact horrifying, detailing the "99 years of war" triggered by some harmless balloons.
Fast forward to this autumn, and Gangnam Style has performed a similar feat across much of the world. The song is similarly catchy and infectious, entirely in Korean - people who don't speak that language have no idea what Psy, the artist, is talking about.
What is fascinating about Gangnam Style, is that it is, like 99 Luftballons, music created for and rooted in the world where it was born, but which subsequently found an audience elsewhere.
In the West Germany of 1983, when 99 Luftballons was a hit, nuclear annihilation seemed impossibly probable: the song was based on the idea that balloons floating eastward across the Berlin wall could trigger a military spiral and an overwhelming Soviet reaction.
Everything about the Gangnam Style video - the lyrics, the dance moves, the colourful locations - is rooted in the world of Korean pop music. It is entirely situated within its cultural sphere and makes almost no sense outside of it.
That such music appeals to western, Arab and other audiences is a happy byproduct of the art, not its main purpose.
Koreans, the primary market for Korean pop, are the main judges of what becomes a hit. In the same way, Indian movies are created primarily for the domestic market, but find wide popularity elsewhere.
It is that self-referential quality that still remains absent from too much of the Arab cultural sphere. Contrast the films of the Cairo Film Festival - which started this week - with the Arab art exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the first major look at Arab photography, and it is clear that the intended audiences are very different.
The difference is in who are seen as the arbiters of taste. For Arab cinema, particularly Egyptian movies, the audience and the arbiters are other Arabs: a movie succeeds or flops based on whether Arabs like it.
One of the joys of watching Egyptian films is the same self-referential quality found in Gangnam Style: the themes, ideas and narratives are located within the Arab world. Other cultures may enjoy them, but they are rooted in distinctly Arab places, times and cultures.
As an example look at When I Saw You, one of the entrants at the Cairo International Film Festival. It is the latest film from Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir, who made the much-lauded Salt of this Sea. The film follows Tarek through the bewildering first days as refugee after the 1967 war. It is completely rooted in the Palestinian and Arab experience, but it also has a wider resonance.
Broadly speaking, other forms of Arab art are not yet like that, which is why an important collection of the work of contemporary Arab artists has been put on this year not in any of the major cities of the Arab world, but at the Arab World Institute, in Paris.
Arab visual artists sometimes appear to see the arbiters of artistic taste as coming from outside the Arab world. That is changing, but unfortunately it often seems that while Arabs like their own cinema, they don't yet much care for their own art.
One of the criticisms Egyptians have made of the recent western interest in so-called "street art" from post-revolutionary countries is that this type of work, especially graffiti, is accessible: those unfamiliar with the Arab world can easily appreciate it.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. The point the Egyptian critics are making is that Egyptian art is complex, sophisticated and has a long tradition - but because it is rooted in the specific motifs and stories of Egypt, and because foreign collectors aren't as aware of those motifs, it tends to be overlooked in favour of other, more easily understandable pieces.
The blame for this problem, it seems to me, lies with Arab audiences themselves. Too few appear willing to engage with the works coming out of their region.
Arab collectors often look outside their own understanding of their region's art to find arbiters of taste. This often means that they seek the approval of western audiences or institutions.
Artists are vital because they perform the critical and complex function of holding up a mirror to society, showing people what they were, what they are and what they may become.
That is a vital task, though not always a comfortable one. But when audiences other than those rooted in the region decide the cultural value of this mirror, the debate becomes skewed and loses value.
The celebration and criticism of Arab life that comes from Arab cinema has been warmly embraced by audiences in the region.
As exciting as it is that foreign galleries see the beauty and complexity of Arab art, it remains a bittersweet feeling while Arabs themselves do not.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Published: November 28, 2012 04:00 AM