Culture Summit 2019: Should art be for everyone? Or is it just a hobby for the elite?

'Populism' was the word that kept popping up on the first day of the Culture Summit. Two of our arts writers discuss whether or not it's a dirty word

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - April 08, 2019: A visitor looks at a piece by Hosni Radwan as part of the Culture Summit 2019 Manarat Al Saadiyat hosts art exhibitions from UAE, Saudi Arabia, Korea and Palestine. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

The Culture Summit opened yesterday in Abu Dhabi with a series of panels discussing art, technology, and the media. One clear theme emerged: the question of populism, which has emerged politically across the globe, and particularly in the two flash points of Brexit and Donald Trump.

The idea of populism also appeared in conversations about museum accessibility – who should art serve? – as well as in a discussion about the dangers of "click-bait" journalism in a media environment driven by social platforms.

One of the most stimulating panels addressed the topic directly with the question: “How can we define popularity versus populism?”.

Moderated by Tim Marlow, the artistic director of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) in London, the panel explored whether museums and galleries should seek to appeal to mass audiences or pursue a programme that values experimentation and creative adventure above all else. As the programme noted, "Why should art appeal to all?"

On the panel was Farooq Chaudhry, producer at the Akram Khan Company, Munira Mirza, former Deputy Mayor for Culture and Education in London, and Lars Nittve, former director of Tate Modern.

The opposing arguments: 

Two of The National's Arts and Culture writers, Rupert Hawksley and Melissa Gronlund, found themselves on different sides of the debate and have here attempted to thrash out some of the contentious points that emerged from the discussion.

Melissa argues that museums and media outlets should not pander to what they think their audiences want. Artists should be shielded from pressures.

Rupert argues that there is too large a disconnect between the shows curators are putting on and the kind of art the public enjoys. The art world should respond to the public, not dictate to it.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - April 08, 2019: Munira Mirza, Executive Director, Culture, King's College London speaks on How can we define popularity v populism at the Culture Summit 2019. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The disconnect between public enjoyment, and the shows curators want to put on

Melissa: Populism's certainly the word of the day. But I was surprised at our different takes on the panel moderated by Tim Marlow. I thought Tim and Lars Nittve did an excellent job of explaining the challenges facing galleries and museums as they navigate the pressures of serving the public and the artist, and you thought they were just talking to each other.

Rupert: Well, I felt there were times when the two of them unwittingly highlighted the disconnect between what the public enjoys and the kind of shows curators want to put on. There was a telling moment when Mohamad Kanoo, from the audience, said that he found the RA's open-call Summer Exhibition one of the most invigorating shows of the year and Marlow admitted that, for all the show's success, "curatorially it's sniffed at". For me, that just summed it all up. There is this alienating disconnect between the way the public and the galleries perceive art.

Can the public decide for themselves what they want to consume?

Melissa: Many conceptual artworks are illegible to broader audiences, it's true. But when you say "disconnect", I get stuck on "public" - which public is this? There isn't one public anymore, and one of the silver linings about Brexit and Trump has been to show what a monolithic idea of the public that the media had.

Do you think that’s the same disconnect for the news media, in that what readers want to read is not what editors want to publish? I thought there were really interesting parallels between the fears of a race to the bottom for the news media, which were talked about in the media panel, and the fears of a race to the bottom for museum shows. Social media has allowed readers to have a greater role – sometimes detrimentally – in determining which stories circulate.

Rupert: It seems dangerous to suggest that the public can't decide for themselves what they want to consume.

Melissa: It's true. My 30s would have been a bleaker time if it hadn't been for all those cat videos. And I spend an embarrassing amount of time on Twitter.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - April 08, 2019: People look round the Cuadro fine art gallery as part of the Culture Summit 2019 Manarat Al Saadiyat hosts art exhibitions from UAE, Saudi Arabia, Korea and Palestine. Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The challenges museums face in "opening up" 

Rupert: But I guess the difference is that there is a wide variety of views and opinions expressed across the media, from both the right and the left. I'm not sure that's true in the art world. This is what Mirza was saying about the art world's response to Brexit. Rather than engaging with those who voted to Leave, it chose to sneer at them. Since Brexit there's been only one well-known pro-Brexit artwork, a play by Julie Burchill called People Like Us, and that was widely panned despite the fact that tickets sold well.

Melissa: I agree that the cultural field has a left-leaning bias, but for me that feels more pronounced in a UK or American context. In a regional setting, the challenges facing museums as they attempt to open up to wider publics feel very different – and actually, not related so much to a nativist idea of populism, but to the varying needs of the region's disparate publics. Here, I find that museums tend to target certain groups rather than put on blockbuster shows. I am thinking of Sharjah Museums' outreach to prison inmates or Jameel Arts Centre's reaching out to Arabic-speakers in Dubai.

How much that is just outreach and how much of that is changes to the programming is another question, and that’s why I sometimes wonder if we shouldn’t force one notion of culture on people if they don’t reach out to it themselves. I was struck by the reaction to the former president of Bolivia’s comment in the first panel about football – that got a bigger laugh in the crowd than what he said about culture. Do we need to unite people via Beethoven if they’ve already got the World Cup? Why are we overlooking popular forms of culture?

Art vs football: why is one so much more accessible than the other?  

Rupert: What, so you think that because the public has football, they don't need art? Surely the reason why many people don't become interested in art is because they're not introduced to it in an accessible way at a young age. And then they turn up at a white-walled gallery, are faced with impenetrable captions, and conclude this isn't for them. Galleries have a responsibility to ensure that doesn't happen and they're not even trying to meet that responsibility.

Melissa: But museums are — just perhaps not successfully. That was the whole point of the panel. Is it elitist to think that some people don't want high culture, or is it patronising to think we need to teach them? I genuinely don't know.

Maybe something our Editor-In-Chief, Mina Al-Oraibi, said on the panel about media would be helpful here – that technology shouldn’t be considered as a saviour or a destroyer of journalism. It’s just a tool. In the same way culture and football are just different, and can be two means of pursuing diplomatic goals. Though, of course – sorry, I can’t help myself! – we’re on the wrong tack with comparing football and art because football is entertainment, whereas as art is an elevated means of expression.

Rupert: Let's just get a coffee.