State of the (contemporary) art

Middle Eastern art is in the midst of an identity crisis.

A visitor looks at a piece of art by Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh called the "Dome", which is a combination of ceramic and media [AFP]
A visitor looks at a piece of art by Iranian artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh called the "Dome", which is a combination of ceramic and media [AFP]

As Professor Dina Ramadan of Bard College ascended the stage at the Brunei Gallery lecture Hall at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London to deliver her talk on the question of “authenticity” in art, at least half of her mind and heart was in Egypt, where the unfolding drama of the revolution was unfolding apace. Professor Ramadan, a recent PhD from Columbia University where I teach, was attending a major international conference on “Regional vis-a-vis Global Discourses: Contemporary Art from the Middle East,” on July 5-6, 2013 – joining her were the leading scholars, curators, critiques, and artist from around the world convening to address the most urgent thematic issues facing a new generation of questions in their discipline. 

The organizing theme of the conference, as conceived by its convener Dr. Hamid Keshmirshekan, of Oxford University, was the necessity of theorising “the unresolved questions about definitions and regional/local forms of logic in the contemporary global art discourses.”

This was by far the most ambitious and far-reaching conference on contemporary “Middle East” art organized in recent memory. That it was convened at a time of seismic changes in the world this art represented had added political zest to the theoretical queries the conferees were raising. 

Anxieties of origin and purpose

To inaugurate addressing those themes, Professor Irit Rogoff of Goldsmiths, University of London and I were invited to deliver two keynote addresses of the conference. Her address, Oblique Points of Entry , centred around what she called “the exhausted geographies” that require a radical reconsideration of where we place the location and politics of visuality; while in my talk, “Trauma, Memory, and History” I extended my ideas of fragmented archives into the interfaces between memorial registers of art and our contemporaneity of history. In both our talks palpable and evident was the momentous political occasion in which these theoretical concerns had been occasioned.

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At various stages of their epistemic shifts all disciplines experience anxieties of origin, relevance, and purpose. Some disciplines like anthropology in fact thrive on these moments, others like comparative literature look like getting ready for a rectal intestinal examination when wondering what it is they are doing. But ultimately, these moments reveal the disciplinary disposition of relevance: what are they, what are they doing, how do they do what they do, what are the impediments on the path of doing what they are doing, what sort of knowledge they have inherited and what sort of knowledge are they to produce for the posterity. Underlying all these questions in this particular discipline is the anxiety of correspondence between art as text and art critic as the reader of those texts, and the public that is to look at that art and has incessantly thinned into irrelevance over the recent years. 

On all the panels at this conference scholars and curators spoke with their nose to the grindstone, busy doing what they are supposed to do and yet with a downcast eye on the more enduring meaning of what they do. 

Rendering ‘the Machine’

In the course of a conversation with Catherine Franchlin, the eminent French philosopher Jean Baudrillard was told how quite a number of contemporary artists liked and cited his work and one had even suggested reading him was like looking at a painting by Andy Warhol. The remark prompts Baudrillard make an impromptu observation about Warhol: “What I liked about Warhol was…his irony, his decision to abolish art. I believe he was one of the only people at the time capable of rendering the ‘machine’. With a personal elegance and great severity, he designed a playing field for logical anarchy that is quite remarkable.” 

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This is from an interview in 1986, more than a quarter of a century ago, at the height of Reaganomics and Thatcherism, when even the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc was still nowhere in sight and the world was at the mercy of two confounding imperialisms. What would “abolishing” art mean today on a global scale no longer limited to what Andy Warhol did or what Jean Baudrillard thought – when Arab revolutions have confounded the Arab and Muslim world and seem to have been contagious all over the world, from Turkey to Brazil? How do vastly transformative revolutionary movements of the sort we are witnessing today alter our sense of irony, hyperbole, frivolity – and what kind of art would these entail for us yet to see? Is “the machine” still running, and if so how do we reconfigure its, or our, logical anarchy? 

Both Andy Warhol and Jean Baudrillard have lived and worked and thought in a world that thought what they called “the West” the center of universe, the only game, on the only corner of the sandbox, that mattered. From Cairo to Rio alternative worldliness is now dawning on the transformative ironies that embrace New York and Paris into the bosom of their changing dispositions. On the parameters of that worldliness, “logical anarchies” are yet to see their new artists and meet their future philosophers. We are dreaming and until our artists and philosophers start interpreting our dreams we don’t even know what it is we are dreaming. 

What the state of contemporary art reveals (to both its practitioners and theorists) is the archeological site of our future sensibilities meeting their historical alterities, where they have been and where they are headed. Much of the work of scholarship and curatorial task can be rightly judged towards an assessment of how the presence of the art resonates with its archival accumulations and and wasteful dollars in gathering dust in museums and galleries. To the emerging horizons of our spectacles those dusts and dollars are useless. The significance of this art is the layered constellations of the worlds they have inhabited and informed as today they collect their senses to see where the world is headed. 

What we can carry from Baudrillard himself in the journey forward is the manner in which simulacra and simulation have themselves entered period of semiotic crisis where reality is effectively reasserting itself over and above its symbolic representations, where the fetishization of the sign in bourgeois parlance and philosophical theorisation has to face the return of its repressed. In a world where 870 million human beings go to sleep hungry, those empty stomachs could not possibly take the sign of a piece of bread for the bread itself. About 98 percent of those hungry people live in the so-called “developing countries” where they never get to theorize their hunger so we can know for sure they would never miss to distinguish between reality of a glass of milk and its simulacra through commodity fetishism and all its mediations through the global media. It is not accidental that the word, and thus the reality of, “bread/aysh” was and remains paramount in the Egyptian revolution: “freedom, social justice, and bread!” In that slogan the words freedom and social justice do not turn the word bread into an abstraction – exactly the opposite: the reality of hungry bellies turns freedom and social justice into daily necessities. 

Imagine the moment that Dina Ramadan ascends the stage to deliver a talk on contemporary art while half her mind and soul is in Tahrir square, wondering what is happening in her homeland. Something is amiss if the moment of self-examination of art is absent from the history of our squares from Tahrir to Azadi to Taksim…to Zuccotti. All art is now public art. The privacy of corporate CEOs mansions or Hedge Fund managers’ yachts is not where art is happening. They are collecting dust – both the art works and their collectors. Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Bradley Manning have now exposed the fact that all our lives are open books and can be read, catalogued, and analysed at whim by intelligence analysts who have much to read but very little knowledge of how t read them. In this context, the artist is integral to the public secret we no longer have. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of the forthcoming book, In Search of Lost Causes: Fragmented Allegories of an Iranian Revolution (2013).

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