Re-imagining culture post-uprisings
Sonali Pahwa and Jessical Winegar, in the latest issue of Middle East Report:
The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.
Two fundamental aspects of this emerging cultural politics are frequently overlooked: the support for culture industries in mainstream Islamist circles and the underlying structural transformation of the relationship between arts and the state. The story is not simply one of liberation from authoritarian states, new desires to criticize such states or Islamist threats to freedom of expression. Rather, there are complex shifts in the overlapping cultural and political fields. Changes in the cultural scene are not simply a barometer of broader political and economic change, but part and parcel of it, particularly in countries with strong, centralized ministries of culture, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. In these places, the dominant state ideology poses culture as a path to progress and enlightenment. In this moment of opening, cultural producers, intellectuals and politicians are asking foundational questions about the role of government in the field of culture and vice versa. Egypt, the most populous Arab country and thus a bellwether of sorts, is a case in point.