Revolutions tend to breed new and brutal forms of self-critique. One of the more complicated recent debates about the so-called Arab Spring – beyond the anguish of honouring the dead or the difficulty of drafting a new political order – concerns the efficacy, accountability and integrity of art in revolutionary times. The situation in Egypt poses a particularly troublesome precedent. Ever since 1952 – when a military coup by the Free Officers Movement abolished the Egyptian monarchy, forced British troops to withdraw from the country, established a republic and brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power – art in Eygpt has been placed in the service of revolutionary rhetoric.
At first, artists were asked to spread the message of a secular, socialist, Arab nationalist ideology. Over time, that message was diluted. In the eyes of the state, art was expected to be a vessel for a facile notion of Egyptian national identity as old as the pharaohs. Artists gave up their independence, shelved their critical faculties and made bland propaganda because the trade-off was essentially employment for life.
Then in the 1990s an independent and, for the most part, non-profit art scene took hold in Cairo and other cities scattered across the region. The division between this and the official, state-sponsored fine art sector was often overplayed, and a number of artists were able to slide easily between the two worlds. The recent proliferation of commercial galleries and private funding has muddied the waters even more. But in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, questions about who one is aligned with and supported by have become crucial.
One reason for this is, of course, that everyone seems to be jumping on the revolutionary bandwagon. From biennials (such as this year’s Sharjah Biennial where the curators dedicated their exhibition to revolutions in the region on the same day the United Arab Emirates sent police into Bahrain to assist the suppression of demonstrations there) to art fairs (such as Beirut’s new menasart fair, whose organizers touted the radicality of the artists featured before heaping praise on the fair’s country of honour, Saudi Arabia), the lip service paid to the spirit of change in the region has often been opportunistic and crass. No surprise, then, that what many artists fear most right now is not the failure of the revolution but the success of its dark-sided double, counterrevolution.
Within weeks of Hosni Mubarak’s ousting, artist Nadine Khan posted a terrific, tough-minded little film on YouTube in which she declared that Tahrir Square could not be owned. For months the novelist and literary critic Youssef Rakha has hammered away at the ineptness of Egyptian intellectuals. Artists such as Doa Aly, Hassan Khan and Sherif El Azma have all made strong statements insisting on the autonomy of their artistic practices, which existed before, during and after the events of the Arab Spring. And yet, by late March, the Brussels-based organization Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy (Culture Resource) had announced the creation of a ‘revolution grant’ inviting artists in any field to apply for funding of up to us$15,000 to produce works ‘in response to or in the context of the current wave of revolutionary activity and popular uprising in the Arab region’. By late summer, 13 awards had been granted. Some of the projects sound promising while others sound dreadful, but if the flood of funding for video work in Beirut in the aftermath of the war in 2006 is anything to go by then most of it will end up being at best cathartic.
In the larger context of so much political tumult and loss of life, the revolution grant, while well intentioned, is largely irrelevant. Just one in a glut of similar opportunities, the main problem with is its rudderless approach to the issues at stake. Only a year ago, Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy’s Egyptian director, Basma El-Husseiny, argued in favour of working with the region’s undemocratic regimes to draft more beneficial state policies for the arts and culture sectors. Who could blame her? At the time, these regimes appeared immovable.
The region’s alternative art scenes may have always been independent from the state, but they have nonetheless benefited from a form of patronage that developed in the 1990s and accelerated (alongside the so-called War on Terror) in the ten years since 9/11. In Beirut, for example, artists and artists-led organizations have long been vocal about their distrust of Lebanon’s government institutions, which are largely indifferent to the arts. But, like their counterparts elsewhere in the region, these same artists and organizations have been supported for two decades now by a consortium of private foundations and foreign development agencies, including the Ford Foundation, George Soros’ Open Society Foundations, the Prince Claus Fund and more.
This is all laudable. But the argument that global NGOs in the post-Cold War era have caused more harm than good by letting governments off the hook in developing countries is nothing new. Arts funding has become synonymous with supporting civil society initiatives, human development agendas and democracy promotion, but at what point does funding art become a cop-out? Supporting a film festival or initiating grants is easy compared to addressing rampant unemployment, a decrepit economy and an education system in freefall; it’s possible to argue that the very existence of these festivals and exhibitions can have the adverse effect of making bad regimes look good.
No funding is innocent, and, in this respect, the situation in the Arab world is symptomatic of the art world’s hazy complicity with a kind of privatizing, neoliberal agenda, which is elsewhere dismantling the notion of enlightened state support of the arts. If the question now is how should the arts be funded, then the next question is what is art for? Revolution may open up a space to debate art’s purpose, but counterrevolution will always instrumentalize its presence.
First published in Issue 142