The Politics of Art
Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan
Hanan Toukan



IN 2013, THE RAND CORPORATION PRODUCED A REPORT ON THE dissenting arts and artists of the Arab region (Schwartz, Dassa Kaye, and Martini 2013). Written by a group of RAND’s senior political scientists and security specialists, the report, titled Artists and the Arab Uprisings, was one among many others published in Europe and the US since 2001 that reflected on arts funding and its role in cultural diplomacy and the process of democratization in the Arab region. The RAND report called for further global investment to boost art’s potential to facilitate democratization, especially in light of the proactive role artists played during the early, heady days of the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011–2012. Contending that arts funding was a tested method for winning the “hearts and minds” of enemies and critics of US policies in the region, the research, which was sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), was part and parcel of a body of work being produced by Rand at the time that explored cultural output in the Arab world that “promoted tolerance.”1

The RAND report revealed that only a few years after the region’s revolutionary process began in December 2010, the use of art in the promotion of democracy by Western governments and policy think tanks through the support of local civil society nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) had become mainstreamed. Yet RAND’s interest in artists and artistic production reflected and reconfirmed the broader direction of many think tanks and NGOs that had been in line with the EU through the Euro-Mediterranean framework (EUROMED) and the US through the George Bush Jr. Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), investing time and money to rethink the role of the arts as an engine for gradual regional reform, especially since 9/11.2

“Everyone,” wrote one of the region’s well-known art critics less than a year after the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, “seems to be jumping on the revolutionary bandwagon. From biennials . . . to art fairs . . . , the lip service paid to the spirit of change in the region has often been opportunistic and crass” (Wilson-Goldie 2011). Development policy planners and other champions of democracy aid had also jumped on the “funding revolution” bandwagon. They hoped to move beyond the rhetoric of countering violent extremism through development, reform, and democratization, as they had in the first decade of the millennium; and extend their support directly to those they deemed dissident artists who were equipped to fight the violent counterrevolutionary movements that had emerged from the revolutionary struggles of 2011–2012. Such logic gave credence to the idea circulating among policy communities in the US and Europe that the Arab revolutions happened in part because of democracy aid to civil society, especially projects targeting youth and technology that since the 1990s had poured into the region, in particular in Egypt.3

Hence, since the early rumblings of revolution in late 2010, the culture and arts domain in the Arab region has enjoyed renewed interest from US and EU governmental and nongovernmental funding bodies. Suddenly, as the Independent reported, “[It was] cool to be an Egyptian, totally awesome to be a Tunisian, Syrian, Libyan, Bahraini or Yemeni dissident and to be an artist from these places is, well, very heaven” (Alibhai-Brown 2011). In the first couple of years after the onset of the revolutions, institutional support for artistic production overtly related to the revolution came packaged as grants and renewed commitments on behalf of foreign policy arms of Western governments to fund social change through art. Yet this process had begun earlier as part of the battle for the “hearts and minds” of Arabs and Muslims, which became accentuated after the events of September 11, 2001, when international cultural funding organizations such as the Ford and Soros Foundations, the Dutch Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, as well as more traditional bilateral funding bodies such as Germany’s Goethe Institute and Heinrich Boll Foundation, the British Council, Spain’s Cervantes Institute, the French Cultural Centre, and even USAID became increasingly involved in funding projects designed to encourage Arabs of the post-1990 new world order to question the sociopolitical and cultural fabric of their societies. Regional umbrella grantee organizations formed in collaboration with international development organizations to invest in core organizational strengthening at the domestic level. These included, among others, the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), the Arab Theatre Fund, and Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy. Smaller local organizations received funds directly from the larger regional umbrella organizations or the international donors themselves in that period included, among others, the International Academy of Art Palestine, the Khalil Sakakini Culture Center and the now defunct Art School Palestine in Ramallah and the Al Mahatta Gallery, Makan House and Al-Balad Theatre in Amman, Ashkal Alwan, Zico House, the Arab Image Foundation, Shams: The Cultural Cooperative Association for Youth in Theatre and Cinema, and Beirut D.C. in Beirut, and the Townhouse Gallery, Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, and others in Egypt.

Today, the collaboration of European, and to a lesser extent North American, arts institutions with counterparts in the Arab region is one of the central tenets of policies geared toward persuading potential migrants to remain in their home countries and rehabilitating and integrating those who have reached Europe. Hence efforts to promote stability, cooperation, and security across the region include funding exhibitions about refugees and displacement, artist travel grants, residency programs, museum exhibitions, capacity building workshops, and staff trainings at cultural organizations. This support represents a key feature of the transformations that have occurred in the arts terrain of various Arab capitals. These “independent” or “alternative” art spaces, as actors in this field call them, have seen exponential growth and include artist-run and-led projects, biennials, festivals, exhibitions, and other events understood to be self-organized structures operating adjacent to the official apparatuses of the state.4 In recent years, local governments have increased their investment in building or upgrading new globally oriented, large-scale national museums, such as the Mahmoud Darwish and Yasser Arafat Museums in Ramallah, the Jordan Gallery of Fine Arts and the Jordan Museum in Amman, the Sursock Museum and the National Museum of Beirut in Lebanon, and, of course, the renowned Gulf Museums sector such as Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Islamic Arts Doha, the Louvre in Abu Dhabi, and the planned Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. At the same time, the growth in the domain of contemporary art operating outside the framework of the state has inspired artworks and discourses that ask timely and urgent questions about the societies from which they emerge. In Beirut, Ramallah, Amman, Haifa, Cairo, and Alexandria, along with many other cities not covered in this book, this art scene is also a place where artists, intellectuals, and activists come together to organize, mobilize, produce, collaborate, exchange, exhibit, and disrupt outside of the mainstream institutions. In the last two decades, contemporary art has become an open space where varied artistic and social fields meet and intervene. For this reason, it is imperative that we study not only the aesthetics of this material production that composes our hyper-liberal economy but also what it signifies and encodes. Interestingly, these new sites of cultural production are part of a global movement redefining the nexus between culture and global markets.

The world’s post-9/11 preoccupation with everything Middle Eastern, which was reinforced with the eruption of the Arab uprisings of 2011–2012, rendered the region a must-see in the busy travel itineraries of international curators scouring the globe for new ideas and talents. As a result, artists from the region have gained increasing access to Western art capitals, Western art critique, and audiences through their increasingly regular presence on the international biennial circuit. To a lesser extent, the presence of their artworks in museum collections has significantly contributed to the increased visibility of artists from the Global South. Artists and critics use these sites to compellingly argue through literature and curatorial statements that they are decolonizing the Western art world by contributing to the multiple modernities and global art histories that constitute it. Much of this has occurred under the guise of large, all-encompassing regional platforms where, as it has been argued before and as this book likewise suggests, identity politics and cultural representation have generally been the prevailing framework through which Western critics approach contemporary arts production from the region (Ramadan 2004). Despite the resilience of such paradigms, these larger developments have enabled the emergence of critical nodes in the articulation of an alternative set of conditions and possibilities for the production, consumption, and understanding of art in and from the region.

Coupled with a recent turn in the art world toward transforming art and curatorial practices into an educational or knowledge-based product and site of learning about alternative pedagogical methods, much of this reflection has occurred in a growing number of Arabic and English-language publications dedicated to the contemporary arts and culture of the region. Such art magazines, books, and alternative arts education programs in more recent years have encouraged a noticeably growing audience interested in critical discourses on art practices in the region.

These changes in the artistic and cultural production scenes have provoked intense debates within European and US policy circles on how to maintain cultural relations and abate extremism, particularly in times of increased securitization, rising right-wing nationalist movements, and global challenges of migration. Concurrently, a growing body of much-needed academic literature is being published, partly in reaction to the visible role that art played in the Arab Spring. This long overdue work, located in visual cultural studies, media studies, and Middle Eastern Studies, addresses the role of the visual in political processes and social transformation (e.g., Maasri 2009; Khatib 2012; Mehrez 2012; Abaza 2013; Tripp 2013; Downey 2014). Although this literature is more interested in the role of cultural production in countering the hegemonic state, it has begun the difficult task of theorizing the role of the aesthetics of resistance beyond the mere acknowledgment that visual cultural production is a site of dissent simply because it enables the galvanization of anti-establishment sentiment.

In this book about the cultural politics and political economy of contemporary art in the Arab Eastern Mediterranean, I explore another dimension of dissenting visual artistic practices. I primarily draw on one aspect of artistic and cultural interpretation: the political meaning and social function of transnationally connected and internationally funded nonprofit and nongovernmental art organizations (NPOs and NGOs), arts initiatives, and their associated art practices in and about Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. I focus primarily on the ways in which these dynamics were expressed and manifested in cultural discourse about contemporary art’s role in counterhegemony and artists’ articulations of dissent from the late 1990s through the initial outbreak of the Arab Uprisings of 2011–2012. This period laid the groundwork for the contemporary art scene and its relationship to the global neoliberal economy of culture and capital that prevails in the region today and is part of a longer dynamic of instrumentalizing art for political purposes in the region’s historical relationship with Western hegemony.5 Accordingly, in this book I analyze this dynamic interaction between art production and cultural diplomacy in relation to conceptions and practices of counterhegemony in the arts by the actors this interface between art and politics targets and the sites it interrupts: art practices and cultural discourse propelled by NPOs and NGOs that were primarily funded by what I conceive as neoliberal global culture funders. I use the latter term and conceptualization throughout the text because I believe it captures the global vision and the global aesthetics propagated by a specifically neoliberal form of capitalism as the supporting ideology of globalization, which so many cultural funders and practitioners adhere to in practice, even if never categorically expressed.

In this book, I do not include the financial market of art sales by collectors, buyers, and dealers or investments made by governments in the Gulf region to build up a momentous infrastructure, sites where art and neoliberal capitalism coalesce much more visibly. I do this to uncover how dissent is shaped and represented in those sites of production that seem most counterhegemonic precisely because they do not have their own art markets. Some of the most significant art transactions today are located outside the framework of commonly understood art markets. In the contexts of my research, it is cultural capital accumulation and circulation as it unfolded in the nonprofit sector, rather than financial profit per se, that drove the exchange and travel of objects, ideas, and people. By my use of “counterhegemonic,” I draw explicitly on Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) understanding of it as the site where organic intellectuals formulate ideas and construct, along with publics, critical counter-discourses to challenge hegemonic assumptions and beliefs about what cultural production can and should do in society. In this treatment I consciously move out of the hegemony/counterhegemony binary that dominates much of the literature on the region’s art and resistance. Making claims to counterhegemony without simultaneously considering the particularities of the processes by which works come into being, circulate, and then get framed and discussed, even when they seem most resistant to power, obscures the different forms that dissent in cultural production take, the various reasons it takes those forms, and what role context plays in these transformations.

In the same vein, though writing on literary production, Terry Eagleton (1990) defines Marxist cultural criticism as more than a sociology of literature concerned with how novels get published and how they end up assimilating the working class (Eagleton 1990: 3).6 Eagleton explains Marxist criticism’s aim to explain cultural production more comprehensively. Thus, in addition to focusing on the political economy of works’ formal styles and meanings, Marxist criticism grasps them as the product of their own historical circumstance that is equally central to their contextualization. Such criticism entails an analysis of how social and political forces influence society’s aesthetical conceptualizations and how their meanings may transform with time. In the aftermath of 9/11, the inflection of the changing social and political dynamics in the works and processes I study in this book was exemplified in the way art and culture NGOs, and thereby the artists who received their support, were limited to a particular set of art practices and associated discourses linked to a specific neoliberal understanding of “counterhegemony.” I read this understanding as being part of the larger social and moral philosophy of neoliberalism with its emphasis on entrepreneurship and individualism (D. Harvey 2005: 2). This translates into a professionalization of the art scenes whereby the centrality of art as a “product” being written about and exhibited in global platforms began to supersede the notion and practice of art embedded in an ongoing “process” that engages with a more localized, concrete, and rooted critical discourse, even if it is part of larger global capital flows.

The bigger question that concerns me is not about cultural hegemony under the guise of cultural diplomacy, even if it does relate to it. Nor is my question about how globalization, in its cultural sense, refers to Western hegemonic domination in the form of “cultural imperialism,” “Americanization,” or “McDonaldization”—a topic on which much ink has spilled (e.g., Featherstone 1995; Ritzer 1996; Schiller 1976). Instead, I flesh out how and by what processes the phenomenon of using art for the sake of social and political change contributes to shaping cultural actors’ understanding of contemporary art’s relationship to the political: in particular, its role and function in enacting and expressing counterhegemony to different forms of hegemony. I take a cue from the philosopher and critic Gabriel Rockhill, who writes that “there is no set recipe for the correct relationship between the social categories of art and politics; there is no panacea or ultimate equation” (Rockhill 2014: 182). Central to my conceptualization in this book is Rockhill’s identification of a series of nodal points for possible encounters between art and politics; such points include cultural hegemony, collective identity, counterhistories, social experimentation, and political propositions, complicity, or critical intervention. I deal with my subject inspired by his viewpoint that “politicity” of artworks and their underlying possibilities “manifests itself in their inscription in the social field, and it cannot therefore be determined once and for all by ontological deduction” (182).

Of necessity, I limit myself to the dimension of the relationship between politics and art that aids me in reading how postmodernism’s ironic tendency to universalize itself by multiplying the notion of “difference all over the world” (Eagleton 1996: 119) unfolded in the transnationally connected and internationally funded art scenes of the Arab Eastern Mediterranean cities I study. This propensity toward multiplying difference in the global art world of networked biennials and festivals has manifested in the transmutation of cultural difference into a “globally recognizable product, self-consciously preserving identifiable characteristics of cultural difference, for both global and local audiences” (Charlesworth 2013). Moreover, this phenomenon had the illusory effect of endorsing the modern colonial subject as a constitutive part of the democratic and inclusionary project of dismantling universalism that was initially pioneered by the liberal European zeitgeist. Yet does this intrusion into art, when it does occur through cultural hegemony, manifest without any critical interventions, counterpropositions, or unanticipated social experimentations from the communities it targets? If not, then with what aesthetical forms and processes and through what discursive language do the dialectics between hegemony and counterhegemony manifest as dissonant forms of dissent?

Cultural diplomacy is analyzed in this book not to reveal what it hides in its cultural hegemony but to better understand how people rationalize and work within its confines. This focus on rationalization allows me to purse my second aim, which is to demonstrate how and why the resistant dimension of contemporary art in the period I study became defined almost solely by its ability to represent what hegemonic politics appears to conceal. The following chapters reveal how tropes in artistic representations, which enjoyed global platforms and transnational circulation, hardly ever went a step further to consider how the local art world configures in global humanitarian discourses on development and democratization that indirectly perpetuate the very same concealment they critiqued.

As I discuss in the opening chapter, the narrative of Ḥiwar has accompanied me throughout the course of researching and writing this book. One of the region’s most controversial avant-garde magazines from the 1960s, Ḥiwar was edited by the esteemed late poet Tawfik Sayigh and allegedly supported secretly by the CIA-funded US Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). “Do you know about the tragic story of Tawfik Sayigh and his journal?” “Your research reminds me of this related incident that occurred with one magazine in the 1960s . . .” “Western meddling in our cultural affairs never ceases—remember the story of Hiwar?” These are a sample of questions and remarks I received from my interlocutors upon introducing myself and my research topic. Sayigh’s unknowing embrace of the CCF’s mission inspired me to explore how ideas and interests around the political role of cultural production converge in the process of transnational movement and network formation sponsored by international cultural funding. The harsh criticism of Sayigh’s journal by many actors in the arts and letters community drove me to examine the ways funding and transnational critique, and the discourses and representations they engender on a global level, still shape local experiences and sensibilities of making, seeing, and experiencing the counterhegemonic element of contemporary art in Beirut, Ramallah, and Amman.


It is useful to clarify some of the terminology and theoretical frameworks that appear throughout this book. In thinking about Ḥiwar’s tale of disappointment, hearsay, and intrigue, the question that nagged at me was what its story tells us about the exchange between global institutions of artistic and cultural support and processes of contemporary arts production in the Arab Eastern Mediterranean from the late 1990s to the present. I was especially interested in why interdisciplinary and media-based contemporary artwork was often regarded more contentiously than painting and sculpture. After all, for a long time modern art was considered one of colonialism’s “cultural imports,” though much writing has explained it as a liberationist, and therefore counterhegemonic, force (W. Ali 2001; Noorani 2007). To explain how artists navigated their way through a thorny politics of development funding by way of the civil society and democratization framework from the 1990s onwards, I am theoretically consumed with contemporary art’s relationship to the political and the politics in which it is embedded. I locate the theories on which I base my analysis in the expansive literature devoted to the conceptualization of the meaning of the political as a constitutive element of politics that is being emptied of its critical role. In this sense, politics is now understood as “a dirty word, a term that has come to acquire a whole array of almost entirely negative associations” (Hay 2013: 153). Accordingly, I base my understanding of contemporary art’s engagement with the political on Foucault’s (1978) conceptualization of the workings of power; in History of Sexuality, Foucault frames the political as a form of critical discourse that is in a dependent relationship to the institutional apparatuses that constitute the domain of politics. This Foucaultian definition frames politics as a set of established institutions, where associated hegemonic discourses are exercised through a relation of forces that shape the discourses of society in any one era (Foucault 1978: 10–11). As such, art is itself a site of power and politics.

For both Hannah Arendt and Chantal Mouffe, “politics as evil” has dominated conceptualizations of the political. For Arendt (1998: 7–17), the political is represented as a site of “action,” concerned with what people are doing, their praxis. For Mouffe (2005: 8–16), the political is a space of “antagonism,” which constitutes human societies. It is how transnationally connected and internationally funded contemporary art features in these sites of antagonism and action that I query. In conceiving the relationship between aesthetics and politics, I do not aim to partake in the conceptual debate about whether the two are inherently separate or constitutive of each other to understand how art relates to the political. Instead, I subscribe to a frame of thinking that reads this relationship as always bound by the specific historical circumstances and concrete geographical locales in which it is embedded.

My reading of contemporary art’s engagement with the political—specifically the ways its locally informed dimensions interact with its more global dimensions that often require travel, translation, framing, and representation—is based partly on Mouffe’s articulation of the relationship between the “political” and “politics.” By “politics,” Mouffe refers to the ensemble of practices, discourses, and institutions that seek to establish a certain order and organize human coexistence in conditions that are always potentially conflictual and “constitutive of human societies” (Mouffe 2007b). The “political” for Mouffe is the dimension of antagonism that is inherent in human relations and that works to resist or reinforce hegemonic “politics” (Mouffe 2000: 15; Mouffe 2005: 9). She articulates it as a set of antagonisms that is essentially always in a bid for social power. Power is located not just in the state or in a political party, but in all hegemonic structures, including institutions that pride themselves on being anti-hegemonic such as the “independent” art scene at the heart of this book. Envisioning the “political” within Mouffe’s framework means we see power, conflict, and antagonism as innate to the cultural politics of artistic production and its meaning.

Having said all that, I admit to being weary of falling back on a theory that sits too comfortably with an understanding of “the political” developed within a framework critiquing European liberalism in the early part of the twentieth century. Such a theory is perhaps best captured in Carl Schmitt’s famous book The Concept of the Political, in which the friend/enemy distinction is thought to be central to the meaning of the political. Schmitt’s notion of the political and his critique of liberalism do not deliberate over alternative conceptualizations of the political in postcolonial contexts that experienced and continue to endure colonial effects as the darker side of modernity. The friend/enemy binary in opposition to a state does not suffice to explicate the site of the political in contexts where legal boundaries overlap and the sovereign state is weak or nonexistent, because it does not initiate a mode of thinking from the “experiences of the colonial wound” (Mignolo 2011: 48). In its Western conception, the political locates civil society, the state, and interest groups (such as religious, tribal, and confessional identifications and affiliations) in the Middle East as essential building blocks of its society and, by extension, its cultural politics. Yet this emphasis explains away the problem of capitalism instead of tackling it head on (Hanieh 2013a). In this book, I am inspired by the approach of reading politics through the continued centrality of imperialism and the internationalization of class and capital. I see this approach as the means by which the relationship between the site of the political and art becomes most animated. It is therefore not the friend/enemy binary but the structural inequalities of the political economy of postcolonial societies that dictate how identities, class affiliations, and beliefs are constructed in the field of internationally supported and transnationally connected contemporary artistic production. These structural formations build an interdependent relationship with politics.

When I began the research for this book, I was partly inspired by an emerging body of scholarship that examines the relationship between US postwar ascendancy and cultural diplomacy during the early years of the Cold War and the unfolding decolonization in the Middle East. I was captivated by the idea of seemingly neutral global cultural funding organizations, such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, intervening in the wider political field with a focus on culture. In supporting the arts, these organizations hoped to shape ideological beliefs and commitments.

In the very early 2000s, and particularly after 9/11, I was seeing and experiencing how vital this phenomenon had become to the West’s relationship to the Arab world and in the Arab world’s domain of cultural production in the larger field of the arts, including radio, television, theater, performance, the visual arts, music, and to a lesser extent literature. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government launched a series of cultural diplomacy programs with the intention of winning “the hearts and minds” of especially Arab youth in the Middle East. The US invested in “efforts to improve cultural understanding,” to increase foreigners’ “voluntary allegiance to the American project” (Finn 2003, 20). In the same period, the EU’s Barcelona Process was reinvigorated to deflect conflict by valorizing cultural commonalities and continued cultural cooperation in the domain of arts and heritage in the Mediterranean basin. At the same time, however, the EU Barcelona Process pursued firm policies on security, migration, and enlargement, which drew “a clear frontier in the middle of the Mediterranean” (Schäfer 2007, 333).

Cultural funding after 1990, and particularly after 9/11, was typically couched in the neutral terms and frameworks of international development and slow democratization processes operating within the larger rubric of cultural diplomacy and international relations rather than outright propagandistic cultural motives. Yet, regardless of the changes taking place in the field of international cultural funding and exchange, the logic of exchanging or influencing the everyday practices and value systems of a population through the support of cultural production remained at the heart of diplomacy between and across nations. In academia, a recent growth in literature dedicated to the practice and study of cultural diplomacy in the aftermath of the Cold War has stressed the positive dimensions of cultural and artistic exchanges in international relations, deeming them a softer, more liberal and progressive dimension of power with the potential to alleviate the harder blows of the global war on terror.7 Assuming art can serve as a neutral platform of exchange, or undermine political dichotomies, or function as an indubitably resistant force in nondemocratic settings is not untypical considering the increasing calls for conferences, journal papers, workshops, and master’s programs that approach artistic practice in cultural diplomacy from the angle of what it can do rather than what it actually does.

In its normative assumptions about the potential positive impact of cultural diplomacy, this body of academic work leaves out a reflection on the ways in which power relations may influence how we understand the role of culture as a means of anti-capitalist critique and how we understand its increasingly specialized form of meaning, that is, art as an identity marker (Eagleton 2000). Many critical literary and historical studies focus on how, during the height of its Cold War, the US government funded cultural diplomacy efforts through the CCF, supporting symphonies, performances, musical competitions, literary prizes, exhibitions, and festivals, in addition to scholars and writers.8 Yet few of those studies have looked at how the US government’s support for cultural production reshaped and refashioned the global landscape of literary and visual artistic production, altered the relationships between writers and their publics, and rendered those it supported more recognizable figures than others.9

The writing that has emerged concurrent with the growth in the contemporary art world of the region has tended to revolve around evaluating the individual practices of artists already enjoying major exposure in the West.10 This literature has come in the form of beautiful coffee table books, exhibition catalogs, or glossy art journals and magazines, regional in scope, identitarian in focus, and celebratory in tone. Academic contributions, like Chad Elias’s (2018) Posthumous Images: Contemporary Art and Memory Politics in Post–Civil War Lebanon, that rely mostly on artists’ own narratives and generated material, and to a much lesser extent Bashir Makhoul and Gordon Hon’s (2013) The Origins of Palestinian Art, have distanced themselves from the preoccupation with identitarian and geographical readings in an attempt to bring individual practices to the forefront in their own aesthetical right. This tendency, most obvious in Elias’s work, has come at the expense of locating art without historicizing Arab modernity or other issues pertaining to broader cultural production, such as art’s relationship to vernacular culture or institutional politics. 11 Often articulated in terms of “hybrid” and “liminal” experiences resulting from war, diaspora, exile, and postcoloniality more generally, such art criticism largely relies on what artists say about their own work (e.g., Downey 2014 and 2016a); it has tended to interpret the art sphere in terms of the perpetually complex world of artists living or commenting on crisis zones. This form of analysis excludes commentary on what relations of domination imbued within art practices with transnational links and institutional support may be encoding and enacting.

Several key texts authored in the past few years by art historians and anthropologists of the Arab world have offered important new insights into what is still a relatively small but quickly growing and formidable scholarly field of study (Scheid 2005; Winegar 2006; Shabout 2007; Rogers 2008; Rahman 2015; Lenssen, Rogers, and Shabout 2018; Saadawi 2019; Lenssen 2020; Maasri 2020). These studies on modern Arab art mark a shift from conventional art histories, which framed artistic practice as always tied to nation and identity in the postcolonial state. Instead, they locate artworks, art writing, and artists in an intricate cultural history of multilayered contexts, intellectual debates, and events that defined the region’s cultural production since the nineteenth century.

This book, besides being inspired by such works, departs from them through its particular focus on the question of the international political economy and cultural politics of the development of the contemporary art sphere in the region after 1990. Of direct relevance, methodologically as well as substantively, is Jessica Winegar’s landmark 2006 study on the politics of art and culture in contemporary Egypt. As far as I know, Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt was the first book to bring the study of art from the Arab world to social science classes within Middle East Studies in Western academic institutions. Winegar offers a fascinating ethnographic exploration of art in Egypt as resolutely positioned outside of traditional Eurocentric narratives of art history. She attempts a reading of cultural production in Egypt that favors a “non-teleological, non-universalist, non-totalizing way of understanding the relationship between the totalizing forces in the world and the fragmentary detailed and particular struggles against them” (Winegar 2006: 17). In doing so, Winegar shifts the focus to the potential avenues for agency that operate and are informed by how artistic production players in a changing Egypt reckon with global transformations that directly impact what they do and how they do it.

This book similarly reads crises of identity often understood to lie at the heart of the impasse between binaries of local/global, modern/traditional, and progressive/regressive as not emphatically predicated on historical developments but as institutionally constructed notions in their own right. Winegar, however, is not as consumed as I am here with epistemologically exploring art and artists’ self-conception as counterhegemonic and the political economy by which ideas about dissent and resistance in the arts is shaped. Because of my international politics and cultural studies approach, I am compelled to extend the research field outside of the frameworks normally considered relevant to the study of art in Middle East Studies. In other words, and to borrow from Howard Becker (1982), I include in the “artworld” what I refer to throughout the book as the global cultural funding organizations and their local partners working under the wider umbrella of civil society and democratization. These groups bring a new dimension to the study of contemporary art in the region that concerns the place, power, and meaning of institutions of culture.

Finally, the attention I give to new organizational structures and forms of art—along with the generational tensions they trigger in conversations about globalization, dissent, cosmopolitanism, and authenticity—is in direct conversation with Winegar’s now classic work and with three laboriously researched and recently published books on Palestine and Lebanon. Zeina Halabi’s The Unmaking of the Arab Intellectual: Prophecy, Exile and the Nation (2017) uncovers the intricate ways in which the Arab intellectual’s prophetic role in various publics has been received, probed, interrogated, and in effect “unmade” by a number of Arab novelists and cineastes since the early 1990s. Zeina Maasri’s Cosmopolitan Radicalism: Beirut in the Global Sixties (2020) deals with the modes by which the generation of Arab modernists and the 1967 generation of committed artists and writers negotiated their transnational solidarities as a way of countering imperial hegemony during the global 1960s, thereby providing me with a rich account of a historical moment where artists had to confront some of the same questions as artists today. Finally, Najat Rahman’s In the Wake of the Poetic: Palestinian Artists After Darwish (2015) has informed my readings of the political in works of art in the breakdown of a coherent agenda of Palestinian resistance to Israel’s domination in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords, which were signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, and in the post–Cold War Arab world more generally.

Within the framework of cultural diplomacy, contemporary art manifests in a variety of policies, strategies, and practices. In the early 2000s this manifestation mostly unfolded within organizations that go by the Arabic nomenclatures of mu’assasat thaqafiyah and/or mashari’ thaqafiyah. These terms, which specifically reference the cultural work that these organizations and initiatives undertake, obscure the nongovernmental and nonprofit dimensions of their work and any implications this status may have. They also do not incorporate the internationally funded development and democratization initiatives they embroiled in the early 2000s that likewise shaped the art they aided in producing. These domestic but internationally funded organizations can possess a range of characteristics. They might be formally or informally structured, vertically or horizontally organized, nongovernmentally affiliated or funded, nonprofit, leaderless, privately endowed, artist-run collectives and art spaces, and even institutionalized and formalized organizations that offer grants and/or receive grants, such as Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan or Zico House, for example, or Ramallah’s Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center or the AM Qattan Foundation, and Amman’s Darat Al Funun or the now defunct Makan House.12 Defined by their fluid structures and “secularism,” these partners self-consciously position their initiatives and the artists they work with as external to the state’s formal structures.13 Significantly, they are also almost always transnationally connected to any one or all of larger governmental and nongovernmental internationally located social and cultural development funding bodies, global art sites, and/or the cultural institutions and the cultural discourses that circulate within them. I call this complex network of support “global cultural funding” to emphasize the neoliberal and transnational dimensions of this network’s vision and mission, to bolster the platforms of representations and the circulation of works that take an envisioned global audience, discourse, and aesthetics as its frames of reference.14 Along these lines, I use the term “global art world” to refer to the forces, processes, and institutions in the world of contemporary art that cross borders without deriving their authority from the state (Sklair 2000: 2). I also use the term to demarcate a site that conceals through these dynamics the unrepresented counternarratives and debates that remain excluded from the story of contemporary art in the region because they belong to a category of cultural actors that has not directly benefited from global discourses on art and culture; hence, on some level these actors remain invisible in a process that claims to speak for them.

I hope that the attention I give to the systems of social relations between artists, arts organizations, funders, as well as cultural capital will play a part in shifting the focus of the literature on the cultural Cold War. Instead of centering the discourse on the now established historical fact that various artistic and literary movements such as abstract expressionism were wittingly or not deployed as weapons of the US government for ideological purposes, perhaps we can focus on the broader question of how post–Cold War transnational forces matter for local experiences in the Global South, and, in particular, how the mechanisms of international support for “local” artistic production manifests in discourse about contemporary art and its role in society today.

Typically, most Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian public discussions and newspaper articles dealing with the issue of international funding for civil society NGOs tend to be framed simply within an “either with or against foreign (or western) funding” framework. Those accepting funds are usually portrayed as less nationalistic and more susceptible to the enticement offered by the West, and therefore as willing participants in an exercise of cultural imperialism. The question around which the issue revolves is more often than not whether there are any conditions offered with the money. The answer from recipients of such funds is always no. Most of what little debate exists in the press has been limited to presenting cultural actors’ views of who accepts funding from Western organizations, who doesn’t, and why (Habib 2011; Ben Jannat 2005). Or it has been replete with descriptions of a young and globally influenced contemporary art scene that is caught between a rock and a hard place vis-à-vis the lack of an adequate institutional infrastructure in either a public or private sphere willing to support artistic production on the one hand and financially able and willing foreign parties on the other.15 As such, both journalists and local fund recipients remain caught in the throes of a defensive debate mired in accusations and assumptions about contemporary art’s relationship to its funding sources. This does not include the nature of the cordial or antagonistic relationship between the funder and the local recipient, nor does it include whether the funder exerts indirect or direct conditionality on the content of production, or even whether its funds extend to Israel, as I was many times informed would lead the local recipient to boycott that particular funder. Rather, what seems to be missing, I sensed, was a much-needed conversation about how and why the unique internationally funded, nongovernmental trajectory toward nongovernmental and nonprofit “institutionalization” and “globalism” that the contemporary art scene underwent in Amman, Beirut, and Ramallah in the late 1990s and early 2000s has influenced perceptions of the role and function of art and the artist vis-à-vis society.

The fastidious reader might already be wondering where the art is in the work I present here. Let me say from the outset that this is not an art history or art criticism book. It is not about art as such. What I mean by this is that it does not focus on how the phenomenon of global cultural support for the field of the arts filters through the visual aesthetics and materials used within the artworks through an art historical lens, even if this analysis features in some chapters. Rather, I highlight the works discussed in chapter 3 onwards because I read their conceptual and theoretical, rather than aesthetical dimensions, as embodying from their inception to their realization, the very point I want to make about neoliberalism and the dematerialization of art into critical theories that reflect on rather than “do” resistance. Keeping in mind the Frankfurt theorists who pioneered the dialectical understanding of art’s “double character” in relationship to hegemony, I am similarly invested in the idea that “every artwork is autonomous in so far as it asserts itself as an-end in-itself and pursues the logic of its own development without regard to the dominant logic of society; but every work is also a ‘social fact’ in that it is a cipher that manifests and confirms the reality of society, understood as the total nexus of social relations and processes” (Ray 2009: 80–81). I assume that for every artist the work is an autonomous critique of society. My struggle therefore is with the “social fact” of the works I address. To that end, I explore the site of international governmental and nongovernmental cultural funding organizations that have been significant players, though not the only ones, in a quickly mushrooming field of what is commonly termed “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” contemporary art—a phenomenon mutually supported by a growing body of local gallerists, domestic and regional art patrons, international arts investors, and more recently, governments.16 Combined, these sites have played a role in constituting social relations and identities in the societies where they function.

As I already mentioned, in the course of exploring how the field of contemporary art took shape amid a post–Cold War global zeitgeist of NGOs, civil society, and democratization, I do not devote a great deal of time to discussing the role of the international arts market and galleries devoted to selling Middle Eastern art. I provide neither a retroactive look at nor close readings of contemporary artworks as they transpired since the end of the Cold War in 1990. In fact, I acknowledge that I have, often quite reluctantly, been compelled to remove from my analyses many of the artists, artworks, and art projects that I have sometimes found most compelling and that are indeed internationally recognized simply because my emphasis in the book is elsewhere than only the artwork. Using ethnographic methods that focus on interviewing and participant observation, I set out instead to understand the conceptions and perceptions of the role of art and its relationship to international cultural funding that is driving the people, organizations, and initiatives involved in processes of contemporary interdisciplinary artistic productions. Like Winegar (2006) writing on the cultural politics of art in Egypt, I found discourse to be a central pillar in the making of art in my three urban sites of research. Winegar’s point that “of all the activities that went into art-making in Egypt, none was more prominent and widespread than discourse” (Winegar 2006: 10) was not only true in the context of my research but also in the often-heated conversations that erupted in studios, art shows, forums, workshops, gallery spaces, and above all cafés that I witnessed or was a part of. These encounters were of utmost importance in understanding how contemporary art, despite its assumed marginality also intervenes in that space on terms that cannot be understood within the bounds of traditional art history, but using a more comprehensive approach along the lines of a new sociology of art or new art history.17

This leads to my final point that my preference for focusing on art’s modes of production, representation, and circulation rather than its “objects” does not stem from conceptual laziness but from a reasoned conviction that what is most interesting about contemporary art making in the region over the last 20 years or so is precisely that it unwittingly proposes novel ways of conceptualizing how art is made and understood. This reasoning is based on the deepest premise running through this book: that the meaning of an artwork is constructed in the course of its circulation and production as much as it is in its aesthetical form.18 On that account, even if artistically formal concerns should remain a central node of analysis, they would still need to reference the overall context in which the art is being materially produced and consider both subjective and objective conditions and functions. The insistence on this—much in common with cultural studies—lies in the inference that such an approach offers a more robust conception of an artwork’s agency in relation to structure, especially now that art has taken on a social and cultural life well outside of institutions.

What became known as the postwar scene in Lebanon, the post-Oslo generation of artists in Palestine, and the contemporary art generation (jil al fann il mu’asir) in Jordan generally engaged in works where the concept was the central aspect. In early 1990s Lebanon, and subsequently Jordan and Palestine, these art scenes began to counter existing social and political conditions, which the younger post-1990 generation saw as perpetuating a specific kind of art. This art was understood to be broadly associated with pan-Arabism, anti-colonialism and Marxism and socialism as a rallying cry, specifically in regard to the relationships between major Arab powers and Israel, and the Cold War confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US. The influence that this period had on the cultural world in the region’s modern geopolitical history caused the post-1990 generation to aesthetically, conceptually, physically, and intellectually distance themselves from what they saw as collective struggles of liberation cloaked in nationalist rhetoric and anti-imperial discourse. Hence, the postwar contemporary art scene in Lebanon was not a movement heavily involved in aesthetical questions of beauty and representation. Rather, it sought to challenge the very discursive and institutional specialization of art itself. At the time, young artists demanded that the potential of the aesthetic be released from its traditional and social confinement to institutions of high modernist art and literature, and instead penetrate the public sphere, sometimes quite literally by intruding in public urban spaces, to form an art that “steps on the toes of politics and consumerism” and refuses to defend “art solely through art,” as one well-known artist of the post–civil war generation in Lebanon put it to me in an interview.19

My understanding of “contemporary art” from and about some Eastern Mediterranean Arab cities builds on what Octavian Esanu describes as the sudden and unexpected emergence of that phrase in some parts of the world (Esanu 2012: 5). Similar to what Esanu suggests in regard to the Eastern European post-socialist states, contemporary art in the contexts of the Arab cities that I focus on has also been shaped by a specific set of conditions that have flourished under the latest phase of global capitalism—a phrase often termed neoliberalism but which may also be described as advanced capitalism, corporate capitalism, or free-market ideology. This set of conditions—infrastructure, corporations, capital, politics, work ethic, and imaginations—proved heavily invested in creating a global art world modeled on the principles of free trade and cultural exchange. It forged a temporality and form of commercialization that defined the transnationally connected contemporary art world more than any other universal and generalizable aesthetic of form or technique.20 Hence, the art practices drawn on in this book almost always unite poetics and politics in a self-conscious effort to participate in a globally influenced, culturally diverse, and technologically advancing world. They sit resolutely between film, painting, literature, music, sound, and theater by borrowing techniques from each yet refusing to be defined by any. Hence, not only is the form of the art interdisciplinary, but so is its mode of exhibition and dissemination. Filmmakers and musicians exhibit in art venues, and artists exhibit outside of the white walls of gallery spaces, on the streets and in coffeehouses, on the World Wide Web, in informal art spaces, private venues in addition to prestigious biennials, museum shows, and art festivals. Finally, what I refer to as cultural actors intermittently throughout the book often also sit precariously between different professions. Some artists make art, but many others also curate, teach, write, and manage their own art spaces and art projects within the growing gig economy, reflecting the fragmented and insecure neoliberal market that rules.


1. The NSRD carries out research and analysis of defense and national security issues for the US and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis. Some of RAND’s research output on art and culture in the Arab world includes, for example, Zellman, Martini, and Perlman (2011); Schwartz et al. (2009); and Helmus and Kaye (2009).

2. See, e.g., Berger et al. (2008). See also Bouquerel and El Husseiny (2009); Isar (2014); and informal discussion blogs, such as Helmus and Dassa Kaye (2009). See also Hyesun (2013) and especially De Perini (2017) for interesting accounts of the different historical phases that EU intercultural policy dialogue with the Mediterrean countries went through: emergence, consolidation, professionalization.

3. See, e.g., Snider and Faris (2011) on youth and technology. For a debunking of such myths, see Selim (2013).

4. For a list of such spaces, see Koenig and Omareen (2018).

5. Several cultural hegemonies are at play in the region, some of which are violent and destructive. Hence, while I could choose from several donor relationships in the countries I researched (e.g., Iranian support of Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Syrian regime in Syria or the Qatar-Saudi rivalry and their attendant support of different Islamist cultural organizations across the Arab and Muslim world), I was most interested in the relationship that was a function of a specifically neoliberal take on global culture. This relationship has its recent roots in historical Western cultural relations to the global south; it is arguably the model of Western cultural diplomacy and art as modern and civil that is the legacy of Cold War diplomacy that reigns in the region today.

6. See also Wade (1991).

7. Joseph Nye (2004) developed the idea of “soft power” in the context of international relations theory. The term, now widely used in international affairs by academics, analysts, and political leaders, refers to the ability to obtain what one wants through cooption and attraction, rather than the hard power of coercion and punishment.

8. For example, Stonor Saunders (2013), which briefly mentions the funding of Hiwar in Lebanon. See also Von Eschen (2004); Wilford (2008); Finn and Couvée (2014); Iber (2015).

9. A key exception is Rubin (2012).

10. Two examples are Demos (2009), on the well-known Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, and Cotter (2009), on renowned Lebanese artists Akram Zaatari and Walid Raad, whom she featured in her show Out of Beirut (Cotter 2006).

11. See Saadawi (2020) for an elaborate critique of this tendency. Atrissi (2009) is a notable exception. Atrissi’s short essay focuses on the influences on and the development of graphic design in the Arab world as a contemporary form of visual art. He looks at the recycled Arab visual elements and icons appropriated by young twentieth-century artists that transformed vernacular art into high art, urban art, and visual identities.

12. I use the term “cultural” loosely here to describe these diverse organizational formations. In the Arabic language, the term thaqafa, which is translated into English as “culture,” refers to a social framework, and so is related to the traditional practices, language, cultural heritage, and artistic productions of society.

13. I use the term “secular” with trepidation. As some literature argues, secularism has no conceptual coherence and has become a signifier for very different sorts of accommodations between religion and state in different places that needs to be understood as a historical construct (Taylor 2007). Yet I employ the term here and throughout the book in its most basic sense to distinguish between civil society organizations that consider faith core to their missions and activities and those that do not.

14. The terms “global,” “transnational,” and “international” are sometimes used interchangeably. I employ them recognizing that choosing one over the other may hide the tenacity of the politics of unequal relations that still defines each (DeVereaux and Griffin 2006). I talk about international (or regional) funding to describe the funding for culture and civil society programs that comes from outside the borders of Lebanon, Palestine, or Jordan that is part of the neoliberal structure of civil society that has been occurring. I use “transnational” to describe the movement of capital, people, ideas, and art across different borders. And I use “global” to refer to the platforms of representation and circulation of works that take the global audience, discourses, and aesthetics as their frames of reference.

15. See, e.g., Awad (2006); Al Sayyid (2007); Bazzi (2007a, 2007b); Muna (2008). A notable exception is Omar Amiralay, a filmmaker and human rights activist who resists a “he said, she said” approach, instead evaluating the interest of funders as well as how they might be affecting local cultural scenes in the Arab region. See Amiralay (2009).

16. See Erskine-Loftus, Penziner Hightower, and Ibrahim Al-Mulla (2016); Matar (2015). For a dynamic approach to understanding museums’ roles as sites of cosmopolitanism in an increasingly transnationalized and global world, see Levitt (2015).

17. In the twentieth century, the distinction between artworks and the conditions of their making prevailed, leaving discussions of the organizational practices involved in art making to the sociology of art (Tanner 2003). Jonathan Harris argues that in part the field of visual culture itself was a proposition that “became used emphatically to indicate a specific rejection of traditional art history” (2004: 63–75). Despite these changes, questions of pure aesthetics persisted as a “return to aesthetics” or a “return to beauty.” For the autonomy of art, see Zangwill (2002).

18. My reasoning here is inspired in part by the focus on the relationship between technique and political orientation in Walter Benjamin’s 1934 essay “The Artist as Producer” (Benjamin 1998).

19. Interview with the author, February 17, 2009, Beirut.

20. Makhoul (2013), for instance, has argued that the boundaries between what is and what is not visual art have become so blurred that they are barely discernible. Generally, “contemporary art” is a broad term used to describe art produced after the Second World War, and especially since the 1960s and 1970s. It is not as easily classifiable as modern art and is essentially critical of the historical meta-narratives and idealism associated with modern art. See Aranda, Kuan Wood, and Vidokle (2010) for different practitioners’ interpretations that start from the premise of the difficulty of “pinning it down.” For a more comprehensive approach to understanding the multilayered dynamics conditioning contemporary art and the implications for its meaning today that I ascribe to here, see Stallabras (2004).