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“Will we see an esthetic Renaissance in our time?” Not in Qatar.


“Will we see an esthetic Renaissance in our time? I do not know. What I do know is this: anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today.”

–Ayn Rand, Romantic Manifesto, p. viii.

It’s commonly thought that art is incompatible with the application of reason, but there are times when just a touch of common sense might prove beneficial to the denizens of the “art world.” Last week, The New York Times ran a triumphant story about the unveiling of Damien Hirst’s latest–and, we’re told, deeply “daring”–creation in Qatar.

“The Miraculous Journey,” is what it’s called, and frankly, it looks to me more like a gigantic, bronzed mock-up of something out of a textbook of obstetrics than anything I would want displayed in public. A very expensive, state-subsidized mock-up, I might add.

DOHA, Qatar — For weeks, 14 giant balloons had been mysteriously parked in front of the Sidra Medical and Research Center, a hulking steel, glass and white ceramic building devoted to women’s and children’s health that is to open on the outskirts of this city in 2015.

At 7 on Monday evening, to the amplified sound of a beating heart, members of Qatar’s royal family, government officials and local artists watched as each balloon, bathed in purple light, opened like a giant flower to reveal an unusually provocative public artwork. Called “The Miraculous Journey,” it consists of 14 monumental bronze sculptures, by the British artist Damien Hirst, chronicling the gestation of a fetus inside a uterus, from conception to birth, ending with a statue of a 46-foot-tall anatomically correct baby boy.

I don’t know what’s worse: that the use of purple was a joke, or was intended in all seriousness.

Even for a Persian Gulf country that is aggressively buying its way into modernity, this installation takes official acceptance of Western art to a new level. Local women still adhere to centuries-old Islamic traditions, wearing the abaya, a long cloak, and niqab, or face covering; images of women are routinely censored in books and magazines. Even the representation of the human form is unusual.

I like the juxtaposition of the last sentence and the clause just preceding it. Images of women are routinely censored; even the representation of the human form is unusual. The contrast on either side of the semi-colon is not, so to speak, obvious at face value. The intended idea, of course, is that photographs of women are censored, and painted depictions of human beings are unusual. But that isn’t what the words on the page actually say, and it somehow doesn’t surprise me that the relevant distinctions would be lost in the breathless excitement to suggest that something of aesthetic consequence had just happened in Doha.

To commission such an audacious work of art is considered a particularly bold move for Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 30, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and a sister to the new emir of this oil- and gas-rich state. The sculptures are reported to have cost $20 million.

No one seems able to ask Sheikha al-Thani: why is it that an oil- and gas-rich state is obliged to have state-sponsored art in the first place? Are there no private patrons in a state so rich? Of course, asking these questions might in turn oblige us to ask why an oil- and gas-rich state is obliged to remain a monarchy at all. Is a state so rich unable to educate its citizens for self-government? That, in turn would oblige us to ask why any state is obliged to remain a monarchy, and what rights are violated by the existence of one. And that in turn would take us on a journey worth traversing.

To avoid asking these questions–whose legality as questions is itself questionable in Qatar–we’re somehow obliged to pretend that Sheikha al-Thani is an emblem of courage because she’s paying Damien Hirst $20 million dollars to take us on a miraculously lucrative, amnio-fetal journey involving a series of butt-ugly sculptures whose only claim to fame is that they’ve “daringly” been installed in an Islamic country. I don’t think so.

“To have something like this is less daring than having a lot of nudity,” said the sheikha, interviewed on Monday morning in her office at the Museum of Islamic Art, a modern, sun-filled space with sweeping views of the gulf. “There is a verse in the Koran about the miracle of birth,” she said. “It is not against our culture or our religion.”

Yes, Sheikha al-Thani, thanks for making all that clear: so now we know that the Renaissance has no chance of making it to Qatar anytime in the foreseeable future. Raphael, Michaelangelo, Botticelli: I mean, who’s that daring? Incidentally, it seems that few in Qatar are pious enough to see the “daring” in Sheikha al-Thani’s casual equation of “culture” and “religion.” Nowadays, even the theocrats think that God’s word sits on all fours with the will of the majority, and the same aristocrats who profess devotion to religion flout the dictates of religion in just about everything they say.  Not that anyone minds. Well–except the Taliban.

Mission Impossible: Destination Doha

Mission Impossible: Destination Doha

May I, in all the humility I can muster, suggest something cheaper and more transgressive to the sheikha? How about, let’s say, a miraculous journey into the precincts of free speech? Could that perhaps be contemplated or arranged before deciding to spend tens of millions of more dollars on pointless sculptures arguably incompatible with the requirements of public health? it is one thing to imitate “the West.” But it takes a little more than a fat check to Damien Hirst to do it properly. Some day, the royalty and aristocracy of the Gulf States will figure this out. The question is whether they will figure it out in the way that, say, John Locke did, or, they will “figure it out” instead, in the fashion of Marie Antoinette.




  1. Agreed on the political points, but aesthetically I thought the sculptures were pretty good.

  2. irfankhawaja says:

    Well, they’re certainly anatomically accurate, and skill is involved in any accurate rendering of something–so I’m not denying that. But the size is grotesque, and I think the execution is too specifically medical to be worth looking at for very long (unless your purpose was medical). It’s as though you took a gigantic, medically accurate skeleton, and called it “The Miracle of Orthopedics.” Or depicted a gigantic, medically accurate liver in bronze and called it “The Miracle of Protein Synthesis.”

    The irony is that I think the aesthetic and political issues come together in this example. What makes it aesthetically hopeless (as I see it) is both the gigantism of scale and the confusion of purpose (aesthetic and medical). The explanation for both aesthetic failures is political, having to do with the nature of the funding process. I could imagine a much smaller depiction of birth intended to appeal specifically to scientists. Private funders would likely have approved a smaller work, and a small depiction of birth inside a medical research facility wouldn’t be so bad. But that would be a different artwork. As large-scale public art (intended for a wider public than the medical), I think it’s a failure. Maybe I shouldn’t have called it “butt ugly” (OK, I probably shouldn’t have) but it’s still an aesthetic failure.


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