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Critical thoughts

On the interest of the "West" for art from Arab countries or countries of Islamic influence.
By Tony Chakar | Aug 2003

Tony Chakar
Beirut, August 2003
To answer that particular and seemingly simple question, one is tempted to resort to Bakhtin, who argued that "every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word it anticipates" (1). But that, in turn, brings up two important issues: the nature of the artistic production itself and its potential receptors.

It is clear to those who are following the contemporary artistic production in the Arab world (or rather in certain Arab cities) that this production is more preoccupied with the seductiveness of ideas rather than the creation of (aesthetical) forms. There is a growing awareness among artists that critical ideas cannot be channeled by the not-so-old media (at least in this region of the world) of painting or sculpture, and that these engender a passive audience rather than active subjects. So in a way these works can be viewed as social utterances requiring, and shaped by, the answers they anticipate; their elements are interchangeable, be they photographs, drawings, diagrams, or texts.

That said, it would be useful to note that, on the one hand, mass-produced images of any "third-world" society have their references in the West, in an ever-expanding, globalized world, and that on the other hand, signifiers do not necessarily carry the same signified, as an essence encapsulated in them.

In a contradictory situation such as this one, the outside gaze of the individual viewer would certainly be an element shaping artistic production, especially in the "ideal" and impossible situation, in which the work produced is intended solely for consumers who share the immediate space of the artist/producer. The "immediate space" doesn't necessarily mean the artist's society, but the people with whom a prior dialogue is already established (and only then would it be an ideal situation).

In that sense, when the work is "transported" to Europe (because of an interest that will eventually dwindle - no illusions here), a double effort must be made: it is no surprise to anyone that the "West" already has a "system of reception", a web of ideas about what the "East" is about, what it should be, and what it is expected to say; a web of ideas, I dare say, that is a direct descendant of the old Orientalist discourse that doesn't seem to subside. It is these ideas that prompted certain US scholars after the events of 9/11 to read or to recommend reading the Qur’an, truly believing that it would provide an insight into Arab societies.

These ideas also generate situations that are awkward, to say the least. The mild and badly concealed surprise on someone's face when an Arab artist makes a reference to Walter Benjamin, for instance; or the misreading of a particular work by the most well-intended person, because of the pre-supposition that a critical utterance articulated by a westerner vis-à-vis an Arab society (on the basis of Universal Human Rights for example) must necessarily coincide with the critical utterances articulated by a person actually living in that society.

It is my contention that these generalizations do not operate on the level of individuals, but on a broader social level, and this is why they are more insinuative and harder to subvert for individual artists. Furthermore, they operate both ways, and Arab artists have a lot of ideas about the West that need to be shed before a real dialogue can start, an "ideal" dialogue in the sense that I described above, a dialogue that continues in time and transcends what is "trendy" and what isn't.


  1. Bakhtin, M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981.


Tony Chakar

Architect and artist, born in 1968 in Beirut, Lebanon, where he lives.

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