Intrinsically, icons are neither revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary. Individual icons lend themselves to different interpretations — and any number of political causes. Nevertheless, when considering their capacity for synthesizing choices and galvanizing revolutionary action, icons become controversial. In short, beneath the use of icons, there exists a class dimension that the powers that be — particularly the dominant neoliberal world order in general and the triumphant counterrevolutionary that emerged after the Arab uprisings of 2011 and 2019 — want to quell. To the exception of icons that are too old or the ones that lend an anesthetizing or nonsubversive content, the triumphant orders are mortally afraid of an Arab equivalent to Eugène Delacroix’s La liberté guidant le peuple . The Bouazizi-in-flames, the Tunisian fruit vendor who started the Arab uprising in December 2010, or the Egyptian democracy activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh who was photographed while being shot from behind in January 2015 all compare with Delacroix’s painting with all the incendiary nuance of a subversive icon.
That explains why Siobhán Shilton finds them problematic because, in her mind, they present a reductive image of how resistance and revolution unfold in practice. Such is the premise of Shilton’s book on art in the context of the Arab Spring, a revolutionary movement that started in Tunisia in December 2010 and then swept up Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen in the following months and years. Even though this movement toppled long-reigning dictators, it did not lead to a smooth transition to democracy, much less translate the revolutionaries’ aspirations into reality. Aesthetics of Revolution and Resistance in Tunisia and Beyond traces how several artists have dealt with this turmoil.
Readers find “The significance of the uneven phenomenon which has often been named the ‘Arab Spring’ is still not fully understood.” According to Shilton, this is because iconography often, if not always, falls into black-and-white portrayals and binary stratifications. If art is supposed to encourage an informed and nuanced engagement with the events, icons tend to fall short of this prerequisite. In her book, Shilton asks a pertinent set of questions: How does a revolutionary situation invent new aesthetics? How do these works (tagged revolutionary) call for alternative critical approaches? Irrespective of how we look at icons, they essentialize what is usually considered a fluid phenomenon. In abstract terms, any icon “ . . . places these revolutions outside history and sets up Arabs as apolitical”. hence, the call for an aesthetic form that exceeds the iconizing — Bouazizi’s iconography, a single act that unseats a dictator! Hence, “My focus, by contrast, is on art that negotiates a way between a range of icons, including these revolutionary (or anti-revolutionary) bodies or objects; that is, art that reveals the unsaid, the unheard, or the unseen of ‘revolution.’” Shilton means those artistic works that target the senses instead of the merely visual. She seems to share Slavoj Zizek’s concern about the post-euphoria phase or the next day of the revolution. That is why she addresses only those pieces whose preoccupation is the “‘reordering’ space, [as they] challenge sites of power through elements such as framing, camerawork, editing, and corporeal movement.” For her, since the quality of Tunisians’ experience has known only a steady decline since the fall of Ben Ali, there is little reason to celebrate. If anything, artists should remind audiences that the reactionary forces are threatening the revolution.
The book consists of four chapters, each addressing one art form. The first two zoom in on highbrow art: those pieces that have been exhibited in museums and galleries. The second two subscribe to lowbrow art since the pieces studied in this section have been displayed to the wider public through social media. In the first chapter, Shilton zooms in on what she labels as the “poetics of absence” traced through the layering of colors or sculptural “casts” along with transparent materials. The second chapter exhorts the merits of contingency. Contingency, according to Shilton opens a bridge toward the transhistorical. The third reclaims participatory art as the participating artists she discusses create major variations of the same icon and theme. The fourth champions collage, creating a body interface that renders the same body ambivalent. From the interface studied, audiences are supposed to nurse a distrust, however feeble or initially insignificant, against icons as well as orthodox narratives.
Agreeing with journalist Rami G. Khouri, who claims that “There is no single, unifying theme to the Arab Uprising,” Shilton overlooks evidence to the contrary. Take, for example, Mohamed Mounir’s song “Ezay” or Eskenderella’s “Ragg’een”. The first song conducts an imaginary dialogue between a lover and his beloved, an active citizen and his impossibly strenuous country. The dialogue proceeds in the form of a committed citizen berating his or her country the way a lover rebukes his beloved for not taking heed to pay back attention. One line bursts of Hegelian determinism as it reads: “Had I loved out of choice, my feelings would have changed a long time ago.” Still, that citizen’s commitment keeps steadfast his intention to reverse the present frigid relationship between what are basically lovers, oneself and one’s homeland. Only intention — Hegel reminds us — distinguishes Man from animals and other ahistorical creatures. Only the intention to defy circumstances creates man as a historical subject capable of marshaling the courage to reverse adversity and achieve emancipation. Because they specifically do not indulge in iconography even when they build on icons, these songs among several others promulgate the emancipatory spirit that animates the Arab uprisings.
Additionally, Shilton ephemerally mentions subversive works, but she certainly never questions them, except in as much as they either confirm her theory of choice or contradict it. The author is less interested in how the selected works communicate the revolution’s strongest or weakest instantiation, and more concerned with how the expressive techniques deployed in each artistic piece advance Marcel Duchamp’s infra-thin critique. And herein lies the problem of projection, forcing the insights of a theoretical school that has emerged from a completely different cultural register. Readers cannot seize the benefit(s) from seeing Marcel Duchamp or Michelangelo or any other celebrity artist reproduced in the streets or the galleries of Tunis, Cairo, or Damascus.
One cannot but wonder what is behind Shilton’s penchant for reproducing the revolution at its weakest. That is, why does she reproduce those situations when disagreements between revolutionaries emerge? Instead of banalizing variance in perspective, particularly after decades of stagnant political life, artistic investments in difference stigmatize political dissent, eternalize antagonism, and breed a false animosity between members of the post-revolutionary society. Indeed, division and diversity, even polarity of opinions, are the natural consequences of defunct regimes and decades-old repressive orders. The real motive for dispositions against icons is how icons facilitate the historical transmission of past struggles and victories. Similarly, what if the divergent opinions stem from historical outlooks, that is, between those radical elements of society against those elements who are reformists and desire only applying some make-up to the unjust and enslaving order?
Shilton reclaims those works of art she thinks are more revolutionary less to abolish them and more to develop an identitarian affiliation with what are basically fetishistic outlooks that keep alienation in place. The confusing dance in the streets of downtown Tunis remains a spectacle. While works of art discussed in this book challenge the dictatorial powers, commodity fetishism remains intact because it is never questioned. Often, the critique stays superficial because it does not begin to broach the way money is generated and the consequences of the accumulation of wealth on the less fortunate. Let us all recall that the initial slogan of the Egyptian Uprising has been: “Bread, freedom, and social justice.” Bread underlines the need to reconsider the foundation of wealth accumulation.
Setting aside the author’s dislike of icons despite their capacity to galvanize people into action and sharpen their grasp on the rapidly evolving reality, this book’s celebration of the transnational is the most bothersome. Transnational, as conceived under the current global order, not only does not address but never promulgates toward the universal. Transnational is a celebration of parochialism and enclosures — a process similar to global cocktails or Parisian banlieues that facilitates the circulation of commodities (invigorating capital) but without the care to found a universal community. The transnational is revolutionary only in the sense that it seeks the explosion (forced conquest) of national markets through cultures that do not harken back to history. The transnational favors those cultures that hand leverage for multinationals to exhort profit from previously protected markets. A true revolutionary work of art, however, targets the fetishization of interiorities through culturalist approaches.
Similarly, portraying the Arab Spring as a movement of a population stuck between modernity and tradition is a classical veering into the anti-historical and counterrevolutionary culturalist approaches. Culturalists target the few remaining defense mechanisms, opening the way for the final onslaught by capital with the same vehemence that culturalists fetishize icons under the pretext of exotism. Transhistorical outlooks are anti-historical. Being the privileged weapon in the arsenal of capital-in-crisis, a transhistorical subject is forced to scorn intergenerational history and its legacy of resistance so that capital forces flood the few remaining vestiges of defense.•