All revolutions require aesthetic means for representing changes in consciousness. The French Revolution saw itself as something new and universal, and generated a rich elaboration of aesthetic categories of the sublime (storms of nature, volcanoes, earthquakes), the beautiful (island of calm, meadow after a storm) and the grotesque (metamorphoses) as vehicles for thinking about social change and the future. Most revolutions since then have seen themselves in relation to predecessor revolutions, from which they borrow tactics, organizational forms, strategies, rhetoric, symbols and graphics.
During the summer of 1986,1 spent a month in the West Bank, keen to learn for myself about the effects of Israeli restrictions on Palestinian forms of expression, particularly in the visual arts and local crafts. A quick look at different cultural products indicated that traditional aesthetic values have for some time been rapidly eroding. Alternative aesthetic values were more often than not crudely colored by the reactive rhetoric intrinsic to the cultural ghetto created by the occupation. I set out to explore for myself the process that brings into being products which stir a sense of pride among Palestinians living under occupation, and to understand the components that endow these cultural products with their uniquely Palestinian character.
A ragged, barefoot boy, hands clutched behind his back, stands witness to the scene before him. The small boy in the cartoon is Naji al-‘Ali, popular cartoonist, at age 10, when he was expelled from his native Palestine to Lebanon in 1948. Naji used to say that the boy was a symbol of the Palestinian people and, more personally, of his aborted youth. “They tell little children to turn their backs, but I don’t turn. The boy is the age I was when I left Palestine, and he will not grow up until I return.”
Mary Anne Stevens, ed., The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse — The Allure of North Africa and the Near East (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, in association with Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1984).
An interesting instance of the politics of culture is the “Heritage of Islam” exhibit currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. The exhibit, which toured a number of US cities over the past year, is a project of the National Committee to Honor the Fourteenth Centennial of Islam. We had been looking forward to its arrival, and our interest was further stimulated by an article in the June 1983 issue of Smithsonian discussing some controversies that had arisen.