Revolutionary Art in the Streets–and in the Galleries
Nancy Demerdash has a new article out on the role(s) of art in the “Arab Spring”. Her article “Consuming Revolution: Ethics, Art and Ambivalence in the Arab Spring” in New Middle Eastern Studies (NMES), the innovative new e-journal run by scholars and graduate students at The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies .
Demerdash’s main argument is that in spite of the continuing political and economic struggles, the idea of the revolution continues to generate artistic production because:
for many people in the Middle East—especially artists and writers—the revolution is an unfinished, unrealized, and ongoing project, fueling their art and praxis. In spite of these challenging economic and political transitions, cultural production boomed in the immediate wake of the revolutions and continues to do so, ranging from an outpouring of political cartoons, to hip-hop and rap, to graffiti and mural arts. Though these multifarious forms and outlets of creative expression certainly have their antecedents within the region, their novelty stems from this resistance, rendering a coherent concept of ‘popular culture’ unfixed. ‘Revolution’—the Arabic al-thawra—has come to signify an epistemological shift in the way that the workings of the world are perceived and understood.
But Demerdash is also interested in the role of art markets. If a revolutionary aesthetic is being created simultaneously by grafitti artists in the street and by “fine” artists freed from the strictures of the Ministry of Culture, how are the latter being commoditized and circulating in the wider art world, and why? Who is buying them, and what meanings do they draw from them and what meanings do they map onto them? Even exhibit curators become important participants in the revolutionary political sphere as they mediate between revolutionary aesthetics as expressive culture and as commodities.
Regardless of patterns of consumption or curatorial (mis)framings, contemporary Arab artists today represent a newly formulated avant-garde. Their artistic praxis attests to a shift in aesthetics, mirroring this shift in historical events.
Of course, it is far beyond the capacity of the artist to map out the trajectory of any given political movement. One can see however, that the transgressive properties underlying many artists’ works are being consumed by institutions. When crossing into the world of the art market, the notion of revolution gains a different buzz-worthy currency, frequently at risk of being reduced to a commodity. Nevertheless, these artists’ heroic contributions to the long, continually unraveling Arab Spring entail the imagining of empancipatory possibilities beyond political constraints; through their rejection of the status quo and visions for resuscitated individual dignity these artists’ works signal the rejuvenation of a collective consciousness, both in the gallery and on the street.
In spite of their ambivalent position caught in between the local neighborhood street or public square and the global, capitalizing, trendsetting gallery and biennial scene, arts of the Arab Spring remain a locus for solidarity; they are the agents of ethical responsibility and socio-political change.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a good deal of Asef Bayat in her argument. His discussion of the ways everyday discourse and action by people in many different public settings (collectively, “the street”) can transform politics offers her a way to support an argument that art production is a political act that both captures but also contributes to the unfolding and unfinished revolutionary project.
On the other hand, I was hugely surprised to find no reference to Jessica Winegar’s substantive work on contemporary art in Egypt. I kept finding things I thought would be illuminated by reference to Winegar; in a larger sense, Demerdash’s paper is almost a sequel to her book: what happens to the complicated system of state and artist and global circulation of Egyptian modern art (and the identities tied to this system) when the state collapses and the revolution itself becomes an identity in which global audiences want to share?
All in all, this is an excellent brief paper offering insights into revolutionary art beyond the posters, performances and paintings in the street, and hopefully we will see more of this kind of analysis in the future.
Bayat, Asef. 1997. Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran. Columbia University Press.
Demerdash, Nancy. 2012. Consuming Revolution: Ethics, Art and Ambivalence in the Arab Spring. New Middle Eastern Studies 2 http://www.brismes.ac.uk/nmes/archives/970#more-970
Winegar, Jessica. 2006. Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.