Toward an art that hides nothing behind
Mahmoud Khaled's "MKMAEL," courtesy Mahmoud Khaled

A few weeks ago the Cairo Review, a journal brought out by the American University in Cairo, published an article by the acclaimed Egyptian artist Ganzeer, in which he explores what he describes as “concept pop.”

In the first few paragraphs Ganzeer clearly differentiates between art that is actively about something, particularly a socio-political cause, and art that isn’t. He uses words such as “message,” “representation” and “depiction” to describe his relationship to the first type of art, while using a metaphorical allegory about someone gazing from behind the window and not taking part in what’s happening outside to refer to other, “less participatory” art. He implicitly criticizes the latter for being passively cocooned and “not dealing with the immediate struggles and concerns of the audience.”

When I read Ganzeer’s metaphor for the first time I remembered the late writer Susan Sontag’s notion that all discourse about totalities starts with a metaphor, and metaphors mislead.

Ganzeer’s metaphor imagines the world as a spectacle, something that you can choose either to gaze at or participate in. I think it is more to the point to imagine the world as an event that we’re all the time part of. Nobody has the luxury of only gazing without participating; in other words, there is no window to gaze from behind, and even the most exclusionary art is still participatory, as it’s still part of the event.

Metaphors, particularly misleading ones, are recurrent in visual arts. Artists often speak metaphorically about what lies “behind” the work.

“The spatial metaphor places the critic as well as the things he regards,” explained the late architect Robin Evans. “Whatever he talks about, he faces, and by a trick of anthropomorphization the subject faces him […] the phenomena which are presented to us through our senses are presented as frontages, facades, things that signify what they stand in front of.”

This metaphorical understanding of art is misleading not only because it reduces art to a frontage standing in front of something else — in this case a concept, message, depiction or representation that if we do not see, we risk missing the link between art and the struggles of the audience —but also because it reduces the audience into helpless self-congratulating subjects trying to sort out what the art puzzle is about. Ganzeer praises the recent work of artist Hany Rashed because he could understand “the concept behind it” without any text or guidance from a curator. From this standpoint, Rashed’s objects are only as significant in so far as they can lead us to a concept; the objects themselves, the particularities of their aesthetics, are apparently frivolous contingencies.

Ganzeer mentions a number of other interesting examples of recent works of art that he sees as falling under what he calls concept pop. According to him, they are all characterized by incorporating mass-produced wares, recuperating easily communicable visuals from mass culture yet still using them “in the service of a very particular concept,” through which objects of art become “meaningful.” The description of his experiences with these artworks reveals a habit of obscuring the art itself behind what art is about— perhaps with the exception of his discussion of the beautifully crafted, time-frozen tear gas trails in Ahmed Hefnawy’s work.

Viewing the art itself as a secondary category reflects a tendency to believe that art should be about something else outside art itself. This “aboutness” is a dangerous practice because it ditches the sensory, experiential aspect of art in favor of hermeneutics, that is: instead of fully experiencing art, indulging our senses in the erotics, humor or playfulness of artistic expression, we’re turned into the poor subjects trying to outsmart each other fathoming the depth of the work.

Thus Ganzeer’s interpretation mistakes the grace of Mahmoud Khaled’s work “MKMAEL” for being “a contemporary take on romance stories for the digital age.” This post-rationalization is an attempt to intellectually frame the immediate primordial tension, worry, fear and anticipation of the unorthodox desire portrayed in the work in favor of elitism rather than pop. It sees art as a form of a high culture that needs political, cultural, social and sometimes ethical contemplation to be communicated to the masses. It praises art as an alternative form of sociopolitical commentary, and in turn, praises the artist as a fatherly figure who makes concepts accessible to the masses.

I believe concept pop, as Ganzeer defines it, falls somewhere between kitsch and Socialist Realism. The Socialist Realists dismissed any possible intrinsic value in art itself in favor of a teleological understanding that holds art as a political tool, only explicable through the agency of the purpose it serves — in this case the Russian revolution. They saw history as an inevitable linear progression that art had to be either with or against, and thus they saw art as either pro- or anti-revolutionary. This binary logic is quite similar to what Ganzeer is offering us when he dismisses other forms of art as having “no place in Egypt’s revolutionary climate.”

This view of art lends itself to another simplistic view of history, also evident in the article. Ganzeer leads us through a quick critique of Marcel Duchamp and pop art that culminates in a parallel drawn with some Egyptian artists whom he claims to produce meaningless, anti-revolutionary, West-aligned pop art “out of an urge to appeal to art institutions in Europe and the US.” Although history of art is not the primary intent of this article, it’s worth pointing out that while Ganzeer describes pop art as repackaging the masses’ commodities into objects of art for elite consumption, it was, among other things, a celebration of the post-war graphic cacophony of commercial mass-consumption. Equally, his appraisal of Duchamp’s “Fountain”(1917) overlooks the fact that it was a fierce statement against the art institution at the time, which of course refused to exhibit it. The original was never exhibited, never sold to an art patron, and only gained fame in the late 1960s, in the form of replicas, shortly before Duchamp’s death.

This part of Ganzeer’s article reveals many facets of an undernourished understanding of the history of art, but also raises ethical questions about the limitations of the authorship of the artist. The artist cannot be someone else other than himself, beyond himself, or more than himself. The artist cannot stand for others, cannot fully speak for their agony or joy, cannot put on their struggles and pretend they are solely his. Placing claims about whether one form of art is more revolutionary than others is to miss the difference between art and political commentary. Similarly, speaking of an art that is politically aligned with the West misses this difference.

I always ask students and friends to check their generalizations about art by building parallel arguments about sound. Sound is less susceptible to interpretation than image, and thus harder to make political. 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.

I can’t imagine these days any concrete argument about sound artists gazing from the window, about anti-revolutionary sound art, or about sound art aligned with the West.

Adham Selim 

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