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Beyond the Art of Revolt in Egypt

January 21, 2013

The Egyptian Textiles Museum is one of the 550 state-run “culture palaces” run by the Ministry of Culture. Some are gorgeous, others underfunded and mismanaged; most fall somewhere in between.  What will the new Egyptian government do with them all?

The Egyptian Textiles Museum is one of the 550 “culture palaces” run by the Ministry of Culture. Some are fabulous, others grossly underfunded and mismanaged; most fall somewhere in between. What will the new Egyptian government do with them all?

There is more to the transformation of the arts in Egypt in the revolution than graffiti and street painting, argue Sonali Pahwa and Jessica Winegar in a public-access  article in a recent issue of Middle East Report.

In an essay entitled “Culture, State and Revolution,” Pahwa and Winegar describes two often overlooked aspects of the effects of the revolution on the arts:

  1. the support for the culture industries among mainstream Islamist circles, and
  2. the transformation of the relationship between the arts and the state

These contrast with–and contradict–a common narrative about the role of arts in the revolution that sees the revolution as having generated an explosion of artistic expression, which will be threatened by the rise of Islamist political leadership.

Pahwa and Winegar argue rather that in countries with strong, centralized ministries of culture like Egypt, the revolution has allowe d artists,  intellectuals and new stripes of politicians (including but not limited to Islamists) to rethink the state’s ideology that promoted the arts as part of a path to progress and enlightenment, and to ask “foundational questions about the role of government in the field of culture and vice versa.”

They point out that while some people at home and abroad fear an Islamic government wouldcensor the arts–and that it is a real concern–Egypt has witnessed state refusal to support any art that engages with religious themes for decades.

On the support by many Islamists for a revitalized culture industry, they write:

devout Egyptians have mixed religious and secular cultural forms for years. In the early years of the Muslim Brothers, their magazine al-Da‘wa (The Call) often published scripts of original one-act plays with an Islamic theme. In the contemporary era, the Brothers have supported theater troupes that called themselves Islamic in Egypt’s governorates, just as several Coptic churches host popular drama companies. Past decades have witnessed poets and novelists working to create a modern category of “Islamic literature.” Today, the largest student club at the Cairo College of Fine Arts (counting around 1,200 members) explicitly promotes Islamic values through art making.

The question Egyptians are struggling with is, can the new Egyptian government not simply flip the equation but actually create an inclusive and robust system for funding arts in Egypt?

On the transformation of the state-arts relationship, Pahwa and Winegar begin with an extended and thorough analysis of the Mubarak regime’s Ministry of Culture, its justifications and its failings.

Theyargue that while everyone wants to see a public arts program that is more democratic, better managed and less corrupt, few are calling for an anemic public arts funding system like that of the US. Rather:

today — in the hundreds of Ministry of Culture institutions, as well as coffee shops, living rooms and other intellectual meeting points — there is a vibrant conversation about how to build a new cultural policy that succumbs neither to the market nor to state corruption, propaganda and inertia. There are new initiatives, new discussions about public-private partnerships and attempts to change the relationship between independent artists and the state, all of which suggest the beginnings of a structural transformation in the field of culture.

The situation is particularly interesting, they conclude, because most Egyptian artists

have never known a non-authoritarian Ministry of Culture, and it is difficult, in their view, to conceive of how such a ministry would propagate culture with high aesthetic value. Yet the struggles of independent artists and groups to form more democratic cultural institutions have already thrown up more promising alternatives for the future of the Ministry and the overall relationship between culture and politics.

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