The art in Saudi Arabia has experienced an unusually steep rise in the last few years. From the virtual non-existence in the early 2000s, it has become a formidable entity in its own right. The press usually highlights the issue as the triumph of liberty and human right to expression every time an exhibition takes place in Saudi Arabia, or a Saudi Arabian artist participates in the international event. Nevertheless, some evidence exists that the artists in Saudi Arabia are not recognized and appreciated enough.
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Considering the purported popularity, this is an interesting development that requires further investigation. This research aims at looking into the issue and find reliable evidence of the appreciation of Saudi Arabian artists or lack thereof. The research will include a survey that will challenge the initial hypothesis: Artists in Saudi Arabia are not recognized and appreciated enough. The study will also try to obtain the possible reasons for this phenomenon.
The rise and rapid development of the contemporary art scene is a recent phenomenon, so little reliable research exists on the topic. However, two points relative to it – the connection to the social climate and the reasons for the late emergence – have been thoroughly studied. The results can be grouped into two broad categories.
First, the art in Saudi Arabia has long been suppressed. According to Behrens-Abouseif and Vernoit (2006), the reason for that is the country’s long history of conservative policies. While the Sharia law does not explicitly forbids any art form, it strongly discourages most of them. For this reason, classical art’s presence in the culture has been limited, and contemporary developments almost non-existent. Several artists mention in their interview that their practices are comparable to sin (Hubbard 2016), the fact which severely limits their possibilities.
In his regard, the emergence of contemporary art can be tied to the changing social setting. Gradually more liberties are granted to Saudi Arabians, and, as a result, more of them engage in creative activities. This is especially clearly observed among the female population, as women in Saudi Arabia are historically the most suppressed population stratum (Moghissi 2005). As more freedom is granted to them, more women become artists (Congdon 2014).
However, very little is known about the actual magnitude of the phenomenon or its relative significance on the world scene. The description of art pieces and their importance are primarily restricted to the popular news media. While accounts of worldwide recognition abound (Smith 2014), little is said about the actual demand or recognition in its homeland.
The research will consist of a survey of a small number of participants. The questions will be processed and analyzed to obtain quantitative data, which is aimed at outlining the situation with the attitude towards contemporary art in Saudi Arabia. The data obtained by the quantitative approach will then be coded and interpreted to perform a qualitative analysis. Viewed within the context, this will allow us to describe not only the current interest in modern art but also extrapolate the most common reasons for the lack of appreciation and recognition of artists.
The sample of the research consists of eleven individuals aged 19 through 24. Within this age stratum, simple randomization was performed via the online randomizing tool Random.org. The focus on a certain age group was chosen to address the most likely target population of the researched topic as well as to eliminate the factor of rejection of progressive phenomena on the grounds of appeal to tradition, characteristic for older people. The randomization was conducted to exclude possible bias resulting from the subconscious selection of similar respondents.
The relevance of the Research Methods
While the limited number of respondents admittedly compromises the results, the technique selected for gathering information allows us to conduct research within a short timespan and guarantees the highest credibility possible within the given framework. The dual approach allows both the objective and transparent data based on the quantitative approach and the possibility for preliminary suggestions for further research, if such need arises, by reviewing the data within the known context and assigning categories to survey results.
The questions for the quantitative research were composed to obtain information on the actual and reported interest in the art, as well as the readiness to support artists. Questions nine and ten are not included, as they were intended for the qualitative research as well as for the additional control. Answers to question 2 were restructured to reflect the interest in art, with variants 1 through 4 coded as showing interest, and variant 5 showing the lack thereof.
The results were as follows: when asked directly about the interest in the modern art scene, all of the respondents expressed average to high results, with 45% showing average interest, and 55% showing high to very high interest. The same positive result showed up in question 3, where 91% agreed that artists should be supported, question 6, where 82% of claimed to prefer some artists’ works over others, and question eight, in which 64% said they prefer Saudi Arabian artists over those of other countries.
In question 2, none of the respondents have selected the last variant, “none of the above,” which was coded as “no support.” However, in questions 4 and 5, which assessed the same involvement by viewing the actual activity, only a small percentage of them showed high results, with only 27% attending art exhibitions on a regular basis and 55% recalling visiting one within a year. The same goes for question 7, where 55% failing to recall more than two artists, and only one respondent showed profound knowledge. Thus, the final results are more equalized, with 58% of the responses demonstrating strong involvement and 42% average to no interest at all.
To better understand the high deviations between the responses, we must apply the qualitative method. First, it is important to note that all the questions should be divided into two categories: the ones that show theoretical, or claimed interest (marked green), and the ones that analyze the actual activities connected with art (marked red). As was demonstrated by the quantitative analysis, the theoretical questions show high results, while little involvement is observed.
This may be explained in two ways. First, people might think that artists should be recognized and supported, but do not make active progress towards this goal, either because of the lack of knowledge or lack of motivation. Second, people are prone to self-bias, perceiving themselves as being involved in the art scene.
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So we turn to questions 9 and 10. 73% selected “to learn about art” as their reason to visit the art events. Also, note the difference between the claimed amount of support (82%) and the actual financial support (18%). In question 10, the leading cause of inactivity is “time” (55%) closely followed by lack of access and lack of support (45% each). Thus, the lack of knowledge and the external factors hamper their involvement at least partially.
Answering the research questions, all of the respondents showed some level of interest towards modern art in Saudi Arabia. However, analyzing the particular responses one would notice that the knowledge of the modern art and its various directions is rather limited in the overall target audience. It is possible to assume that the majority of the research participants were young people, the digital art was chosen as one of the most preferred forms of the modern art. At the same time, the popularity of painting was 10% greater.
In particular, one of the respondents who chose painting also answered ‘no’ to the next question about the support and recognition of the modern art stating that painting was more classic than all the other forms, and that is why it deserved more appreciation. This point of view was shared by three more respondents who also admitted that they never encountered any other forms of modern art (such as installation or interactive art).
Two more respondents said that interactive forms of art are “ridiculous” and are there only because no one has a clear definition of what can and cannot be regarded as art. As for the question about museum visits, the majority of the respondents turned out to be rather indifferent towards this activity. One person who visited museums often had a deeper and more profound knowledge about the modern art. That way, it is possible to conclude that the improvement of art literacy and availability would bring more popularity to it in Saudi Arabia.
The observation of the participants revealed their reluctance to accept some of the art forms and the demonstration of an instant rejection of whatever was perceived as extreme or revolutionary. The obvious lack of openness towards experimental forms of art could be seen as a sign of knowledge and experience insufficiencies in some of the respondents. The difference in perceptions demonstrated by the individual who visited galleries and exhibitions more than the other respondent was significant due to their higher level of art literacy.
The obtained results allow us to conclude that artists of Saudi Arabia lack recognition and support. The majority of the respondents demonstrate high interest in the modern art but fail at showing any active involvement. The coding of deviations in the quantitative research results, as well as the limited information obtained through some of the responses, allows us to assume that the reasons for such discrepancy are external (time and lack of access) as well as internal (lack of knowledge).
As modern art is complex and requires background knowledge to be comprehended (Meecham & Sheldon 2013), it’s only natural that certain steps should be taken to make it approachable by public. In other words, the conditions for both creating and experiencing art are met in Saudi Arabia, and while the former has already begun, the latter needs action to be possible on a scale that will allow artists to be appreciated and supported on a sufficient level.
The obtained results may be incorrect due to low transferability as the sample is fairly limited in number, which limits the possibility to generalize results, and low confirmability as no previous research is available on the topic, which makes it impossible to confirm the results by comparing them to prior works.
As the research is preliminary in nature, it is recommended to conduct additional research which will further investigate the reasons for the lack of public involvement as the suggested reasons are unsupported by sufficient data. It is also suggested to conduct similar research in the locales with established art scene to challenge the assumption that the short timespan of the phenomenon is partially responsible for the lack of interest.
- On a scale from 1 to 5, where 1 is “not interested at all,” and 5 – “very interested”, define your attitude towards modern art.
- Please select the art form which interests you the most.
- Interactive art
- Digital art
- None of the above
- Do you think the modern art deserves support and recognition?
- How often do you visit museums and galleries?
- Once a month or more frequently
- Around five to ten times a year
- Fewer than four times a year
- Fewer than once a year
- I don’t remember
- When was the last time you have been to an art exhibition?
- Less than a month ago
- Less than a year ago
- More than a year ago
- Don’t remember
- Are there artists whose works you recognize and prefer to the others?
- How many contemporary Saudi Arabia’s artists can you think of?
- One or two
- About five
- Eight or more
- Can you say you prefer Saudi Arabia’s art to that of other countries?
- Why do you usually attend an art gallery or an exhibition?
- To socialize with communty
- To learn about art
- To experience high-quality art
- To support artists
- To buy art
- Other (please specify)
- What do you think are the barriers that can prevent you attending an art gallery or exhibition?
- Noone to go with
- Other (please specify)
Response Information, Quantitative Analysis (Questions 1-8)
Response Information, Qualitative Analysis (Questions 9-10)
Behrens-Abouseif, D & Vernoit, S 2006, Islamic art in the 19th century, Brill, Leiden.
Congdon, K 2014. ‘Teaching art where art should not exist: women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia’, Visual Inquiry, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 407-419.
Hubbard, B 2016, Artist nurtures a creative oasis in conservative Saudi Arabia. Web.
Meecham, P & Sheldon, J 2013, Modern art: a critical introduction, Routledge, New York.
Moghissi, H 2005, Women and islam: images and realities, Routledge, New York.
Smith, S 2014, Art in Saudi Arabia: appetite fuels public displays. Web.