A few evenings ago I attended an art exhibition for a well known dentist and sculptress in Bahrain. Through my acquaintance with this sculptress, I suggested that my brother, a cartoonist, should participate in the exhibition. She encouraged his participation and he exhibited his art by drawing live in front of mall-goers (the exhibition was in a mall). Several official personages graced the exhibition. Most of them were gracious and charming, and it was a very instructive experience for me and my brother.
Being one of only two live performing artists (the other one a calligrapher in his fifties), my brother received much attention and was very popular with the viewers. Even the officials present were kind and attentive, and were drawn by the fact that my brother is young and looks quite young too. What followed was a lot of media attention, in the form of photos and interviews (although few of them actually made it to publication). I played the role of the art agent for my brother, mingling with the crowd, garnering attention, greeting people and getting acquainted with them. It was a wonderful opportunity to practice and hone some useful social skills: the art of conversation (never leaving a gap in the fabric of conversation for more than a few seconds), pretending to know people you don’t (a polite way of saying “I’ve never seen your work before”), clever quips and smart come-backs, and most usefully, guarding against and correcting that irritating little bête noire, the embarrasing social gaffe (though God knows some of them are too damaging to be corrected, like the time a friend of mine mistakenly congratulated somebody at a funeral).
The art was interesting of course, but something else was also being exhibited: two important social segments in Bahrain. The first were the super-rich and super-powerful, the velvet class, the upper crust, the élite of society, the ministers, ambassadors, franchise-owners and government-post inheritors. You shall know them by their status symbols. Latest model cars, expensive suits, obscenely expensive jewelery, and customarily hijabless wives. Their attitudes range from geniunely down-to-earth, to patricianly gracious, to arrogantly immature. Their money allows them to become artists (think expensive materials and galleries) and their pretentions lead them to claim an interest in and understanding of art, ergo their presence at art exhibitions. Many of them are long-time ivory-tower inhabitants, living in their own catalog-page world and mixing with their own stuck-up little friends. They can be suprisingly superficial in their thinking, and have little sensitivity for the local issues of poverty and social stratification. Despite their expensive and private English-medium educations, many of them are astonishingly un- or misinformed, and to add insult to injury, their English sucks. High on their list of priorities is trying out the latest fusion cajun Thai restaurant and deciding whether they’re going (first class of course) to the Swiss Alps or Nice this summer. This is not suprising considering that many of them (especially the wives) are people of leisure. Of course, when one possesses power and wealth, it is adaptive for one to shut one’s eyes to the suffering of the little man and to help perpuate the patterns of power.
Of course, not all wealthy people are like that, but an observably large proportion indeed are.
The second group is a more colorful bunch. The first thing that stands out when one meets these local artists is their tenue: wildly non-conformist, often to the point of bad taste. Unfortunately for them, the region has no long-standing, organically grown art tradition, so it lacks a time-honored version of artistic attire (as the French seem to have). Further, the local artists are never big enough or creative enough to set fashion trends, so their look remains idiosyncratic and anachronistic in some cases. This usually translates into berets, open shirts showing much pectoral hair and bad jewelery, misplaced scarves, mask-like sun-glasses (even in the evenings), horrifying pink boots, and a monstrous mélange of screamingly incongruent colors. Other artists, on the other hand, show a blatant disregard for their appearance, as if their art gives them carte blanche to flout social expectations. The message, as in other parts of the world, is: artists can do whatever the hell they want.
Their attitudes can be as incongruent and out-of-place as their clothing. Some of them amusingly yet irritatingly affect an end-of-the-world, existential, type of demeanour. In a severe misunderstanding of Sartre, whose books they never read, they go about, with bescarved necks and bereted heads (reminding them that Sartre is over them), eyes dreamy and faces dark with foreboding. They cross their legs while sipping coffes, faces slightly upturned, apparently overflowing with tangled emotions and misunderstood artists’ muses. They imitate Lebanese or Iraqi accents and use stuffy vocabulary and grammatical forms which they consider sophisiticated. Yet, their behavior betrays a deep-rooted vulgarism and immature, self-satisfied elitism. Their vulgar elitism speaks thus: “I came out of the gutter, now I am an artist, therefore I am better than all of you.”
When they speak, they do so with a world-weary intonation, dropping outdated behaviorist jargon all the over the place and disgorging half-digested philosophical head-lines. Card-board philosophers that they are, they pull their philosophy down by the tail, turning it into colored ABC blocks, in which “everything means everything” as Jung puts it. Speaking of Jung, unfortunately many self-designated Jungians also do the same thing, ripping the living essence out of a powerfully paradigm-shifting set of ideas, and turning it into self-help-guru, hippity-hop new-age, spasmadically positive-thinking psycho-babble. Trying to get an original idea into these people’s head feels like watching a bird banging against glass.
But not all local artists are like that. Many others have a quite down-to-earth and friendly attitude.
All in all, however, it was a very enjoyable evening for me, and quite profitable in terms of exposure to my brother, and our host was kind and hospitable. The viewers were sensitive and considerate, and some grands hommes present were especially modest and open-hearted. Despite their various follies, artists and rich people can be quite interesting and humane. I left with the feeling that ambition and the will to power, especially in a young person, needn’t be unfeeling and morally indifferent; that one can progress with a good conscience, relying one’s God-given talents and fortes; and that, with the right mixture of ability, effort, providence, and a strong heart, any social field can be conquered.