Hanan Toukan's The Politics of Art
By Ophelia Lai
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States responded not only with military aggression but also a campaign to win “hearts and minds.” Explicitly associated with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this strategy built on the pivot since the 1990s in Western development and policy circles toward civil society and soft power, reasoning that efforts to distribute aid, erect infrastructure, and promote liberal values would yield a more cooperative populace and bolster the democratic transition. In this discursive and political landscape, cultural producers “came to be seen by international donors working in policy as crucial partners for bringing about desired change,” writes Hanan Toukan, a Bard College Berlin professor of Middle East studies, in The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan.
Split into two parts, the book begins by rigorously contextualizing and analyzing the power dynamics at play as internationally funded NGOs became a growing presence in Arab cultural production in the 2000s, with evolving aims driving both Western donors and Arab beneficiaries. Toukan goes on to argue that, despite attempts to project credibility and independence, these partnerships resulted in the narrowing of art forms and publics deemed relevant (per Western interests and tastes), and the alignment of professionalized cultural work with neoliberal values of individualism and entrepreneurship.
How, then, does one qualify dissent when the parameters of expression appear to have been set by others? To this, Toukan offers an adroit dissection of competing visions of resistance, illustrating their limits and entanglements with power in the micro-studies of Beirut, Amman, and Ramallah that appear in part two.
A highlight is Toukan’s examination of how Beirut artists like Lamia Joreige found acclaim abroad for archive-based projects that “deconstructed conventional forms of historiographies of the [Lebanese Civil War]” at a time of state-sanctioned forgetting, yet were implicated locally in thorny debates about truth, collective memory, and the West’s crass preconceptions about “strife-ridden” geographies. In the subsequent chapter, Toukan assesses cultural production in Amman, where any “emancipatory claims of contemporary global art” are complicated by Jordan’s monarchic autocracy and the fact that flourishing alternative spaces are predominantly founded by and for elites.
Most tautly written is the author’s study on Picasso in Palestine (2011), a foreign-funded collaboration between artist Khaled Hourani and Eindhoven’s Van Abbe Museum to transport a modern masterpiece to Ramallah. Toukan cogently unpacks how the tortuous process pointed out the restrictions of life under Israeli occupation while continuing to operate according to the logic of the dysfunctional international diplomatic order.
In her illuminations of how West-centric, neoliberal auspices can be inimical to a genuinely transformative politics, Toukan never defers to Manichean dichotomies, instead parsing the rationales, qualms, and blind spots of people working in fraught contexts. The Politics of Art is a dissonant account of how art, without recognition of its ties with power, upholds the very structures it claims to critique.