Not least because -- as a questioner from the floor remarked -- the panel was remarkably devoid of visuality. No slides, no PowerPoint. Not even any Turner paintings, unlike the walls that surrounded the speakers on Thursday. But Professor Salah Hassan's textually-driven presentation (a conscious choice he admitted to at the beginning of the paper) drew attention to two crucial points: first, that, as many speakers pointed out, visual art is received in a verbal context, from the political language excoriated by Mourid Barghouti, to the conventions of explanatory panels, catalogue notes and artists' statements. This relation of text and art is itself a key part of the modernism that was under discussion. The second point made by the absence of images was that it blocked the audience's ability to consume, making us reflect on our relationship to art, particularly art objects from outside dominant culture, as being something offered up for our pleasure.
Hassan explicitly geared his talk towards theoretical concerns that needs to be fleshed out before images could be viewed contextually. He arguing that in exhibition contexts, it’s rare to find the term modernity defined outside Western narratives, in which non-Western modernities are cast as belated and derivative. This exclusionary narrative of modernism was the focus of his talk, modified by the facts that modernity occurs across the Middle East unevenly, given that the area is both a diverse historical entity, and also political construct coloured by imperialism and Orientalism, complicated by neo-con project of “democratising” the Middle East. He repeated his idea from Friday’s panel that the neo-con with us/against us binary has produced a seemingly paradoxical response of museums and galleries apparently countering this with an eagerness to exhibit, but actually seeking to define and present “good” Muslim and Arab artists, and treating the Middle East as the “new frontier to be conquered” by collectors.
He pointed to a recent essay by Barry Flood (NYU) that draws parallels between the dominant discourse on Middle Eastern art and of the war on terror, both of which seek to reconcile universalist assumptions about humanity with a desire to build bridges that demands the “other” culture must be conceived as different. Hassan quoted Flood to the effect that
What is new and particularly disturbing is the way that the object of Islam is increasingly co-opted into a model of peaceful existence, but would like to provide a model for Islamic life itself.Hassan quoted another critic, Ramdani, who commented that culture or modernity is now said to be the dividing line between those who favour a civic existence and those who favour terror, rather than the market or democracy). In the dichotomy, Islam has no agency; it erases Muslims’ agency, subjectivity, and the spectrum of identities. It also glosses over the colonial struggle (in which West could be seen as bad guys), and the post-colonial democratic struggles for civil and human rights in individual countries. This approach extends to the field of art history and Islamic art (which is the reference point even today in the Arab world), which covers over complex history of secularist and modernist movements in the Arab world.
It also glosses over – Hassan’s main point – the constant struggle in Arab culture between conformity and creativity – from the religious to political, from ideological to artistic aspect. There has been a modernistic trend in every generation towards new forms of literary expression, through a process of self-critique and reinvestigation of traditions. The focus from West has been on/to cast Arab culture as static and traditional. This is a commonality between Muslim fundamentalists and Western Islamicists – they both use textual orthodoxy as a reference point, refusing to look at adaptive pragmatic and empirical experiences in living societies. As the panel chair later pointed out, Islam conceived of itself -- and can be conceived of -- as a modernising project from its initiation.
To support his implied sympathy with the reconcilers, who reach into tradition to find ways to create change, Hassan quoted the Syrian poet Adonis insists that modernity is borne out of the struggle between the static religious order and the dynamic or desire to change the static order. This trend, combined with maintaining opennss to other cultures and modernity, the integration of rationality, an incorporation of Arab heritage, move towards diffusion of cultural values among masses, and desire to improve human life as a whole is visible in Arab art from 19th century.
Modernity and modernism have been contested terms in Europe since their first use, complicated by the acknowledgement of non-European modernities. Postcolonial theory offers a powerful critique of modernity by shoing how terms of the debate are inevitably Eurocentric, characterising artistic developments in other regions as necessarily belated and secondary. But, said Hassan, this narrative has been erased in two ways: it's been said to mirror the development of European modernity (belated and secondary); and, in turn, the idea of belatedness obscures European modernity's dependence on other cultures, from the effects of Orientalism to Picasso's use of African art.
Gwendolyn Wright has pointed out that
modernism came into being in a world framed by colonialism, where visions for improvement and innovation in imperialism and in cultural practices often overlapped and caused brutal destruction. Likewise, resistance to these forces has always been a part of modern life.This complicates things, because anti-colonialism can be anti-modernist, or can incorporate modernism while being anti-Western.
Edward Said points out that it has taken a long time and a remarkable shift of perspective to take account of anti-colonialist writing as modernist, and as what Hassan calls the "darker side of modernity." WTJ Mitchell has suggested that translation is key in this process, arguing that we attend to the staging of the modern, through successive acts of translation. This stabilises the definition of modernism, but simultaneously undermines it as it becomes plural.
To demonstrate how modernism played out, Hassan looked at the particular example of the Lettrist movement in Iraq. Panelist Wassan al-Khudairi later described how Iraqi artists educated in Europe returned home and looked within their culture for inspiration (unlike Western artists who looked outside). Hassan described their work as situated within what they perceived as authentic, and within what they saw as contemporary; they adopted abstraction as meditative and spiritual, but others took it to secular extremes. These artists also wrote manifestoes, disproving claims about a lack of discursive literature in Middle Eastern visual arts.
This specific case could have been analysed further in its particular relation to conceptions of nationalism, relationships to colonial power and regional traditions, but it made the point that the concept of universalist and static Islamic art remains specific to the West, an Orientalist perception that delegitimises the art. For Hassan, what is most vital is the shift to relocate Islamic tradition as living tradition.
He ended with a hopeful view from Stuart Hall:
The world is moving towards and can no longer be structured in terms of centre/periphery relations. It has to be defined in terms of a series of interesting centres in relation to one another… the most interesting artists are those who live in centre and periphery. We are moving into a hundred ideas of the modern.
The chair, curator Vasif Kortun, asked the panelists to reflect on the recovery of tradition Hassan had mooted, as well as the way they were approached and seen by the West in the present moment. The most interesting of the responses came from Dina Ramadan, currently completing a Ph.D. looking at archival sources on how modernity and modernism were conceived and implemented in Egypt (Ph.D.). She criticised the discourse of lack that posits that there’s no art history in Arab world, that we need to find a language with which to talk about modern art, which assumes there were no discussions happening from late C19th. By looking at letters, documents, journals, magazines and other textual sources, Ramadan is considering how questions of aesthetics were addressed; how audiences were imagined and created; and looking at the role institutions played. Visual arts appear as a site where conversations overlap with larger intellectual discourses of the period, and the historicisation of discourse helps us to understand what continuities add to the present scene, where the discourse of lack drives an urgency to produce, so that the Middle East is not "lacking" in a Western context. Ramadan said that she's interested in how the scene narrates itself, something that blogging is contributing to in the literary world.
A question from the floor alluded to a new book by artist Kamal Bulatta, Palestinian Art, 1850-Present, whose account weaves modernity and tradition, including pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, tradition of textiles, mid-1800s influence of Russian and Armenian churches into his description of Palestinian art's modernity. She referred to Said's term “contrapuntal” as a model for thinking about the relation between modernity and tradition. Alluding to a different rhythm, David Elliott pointed out that the Middle East traditionally looked at the West as belated; as far back as the 6-8th century, there was a dynamism picking up off the ancient worlds (Egypt, Greece) and creating socially dynamic and tolerant society. Only recently does the ME “slip behind”, towards the end of 18th century under the force of colonialism. But the notion of a great culture of the region is still expressed in how nationalisms in the region present a sense of a very long tradition in which the West appears backward. Hassan concluded by agreeing with both of these points, and arguing for a re-reading of Western modernism through its dependence on other contributions and cultures, including the context of colonialism and technological advantages that depended on slavery and the colonies.