I can think of one thing that might bring about true change, compel the attention of Islamist and neo-liberals alike, open the revolution’s cul-de-sac onto a new (creative) path: Art. Free art.
The freedom of artistic expression is to be differentiated from freedom of expression and speech, which is the freedom to do and say anything addressing one persistent subject. The freedom of artistic expression is the freedom to deal with absolutely any subject under the sun, to break away from formalist, conceptual and contextual ties. This kind of freedom is what might finally signal a Revolution.
I never believed in art as a tool for social change. When I hear someone speak about art’s role in society, my mind conjures up images of Mahmoud Yassin gesticulating and screaming, “Elfann Resala!” No, art is not a message. The only message in art is the artist. A unique individual who might through their oblique vision teach us about our own nature, differences, moral and ethical dilemmas. The more individuals speak their uniqueness through art, the more we learn about universality. The fight against conformity, dogmatism and pre-assigned roles starts with the freedom of art from expectations of time, space and gender. The free artist is s/he who creates in freedom, and not in constant assertion of it. S/he who is indeedliberated.
And so the much-celebrated freedom of Egyptian art after the revolution is a lie. This rhetoric refers to an art which has been employed as a political tool in the construction of a post-revolution mythology; “look, even artists are finally given voices,” voices which are in fact only allowed to comment on the revolution.
And the artist shouts back “I have a voice”, on behalf of all the silenced voices. Empathy and good will abound, we get the feeling that we are one, that we are “free”, while in fact this very suggestion is sadistic and dishonest. The artist is seeking one specific reaction from the audience. The art in the work is diluted, made digestible, in favor of this instantaneous recognition. The artist is not only immediately reacting to a moment, but is also encouraging an immediate reaction to the (momentary) experience of art. The emotion is not created, it is summoned. We are simply asked to submit to this beckoning;the ever-evoked emotion is not allowed to pass, or give way to a new one… We’re locked in another form of absolutism.This art doesn’t put us in direct confrontation with our dulled perceptions, big egos, and little minds. It reassures us that our senses and judgments are in order, while in fact they are not.
Personally, what I really want from art is the thrill of exclusion, the pleasure of nearing, the experience. Desperate for it, I start dissecting. I take what I like from the work, and leave out what I don’t. What I usually take is the Art. And that’s the beauty of it: art will only assert its contemporariness and engagement insofar as it readily renounces both.
This act of renouncing invites another question: those artists, writers, and filmmakers who have decided very early on they will not exploit the revolution in their work, what do they do? Assuming that they are revolutionaries at heart, what does their form of resistance look like? Stop art and start activism? How does this work which does not reiterate, condemn or celebrate either in form or content, stay an honest expression of the creator’s anguish? As Camus puts it, “the world has revealed itself in its cold strangeness, our nostalgia has no anchor, and there’s no escaping the absurdity of it all.”1 We are not the same, and there’s no way we could pick up where we left off. If some artists lived by the integrity and belief in their subjective views, this very attempt to retrieve a previous state is calculated and thus hypocritical. Something did happen, clouds burst, and isolation and detachment (if at all possible) no longer assuage one’s need for balance. The only thing I can think of, as naive and simplistic as it may be, is to look forward. Most importantly, stop eating and vomiting our own tails like the ouroboros. What good is it if all our “rebellion” ends up serving as an instrument for propaganda and historicizing? Even the most critical and condemning art ultimately reinstates the status quo rather than challenging it. It will always refer back to its subject matter, granting it a bigger place in visual history.
And so the questions remain, what does art have to say about itself? When is the time, if not now, to have faith in art’s ability to stand its own ground and create its own history? How does artistic production really signal a new era, a revolution?
“We are in the epoch of simultaneity,” says Foucault, the epoch of fragmenting as opposed to synthesizing, the epoch “of juxtaposition, of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed.”2
I once heard someone say that the work of Salah Jahin was like a tomb. We had just watched a young filmmaker’s short, in which the director had thrown in some of Jahin’s poetry to spice up his narrative. It’s true that every time Jahin’s verse came up the image in the background seemed to be polluting it; the poetry revealed the precariousness of what seemed to be a haphazard amalgamation of sound, image, and movement. I understood what my friend meant: Jahin’s genius is sealed like a tomb; it is so self-evident, so finished, and so close to its purpose that it defies any attempts at fragmentation or misplacement. Jahin’s passion meant that it was his very heart at stake, anyone who forced their intellect into that space was ridiculed in comparison. Could we say that the revolution is like a tomb for art?
The idea of a genuine, progressive art involves a conscious effort at introducing a new light into this world. Without this effort, art is merely a process of condensation, an apology; it doesn’t serve culture or civilization and indeed (and paradoxically)becomes elitist and self-indulgent. Art Can. And maybe since we’re at the doorsteps of the second chapter in the revolution, we could allow ourselves to explore new worlds in art, hoping to find the real essence of the revolution through some clever detour.
This Article is written by Doa Ali and was published in Graden City Blog