Today, every phenomenon of culture, even if a model of integrity, is liable to be suffocated in the cultivation of kitsch. Yet paradoxically in the same epoch it is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics.
Over the past three years, Egyptian street art has become an iconic symbol of protest. It has appeared and reappeared with the same lightening speed as the rapid shifts in the political climate, directly participating in the events that transpired under the regimes of Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, and Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. In the hands of Egyptian street artists, art was a powerful revolutionary weapon. Now, in an atmosphere of repression, where many of the signs and symbols of the revolution have been painted over and protest has been outlawed, a new set of questions is crystallizing about the role of art in contemporary Egypt.
Can art still preserve the revolutionary spirit that spilled out in the graffiti and murals that covered Egypt’s streets? Should this even be art’s focus? In thinking through these questions, one is reminded of the debates that ensued about art and politics among members of the Frankfurt School in the early part of the twentieth century. In this spirit, one can ask: should art be committed?
In a recent article in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, one of Egypt’s leading artists working under the pseudonym Ganzeer affirmed art’s continuing political potential in Egypt today. Ganzeer advocates for art that is intimately tied to Egyptian reality and observes a new form of political art emerging in post-revolution Egypt. He calls it “Concept Pop,” a heady blend of Pop Art and Conceptual Art. Ganzeer argues that the artists who are most relevant, engaged, and revolutionary today are those whose works, often without knowing it themselves, embody the qualities of Concept Pop.
For Ganzeer, Concept Pop maintains the revolutionary spirit of Egyptian street art because it is void of the artist’s ego and because it takes up the concerns of the average Egyptian. Like street art, Concept Pop provides an immediate and unequivocal message, one that “your average Egyptian can instantly ‘get’ and relate to.” Composed of objects taken from our everyday environment, works of Concept Pop are self-explanatory. There is no need for a curator or a museum label; the objects themselves lead us to a concept. Ganzeer positively notes that knowledge of the history of art is not a precondition for grasping the concept; the viewer need only be of the same environment from which the artwork is produced.
Ganzeer analyzes key exhibitions in 2013 signifying the emergence of Concept Pop—notably Hany Rashed’s Toys at Mashrabia Gallery, Huda Lutfi’s Cut and Paste at the Townhouse Gallery, and Ahmed Hefnawy’s contribution to the Revolution Museum at the abandoned Viennoise Hotel. All of these exhibitions were shown in downtown Cairo in close radius to one another, near abandoned hotels and cafes, amid a political environment of clampdown on dissent and a strongman rising to power, and only a five minute walk from Tahrir with its now faded scenes of protest.
When discussing Rashed’s distorted plastic objects Ganzeer writes, “I get it. I understand that the artist is telling me that the world we live in is fake and unreal.” Ganzeer’s analysis of Hefnawy’s immersive tear-gas installation is his most striking example—a recreation of a familiar, real-life scenario that many Egyptians experienced. Ganzeer writes:
I was there in Tahrir Square when the first tear gas canister was shot into the air. Everyone present paused for a split second in an attempt to understand what that thing was. It wasn’t long before crowds were running all over the place without being given the opportunity to understand the situation. Hefnawy gave his audience the opportunity to examine that moment in one’s own time, an opportunity to be saddened and hurt by it, exemplified by the tears in the eyes of many viewers at the art show. An art show that gathered hundreds of viewers on its opening night, many of whom confessed they had never been to an art show before.
In recreating specific events, such as a shot-gun ejecting a tear-gas canister, Hefnawy’s exhibition freezes an historical moment in time, such that the actual participants in the historical event can have time to reflect. In Ganzeer’s description, art offers a therapeutic moment, an opportunity for the audience to release emotions from a safe distance. Collectively, the audience can mourn their experience.
Not surprisingly, Ganzeer’s argument provoked criticism. Adham Selim, a Cairo-based architect and researcher, published a response a few weeks later in Mada Masr. Selim accuses Ganzeer of reading the role of art metaphorically and therefore reductively. He believes Ganzeer’s idea of Concept Pop falls somewhere between kitsch and Socialist Realism. The issue, for Selim, is that we cannot make the distinction that Ganzeer wants to draw between those who are engaged and those who are not, for we are all part of the same event that is unfolding. It is impossible, according to Selim, to not be politically engaged with the moment in which one is involved. The same goes for art. Furthermore, Selim views Ganzeer’s emphasis on the message that art conveys as obscuring art’s aesthetic experience rooted in its sensory qualities. In other words, in demanding that art convey a message or lead us to a concept, art’s status as art is ignored.
While pointing to some of the potential weaknesses in Ganzeer’s view of art, Selim does not fully engage with the notion of Concept Pop. Let me take this opportunity to weigh in on the debate. Though Ganzeer’s analysis is tied to the immediate Egyptian context, where Egyptian artists and Egyptian audiences share the same historical moment and communicate about and reflect upon real events through art, Concept Pop has wider implications. It revives the debates about whether art should be committed or autonomous.
In his essay “Commitment,” Theodor W. Adorno distinguished between committed and autonomous art; a distinction that can shed light on Ganzeer’s and Selim’s views. For Adorno, committed art attempts to involve the audience in a particular historical moment, to cultivate a political consciousness, and to engage with historical atrocities and suffering. Commitment implies that art should convey a certain political message; it is not difficult to see in Ganzeer’s Concept Pop a similar desire for art to be active and participatory in the politics of the time. Ganzeer draws a direct contrast between art produced by active participants in the current historical moment and those who are merely passive spectators.
Conversely, Selim wants to uphold the autonomy of art from politics but falls into a vindication of l`art pour l`art or art for art’s sake. Selim writes:
You can’t ask a music producer about the political statement in their beats, or how their bass line, for example, contributes to the current state of affairs. You usually enjoy music for what it is, not for what it stands for. You don’t put an extra effort into trying to communicate the meaning of the beats to the musically-uneducated masses.
Selim wants to rescue art from its reduction to a political tool. But is the choice only to subordinate art to politics or to place art outside of politics? Looking more closely at Ganzeer, Concept Pop reveals another option that Adorno’s concept of autonomous art can help to flesh out. For Adorno, autonomous art is devoid of political ends, but it is not apolitical. Its critical potential emerges from being a part of society and yet standing apart from it. Autonomous art is ideological and it is emancipatory.
Reading Ganzeer’s Concept Pop charitably reveals a desire for art that is not simply a commodity, or a reproduction of the dominant logic, and not simply art for art’s sake, or a retreat into the avant-garde. This is the more valuable question that the notion of Concept Pop poses. In the current climate, how can art resist simply becoming one commodity among others, or abdicating politics all together?
Ganzeer proposes a mediation between Pop Art and Conceptual Art. He views the former as succumbing to the commodity form and the latter as pervaded by intellectual vacuity. As Selim rightly points out, Ganzeer hastily dismisses the historical value of both movements in order to edify his view of Concept Pop. Selim attempts to fill in this gap by discussing the way both Pop Art and Conceptual Art exceed Ganzeer’s descriptions. According to Selim, Pop Art cannot simply be the repackaging of commodities for elite consumption as Ganzeer imagines, since this reading ignores Pop Art’s celebration of mass consumption. At the same time, Selim admonishes Ganzeer for not taking into account the anti-establishment effect that Duchamp’s work of Conceptual Art—“Fountain” (1917)—had on the art institution of his time. While Selim’s reading prompts the reader to think in a more complex way about the history of art, there is another key moment that resonates much more strongly for Concept Pop.
Ganzeer’s description of Concept Pop has similarities with Neo-Dada, a movement that emerged in the 1950s exemplified by the work of artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Yves Klein. Neo-Dada was a bridge between the Conceptual Art exemplified by Marcel Duchamp and the emergence of Pop Art in the early 1960s. Like Concept Pop, Neo-Dada emphasized the viewer’s response to the artwork over the artists’ ego, and its “junk aesthetic” was based on mass media and found objects. Neo-Dada prompted the viewer to think about everyday reality, and this conceptual dimension persisted into Pop Art. The broader issue is whether we can neatly separate out the conceptual from the pop aesthetic; the debates about whether Pop Art merely affirmed consumer culture or produced its critique are still not settled, and this a dimension that eludes Ganzeer’s formulation of Concept Pop.
Ganzeer’s notion of Concept Pop ekes out a new and vital political role for art at this particular moment in Egyptian history, a moment suffering from an absence of politics. At the same time, Concept Pop is vulnerable to the pitfalls of committed art. It is not without reason that Adorno was highly critical of committed art. He saw in his own time with figures like Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertolt Brecht that committed art often inadvertently worked against its purported aims. Instead of political liberation, committed art frequently became a mouthpiece for the status quo; instead of remembering suffering, committed art risked aestheticizing suffering into an object for enjoyment or pleasure.
This is what potentially troubles me about Concept Pop—if it is only portrayed as another version of committed art, it risks embracing an overly simplistic equation of aesthetics with politics. For example, Ganzeer’s descriptions of Concept Pop are very affirmative. Individuals view the work of art, identify with what they see, and feel that their experiences are validated. In this sense, art is an affirmation of the reality in which people live and the political events that they have undergone. It facilitates identification between the viewer and the artwork.
Why is identification problematic? Perhaps identification can work as a salve for historical trauma as Ganzeer theorizes, but it does not facilitate critical reflection within the subject. For both Ganzeer and Selim, art is a positive experience for the viewer. While Ganzeer focuses on the role of the artwork in generating a conceptual understanding of historical events, his view of the subject as simply seeking confirmation of its experience in art remains static. Similarly, while Selim wants to protect art from its reduction to a political tool, his view of the subject that simply enjoys art without concern for politics is equally superficial. Both Ganzeer and Selim neglect the role art can play in transforming the subject instead of simply appeasing it.
If Ganzeer’s notion of Concept Pop could expand beyond the requirement of affirmation and identification, it could more adequately theorize certain trends in contemporary Egyptian art. For example, the ‘message’ of Rashed’s exhibition may be that the world is fake and unreal. But we can also read Rashed’s exhibition in another way, as a work of autonomous art.
Rashed’s exhibition initially grew from an interest in plastic as a material, without any direct political motivation. In an interview with Medrar TV, Rashed notes that he always begins with the materials first and then creates the work itself. He spent much time experimenting with plastic—heating it, stretching it, and casting it—using photographs of street images and models. In a review of his exhibition Toys in Mada Masr, Rashed reported that he showed the melted figure to Ganzeer, who described it as a toy. With inspiration from Ganzeer, Rashed went on repeated trips to Cairo’s Attaba market, collecting the mass-produced commodities sold there, which became the basis for Rashed’s reproductions.
If Rashed’s art is a work of Concept Pop, I would argue that its political import is in the distorted form of the artwork itself, a form that is created from and is part of this particular historical moment and yet rebels against it. Attaching a blatant political message to the exhibition obscures the more complex layers that gave rise to the work of art. It is the absence of politics in Rashed’s useless objects, distorted ‘toys’ that have no function enclosed in clear plastic bags—made from the same material that produces the endless, cheap commodities infiltrating Cairo’s streets—that conveys the most potent political message. It is a microcosm for the paralysis of politics in Cairo today. While Rashed’s exhibition could have become kitsch, the melted, stretched out forms reflect art’s confluence with the commodity form and at the same time its critique.
It is not so much that Ganzeer’s notion of Concept Pop obscures the political potential of art today; rather its idea can reflect a different understanding of politics than one that relies on a direct message to the audience. This must be the starting point for understanding the political role of contemporary Egyptian art: Instead of affirming the audience’s experience, how does it provoke and unsettle the subject? How does it cause the subject to shudder at its concrete historical reality? By refusing rather than promoting reconciliation with a false reality, works associated with Concept Pop can provoke the subject to think beyond it.