This essay examines the connections between art and politics in Middle East arts events in the U.S. since 9/11/2001. It critiques the universalist assumptions about humanity and the agentive capacity of art to build bridges of understanding in contexts of so-called civilizational conflict-assumptions that have strong roots in anthropology. By juxtaposing evidence of how the notion of "humanity" is deployed in exhibitions of Palestinian art with an analysis of the three more predominant types of arts events (historical Islamic art, Sufi arts, and contemporary art by Muslim women), the essay demonstrates how American secular elite discourse on Middle Eastern art corresponds to that of the "War on Terror." [Keywords: art, Islam, Middle East, U.S. nationalism, humanism]
...the notion that art is a panhuman universal is a pernicious idea, which has on balance done more harm than good.
- Shelly Errington, The Death of Authentic Primitive Art and Other Tales of Progress
The attacks of September 11, 2001 presented a dilemma for liberal American cultural elites. Many were horrified by the events of that day and expressed concern over the growth of radical Islamic movements. Yet they were also uncomfortable with the increase in negative stereotypes of Muslims and Middle Easterners, and with the growing discursive division of the world into civilized "us" and barbaric "them." The challenge came in reconciling the view that the attacks reflected the dangers of Middle Eastern Islam with the liberal belief in the values of cosmopolitan diversity and shared humanity. Art, it seems, has proven a compelling solution to this dilemma. Through the selection, marketing, and consumption of particular kinds of art from the Middle East, American cultural elites have sought to create and sustain another image of the region than that emanating from conservative talk radio. Motivated by the rationale of building what is often referred to as a "bridge of understanding," arts professionals have organized special arts events and attracted new audiences, who come eager to see "another side" of the Middle East.1
These events are structured around two related assumptions: that art is a uniquely valuable and uncompromised agent of cross-cultural understanding; and that art constitutes the supreme evidence of a people's humanity, thereby bringing us all together. Such universalist assumptions about art conceal the ways in which these events advance a particular political understanding of Middle Eastern history, culture, and religion, and wish specific futures upon Middle Easterners and, by extension, upon all Muslims. The visions of the Middle East and prescriptions for its future propagated in these events are not necessarily at odds with the clash of civilizations rhetoric and negative stereotypes, as they are intended to be. If we look more closely at how organizers and audiences construct the category of art, at what they include in the category and how they evaluate it, a convergence emerges between the interest in such art and the discourses of the so-called War on Terror.
The selection, evaluation, and translation of the meaning of art works is never a neutral process governed by universal aesthetic principles; rather, it is deeply political. This process is shaped by particular tastes, evaluative frameworks, and institutional demands that, despite the intentions of many of those involved, reproduce the terms of conflict, and more particularly its religious dimensions. The unusually high interest in art from the Middle East is set in a context of widely held erroneous assumptions that Muslims reject image-making and have anxieties about art in general. Not only is iconoclasm poorly understood and greatly overestimated, it is also frequently viewed with suspicion, and sometimes as proof of Muslim provinciality or even backwardness (Flood 2002). Ironically, as I will show, the secularist impulse in the desire to find art that shows the historical artistic achievements and modernity of Middle Eastern Muslims, along with the encouragement of certain kinds of artmaking among them, actually ends up reproducing a religious framework such that their work is often interpreted with reference to Islam, whether or not there even exists a religious connection. …