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Creativity in the air

In Beirut, commercialism and artistic anarchy live side by side

by Thomas Schellen

What makes for the most deplorable shortfall in all other sectors of the Lebanese economy — the infuriating lack of data — fully applies to the exercise of appraising Beirut as an artistic hub and art market. Thankfully so.

Measuring art is like selling air. In the sense that, if you live in a city where the air is so bad you have to pay for oxygen, a fundamental quality of being is not available to you as it should be.

The presence of art as a critical outcry and an asset class has increased in Lebanon over the past few years. Commercial galleries have sprouted in the ritzy parts of Beirut and are fighting for success in the tough economy; meanwhile, new street art has been permeating public spaces. Each of these two approaches clearly has its fan base. Yet each apparently attracts a minority. Gallerists and cultural establishment leaders estimate the total headcount of culture buffs in the Lebanese capital to be around 5,000.

With corporate sponsorship of art exhibitions and galleries ‘discovering’ young artists they can profit from — not to mention the portfolio allocations for art that private bankers and wealth managers advise — it is undeniable that the equation of Kunst = Kapital (art = capital) has become infinitely more commercial than intended.

But let’s not ignore the esthetic upsides. A masterpiece in the collection of a leading Lebanese bank, a 16th century portrait of Frederick the Wise by Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, exists only because the rich provincial ruler hired the artist for his court. And the fantastic tapestries designed by the top gun artist of the High Renaissance, Raphael, were commissioned by the papal clientele that paid for the Raphael Cartoons.

The historic interaction between artist and sponsor or client makes for an endless narrative. The contemporary form of this relation in the art market entails not only benefits for — living and often young — artists and gallerists, but also for a whole auxiliary industry from specially skilled transport enterprises to appraisers and insurers.

On the next level up, where the economic angles converge into social capital and the transformational power of art is put to the test of reality, art is as indispensible as air for any society. At least that is the credo of thinkers and artistic creators like the Italian Michelangelo Pistoletto (see story page 204) whose 20 year young manifesto on the role of art includes the sentence “Art is the primary expression of human creativity, thus the constant reference for every structural, technical, economic, and behavioral activity of society.”

One can equally say that the chaotic, contradictory mosaic of talents and commerce and savoir vivre that is Beirut can best be viewed, and perhaps even managed, not as an organized assembly of dwellings and economic ventures, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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