The Spine

Abu Dhabi, "a New City Of Culture"?

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Whichever p.r. firm it is that has the Abu Dhabi account in America is
truly brilliant... or maybe just very pushy. In any event, someone has
gotten the New York Times to run the same story on the top of the front
page of its Arts section twice in four days, first on Thursday, then on
Sunday. Otherwise, what nonsense has taken control of the editors'
minds? OK, it is isn't exactly the same story. But let's read the
headlines first. From Thursday: "Celebrity Architects Reveal a Daring
Cultural Xanadu for the Arab World." And from Sunday: "A Vision in
the Desert. Abu Dhabi has an unlikely proposal for the Middle East. It
involves $27 billion, the world's top architects and a brand new city of
culture." That last phrase is the conceit of both stories. A new
city of culture, to compete with Florence and London, Paris and New York,
St. Petersburg and, yes, Cairo or Athens or Barcelona or Shanghai. As if a
city of culture can be fashioned pellmell even if, particularly if, the
city is without a past and without a curious indigenous population.

I can't say I blame the rulers of Abu Dhabi--and, for that matter, the
rulers of Dubai--for their ambitions. They have so much money. Why not
spend even if it were on a lark? Like the source of the money (Abu Dhabi's
is tied to oil; Dubai's to shipping and banking; both of them are
lubricated by indentured servitude) their ambitions are quite
different. Dubai aspires to expand its commerce and therefore be a center
of of activity that does not challenge the body or stretch the mind: Disneyworlds, Disneylands, a completely artificial skiing center, on and
on, existing in symbiotic relationship with its hotels, beaches,
restaurants, sex clubs, golf clubs, tennis clubs. Dubai has a good chance
of success. It does not aspire to change anyone. Just put a bit more
superficial excitement into people's lives, the same sort of "oh, my"
excitement travelers experience in Anaheim, California or Orlando, Florida,
or as the Disney publicity puts it, "where dreams come true." On the other
hand, Abu Dhabi--give it its due--wants to do something fresh, maybe even
a trifle brave. But I do not think that tourists who want to go to the
snazziest new hotel in the Gulf will be at all enticed by a museum hanging
one of the thousand of near identical Damien Hirst productions
("Thiosalicyclic Acid Pharmaceutical Painting," glass household paint on
canvas, let's say; or 'Isopropamide Iodide," also glass household paint on
canvas). Who will go to the opera and what will they want to see? Can you
imagine a Wagner festival of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the most intricate
musical drama of all time? Or shall we just settle for Aida? What
theatrical drama will fill a 6,500 seat theatre? Will Tennessee Williams
be allowed, or Jean Anouilh?

It's not just that these faux city-states are alienated from the modern and
liberated sensibility. They are also ignorant of the classic
sensibility. Still, I believe these projects are born of the shame they
feel now about being Arab. Shame is sometimes a noble sensibility. After
all, Arab civilization is presently descending into the darkness of
fanaticism and barbarism. And neither Abu Dhabi nor Dubai are barbaric,
and many of their sons and some of their daughters have gone to American
colleges and universities. They know what separates culture, even a glitzy
culture like ours, from their culture. Can they make bridge the chasm with
an expenditure of $27 billion? I doubt it. Of course, shame is often
fought by desperation. And these grand plans seem to me to be desperate
improvisations.

And now back to the New York Times. What has come over it to publish story
after story about--in the end--these truly insignificant polities? The
populations of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai (1 million and 1.3 million
respectively) and count a huge majority of foreigners, really huge. These
are not organic societies. They are models for no one. There was a
poverty of conception even in the two recent Times articles, and they had
abutting them virtually the same photographs and the same maps.

As for Xanadu, the "daring cultural Xanadu," Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote
these lines,

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree.

But this was a fantasy and, as the poet makes clear, "a savage place."

Orson Welles named Citizen Kane's house Xanadu. It was where Kane's life
and dreams unraveled and which brought him grief. Maybe someone at the
Times actually grasped the futility of the Abu Dhabi enterprise.

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