In this essay (published in 2008), Jessica Winegar examines the connections between art and politics in Middle East arts events in the U.S. since 9/11/2001. It critiques the universalist assumptions about humanity and the agentive capacity of art to build bridges of understanding in contexts of so-called civilizational conflict—assumptions that have strong roots in anthropology. By juxtaposing evidence of how the notion of “humanity” is deployed in exhibitions of Palestinian art with an analysis of the three more predominant types of arts events (historical Islamic art, Sufi arts, and contemporary art by Muslim women), the essay demonstrates how American secular elite discourse on Middle Eastern art corresponds to that of the “War on Terror.”
The question of culture is central to debates concerning Islam today. Though it must be repeated that Islam is primarily “a religion” and not “a culture”, one should immediately add that religion never finds expression outside a culture and that, conversely, a culture never takes shape without referring to the majority values and religious practices of the social group that constitutes it. There are, therefore, no religiously neutral cultures, nor any culture-free religions. Any religion is always born – and interpreted – within a given culture and in return the religion keeps nurturing and fashioning the culture of the social community within which it is lived and thought. Those inevitable and complex links make it difficult to define – whether in the relationship to Texts or in religious practice – what belongs to religion proper and what rather pertains to the cultural dimension.