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Why I Won’t Be Visiting the Warhol Show in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman, à la Warhol (image Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

A few weeks ago, I was invited for a trip to Saudi Arabia by a member of the press to see the exhibition’s preview. Fame: Andy Warhol in AlUlaOpening on February 17th, Hosted by the government-funded AlUla Arts Festival, the show will include dozens of works on loan from Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum, a branch of the Carnegie Museum. The all-expenses-paid trip I was offered — Business Class flight, hotel accommodation, lavish dinners, and programming that includes a helicopter tour over the desert and a “tour with vintage cars” — seemed tempting. The trip could have been a good way for me to learn about Saudi Arabia as I have not been there. So, why did I turn down this opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia? 

Museums renting out part of the collection to other venues — that’s a familiar practice. It’s a good way to build the audience for institutions on both sides of the loan. It also makes money for the lender. A show of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic carpets in Saudi Arabia would make more sense. A loan exhibition of still-life French paintings, for example, would make more sense. To me, the idea of choosing Warhol out of all Western modernists was a very surprising one. I assume that careful, careful editing will be necessary for the selection Warhols. (In 2019, I reviewed the museum’s exhibition of his Catholic works, which I doubt will make it to this exhibition.) 

The moral dilemmas that this exhibition presented were obvious to me when I reflected. On one hand, the presentation of a body of Warhol’s art to a Saudi audience is a way to potentially open up a dialogue. It is hard to imagine what young visitors might take away from this exhibition. How many cultural exchanges would we be able to make if we only allowed ourselves to engage in cultural exchanges with those whose political culture we approve? More importantly, who are we Americans to consider ourselves moral models for the rest? On the other hand, FameIt may be possible to validate an authoritarian regime’s official policies and practices, particularly regarding sexual freedoms. To show Warhol under the sponsorship of the Saudi fundamentalist regime is almost like organizing a club called “Jewish friends of the Third Reich.” After all, as you can readily learn online, what used to be called “homosexuality” is not just officially frowned upon in Saudia Arabia — it is potentially subject to capital punishment. Warhol admits that it is true. collaborated extensivelyWith the Shah of Iran’s authoritarian regime.   

The show at AlUla is organized by Patrick Moore, the Warhol director, who isn’t a curator. In an interview with the Pittsburgh-based LGBTQ+ publication QBurgh, Moore said he has always been an out gay man, and that when he visited Saudia Arabia, he was “pretty astonished” by what he found. “You know, I found a society that was evolving much more quickly than I had anticipated,” he shared. I believe that Moore’s optimism is based on fact. Moore adds that his show “is intended to be an introduction to the aspect of Warhol that I believe is most fascinating to many young people, including Saudi youth, as Andy Warhol’s journey, which started as a child staring at the movie screen and collecting publicity stills, is becoming more common through the rise of social media.” His vision of Warhol’s movies certainly differs from mine. Perhaps he is being ironic — or maybe he is putting us on. It’s hard to read his statement with a straight face. However, I can’t tell because I haven’t been to Saudi Arabia. 

Judging is done in an interesting way FameIt is placing a bet on the country’s future. Perhaps this exhibition will have an impact on the beliefs of some Saudia Arabians. The question is, however, what the loan says about my country’s museums. I am aware that local museums, as all institutions, can be financially struggling. To survive, they will need to rent their collections to wealthy countries. However, major loans from American quasipublic institution should not be offered without having a discussion, regardless of legal realities. This is partly why there is no Pittsburgh daily newspaper anymore. You can only learn more about the show online. This is not the case when the political aspects of this show are so obvious.

The sale of American armaments. Middle-Eastern nations should be an issue for national political judgment. Whether art from Pittsburgh’s public museums is rented should, I am urging, be (minimally) a subject for local discussion. In a case such as this, the moral problems are obvious. If we are to trust our museums, we need to see more of their collections. They need our trust. Ultimately, of course, if our Pittsburgh museums feel the need for financial reasons to rent the collections, that’s because these institutions lack sufficient local funding. We need to consider what compromises we are willing to accept. This is why we need to have further discussion. Until then, I can’t in good conscience go see this show or help it receive more press attention.

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