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Maysoon Shibi reviews The Politics of Art

Hanan Toukan. The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022. 336 pp.

Review by Maysoon Shibi

5 April 2023

Money talks. The Politics of Art by Hanan Toukan is a thematic, descriptive book, sometimes using a personal lens, on art production in the Arab world under the influence of external funds, in particular al-tamwil al-ajnabi (foreign funding). Toukan focuses on the time since the uprisings and wars in the Arab world, with emphasis on Beirut, Amman, and Ramallah; beginning with the period after 1990—the so-called pre-2011 Arab world including, of course, the aftermath of 9/11. The specific topics the book is concerned with cover the notions of cultural diplomacy and its connection to international aid, Arab contemporary art in the context of global contemporary art, and the different sides of counterhegemony in the process of producing a culture.

The author investigates the relationship between politics and art, and tries to make sense of the ambiguous relationship between art production (art) and external funds (politics). Particularly, she uses art as a tool to understand social transformations in the Arab world, by focusing on an important aspect: the political meaning and social function behind the Arab artists’ acceptance of financial support from NOP and NGO funds in Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. Overall, the book starts with a heavy scale of background information, that changes its weight slowly through its reading process. In other words, Toukan starts by presenting the structural dynamics that frame contemporary art in the Arab world, then moves to sharpening the edge of the scale delicately with the analysis of art scenes in the three cities.

One of the major dilemmas the book contains is the idea of “foreign funding” in the Arab world (p. 36). It is a tricky matter: To accept or not to accept the funding? It is rather a philosophical question, that never gets you out of the dilemma. Artists wonder about the identity of the fund in view of colonial history between the East and the West: How do the artists in the Middle East, who receive funds from the West, express their feelings about that matter? Does it show in their artistic works? Do they think that such fundings will allow them to achieve exactly what they want as artists in the Arab world? Do they feel that they owe the funders? Does the work of art succeed in fulfilling its artistic duty? In some of the interviews given in the book, some interviewees claim that the works of art produced are not affected by such things. Still, the term al-tamwil al-ajnabi is loaded with several meanings, and perhaps the most dominant ones are negative. As the author indicates, the word ajnabi hardly connotes a positive meaning. It is a game of power: Trying to democratize the Arab world for the sake of the West. Hence, again: How much, then, do these funds affect the works of art and exhibitions funded in the process?

An additional intriguing reoccurring theme the book is composed through is duality. It is present in everything, which only enhances the presence of cultural inequality in all senses. The fact that the book holds the word politics in its title makes the sense of duality even stronger, making it clear that things are treated diplomatically rather than culturally. This intriguing  sense of duality accompanies the book along the way, whether intentional or not. It does not stop with the dualities of past/present; East/West; modern/domestic; hegemonic/counterhegemonic; the generation of 1990/the generation of 1967; but rather brings up the bigger dilemma: The question of constant opposition between two sides generally, and the human need to pursue only one side that is believed to be right.

When it comes to the works of art discussed in the book, Toukan sheds the light on projects found in the nonprofit sector rather than those created for financial gain. The choice the author made is adequate, and I must say: The critique of the critique, or the metareading of Picasso in Palestine, is brilliant. You would think the author would have something to say about the project itself, especially after providing pictures from the event. However, the author’s focus on the journey the painting takes to arrive in Palestine makes the section one to be hailed. It is understandable that the process of bringing the painting to Palestine is what one should focus on, because it is a pin on Palestine as a country on the globe. Still, there is something surreal about the process, and this is what makes the whole presentation in the book unique. It is the metareading of what is behind bringing such a masterpiece to Palestine rather than what the masterpiece reflects or means when it is in Palestine that is surprisingly amusing.

Overall, the book moves with a mocking spirit that tickles the funny bone at the same time that it hurts. As a Palestinian reader, one identifies with many things the author addresses, and one even smiles sometimes when reading specific sentences that make perfect sense, however painful. When Toukan discusses the image of the two armed security guards from the Picasso project that went viral, she refers to an important question: “In other words, and to use Esche’s logic, to what extent was the project really pushing us to ‘imagine cultural globalism as mutually rather than conformism to a single worldview’? Or as Gayatri Spivak has famously argued, how far was it a case of ‘they are like us’ rather than ‘we are like them’?” (p. 204). 

If there is one thing that the book could use more of, it is a broader discussion of specific individual art pieces and their political context.