Back in April, my editors at the Post asked if I would be interested in traveling to the Middle East to look at cultural aspects of the Arab Spring. Yes, of course. The biggest question they put to me turned out to be the hardest to answer. “What are artists in Cairo doing?”
The first problem, of course, is the definition of artist. I went to Tahrir Square on my first day in Egypt and found plenty of what one might call “art.” Although the large crowds of January and February had mostly disappeared, the square was a pilgrimage and tourist destination, and there were plenty of people hawking posters, flags, t-shirts and buttons. If the people who make revolution memorabilia are artists, then artists must be doing okay. Nearby, I interviewed some shop owners who sell the standard tourist kitsch based on ancient Egyptian themes, and if one considers the people who make this stuff artists, then artists are really suffering from the dearth of foreign visitors. I also went to an upscale gallery in the Zamalek neighborhood and looked at a small exhibition of photography of the revolution. It was well-done, but predictable, filled with excitement and sometimes irony (western logos juxtaposed with angry crowds). But also not very interesting. I suppose those artists are doing okay, too, if they are showing in nicely designed, well-lite art galleries.
But I took the question a bit more seriously, and wanted to find out what artists with a capital “A” were thinking, and doing. And the answer, in most cases, turned out to be “not art.” Activism, organizing and thinking were the common answers. These are not unrelated to making art, but they don’t produce immediately tangible results that summarize or encapsulate the revolution. So it was a challenge to pull it together as a story. It ran, finally, yesterday, on Memorial Day, when many people, wisely, may have been engaged with barbecue and beer rather than revolution and art. So I include a link here.