- Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt
Jessica Winegar's book Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt is an excellent and groundbreaking study of the intertwined practices of art and global modernity in a Middle Eastern context. In its sophisticated ethnographic approach to the negotiations of people within the dynamics of cultural exchange in contemporary Egypt, it sets a much-needed research agenda for those who work on art and culture in the Middle East.
Winegar's book comes at an important moment in the development of Middle Eastern art history and cultural studies. Contemporary art is gaining disciplinary attention in the field, but too often its approach is limited to formal studies of artwork rather than the institutions, practices of production, and people that create it. If the latter are addressed, it is usually through a postcolonial theoretical context that is keen to show how marginalized communities respond to a history of reification and work to subvert dominant visual forms. Recent work on museums and the politics of patrimony in the Middle East seeks to go beyond the analysis of objects toward a profound exploration of the politics and discourses in which they are placed and by which they are framed: patrimony, cultural authenticity, and national scripts of identity. While objects and institutions can tell us much about these debates, artists and collectors offer a crucial but overlooked perspective. The significance of Winegar's book is that true to her anthropological training, it is concerned with people. As she writes, "my subject is people, the multiple ways in which they dealt with various genealogies to give objects meaning and value, their arguments over how value and meaning were assigned, and how these practices became part of the larger processes of "culture making" (14). In a cultural context where the definition, role, and value of art are constantly under consideration and debate, scholars need to uncover the voices that objects, institutions, and archives often silence. Jessica Winegar's book provides a first step in this direction and a wonderful model for future scholars. In order for studies of contemporary Middle Eastern art to move forward, we need works such as Winegar's to complement and complicate our reading of art by deepening our understanding of the work of cultural actors who practice, produce, disseminate, and give art value.
In addition to an introduction and concluding remarks, the book is divided into six chapters interspersed with six short meditations on the work of individual artists. The period and scope of the ethnographic research is 1990s Cairo; however, Winegar does thorough work to trace the genealogies and geographies that lead back in time from recent discourse.
The introduction functions as a type of reckoning for the book itself. Winegar carefully positions her study within and against various theoretical approaches and disciplines to define the main concerns of the book. This is both excellent and exhaustive. For students of the sociology of art and Middle Eastern history and culture, the introduction is priceless for its bibliography and exquisitely articulated positions of major Western scholars in the field. However, the time has also come for Pierre Bourdieu to sink into the background, and new voices and theoretical paradigms to take the stage. The rest of the book succeeds in this through presenting and engaging critical work by Egyptian sociologists, artists, and art critics, and, as importantly, through the assertive emergence of Winegar's own theoretical voice. Chapter 1, "Becoming an Egyptian Artist," examines the art school experience of Egyptian artists and argues that while the identity of the artist is one grounded in free-thinking and individual expression, being an artist means belonging to mainstream society rather than adopting the role of the "oppositional or critical malcontent" (47). Chapter 2, "Cultural Authenticity, Artistic Personhood, and Frames of Evaluation," takes a deeper look at the category of artist and his/her relationship to discourses on modern art by examining the link between the...