The paradox of Middle Eastern art criticism

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From left to right: Murtaza Vali, critic, historian and educator based in Sharjah; Hassan Khan, artist and musician based in Cairo; Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, staff writer at The National and contributing editor to Bidoun based in Beirut; Maria Fusco, director of MFA Writing at Goldsmiths College in London, and Douglas McLennan, founder and editor-in-chief of ArtsJournal.com in Seattle.

Walk into this year's Art Dubai, and it hits you long before the art does: there are Middle Eastern art publications seemingly everywhere.

, the old standby, yes, but also

,

and even the new, Abu Dhabi-based

, its cover, featuring a model in a gold and pearl bolero designed by the Sharjah-born, London-based designer Qasimi, a kind of manifesto about the role that the Middle East and the UAE in particular can play in contemporary global culture.

In her introduction to the opening day's forum on arts writing, The National's Kaelen Wilson-Goldie notes this abundance, which both feeds and feeds on the explosion of galleries, museums and art fairs in the region in the past five to six years.

"More and more there are opportunities to write about art in this part of the world," she said. "However, there is no money in this. There is no way to make a living. If there is a crisis, it's that you cannot live being an arts writer."

And therein lies a curious paradox.

Unlike in the west, where the internet is decimating journalistic institutions of all kinds, the Middle East has seen the rise of an array of major publications in the last few years -- including this one. The move to the web that began in the west, and with it drastically shrank many of the news holes available for arts writing, has not completely arrived here yet. New galleries are popping up every day, and with them, new magazines to cover them. This ought to be a golden age for art writing in the Middle East.

Why it's not was a matter of some debate. Wilson-Goldie noted that part of the problem has to do with archiving. Many of the art critics writing about the region previously are inaccessible because of language, or have not been gathered in an accessible place. Hassan Khan, an artist, musician and critic from Cairo, complained that most of the substantial Western interest in Middle Eastern art in recent years resulted in criticism that spent too much time putting things in their cultural context, and not enough getting down to the the real critical issue of what the art was worth on its own merits.

"What one finds with a lot of the writing that happens about artists from this region is that there is a certain embarrassment and carefulness that has to do with arguments constantly made about the need to understand the context, which are not made about artists in any other region. The critic tends to -- and moreso the journalist -- ignore the idea that this artist is functioning in the context of contemporary art."

The most provocative explanation for the gap came from Rasha Salti, a curator at the Middle East International Film Festival.

"The market has been totally ruthless toward the production of knowledge in universities, and it has been totally thrilled by the production of art," she said. "I think art criticism live in that gray area, in that horrific gap between the production of knowledge and the production of art."

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