Q: How do you see the state of contemporary international art? How does art function in today’s global society?
A: I think the word “art” is difficult because it covers so much. I prefer to discuss my own area of expertise, pictures. Pictures in numerous media serve mankind in applications such as language, entertainment, illustration, research and more. It also has a leading edge of creative research. This is where I attempt to be with my artwork.
Pictures on the creative edge are what society seems to expect of what is called painting when they seek the best of pictures. But different shades of understanding admit different things as advanced. Further, practical fulfillment differs from stated goals. While the art lover may say they want advanced painting, they in fact may want something they understand and are comforted by. Besides the art lover, there is the collector who might temporarily secure excess value so that it will not be lost in the maneuverings of finance. Many collectors also purchase for the brag value of this or that ‘established’ artist. All think that they are procuring pictures as the leading edge of development, past or contemporary, and all hope for the preservation and increase of its value.
It is important to remember however, that all these shades of consumption of pictures, in the real or unproven creative edge, are a part of capitalist exchange and as such are natural motion in the social and economic workings of capitalism. It is equally important to remember that this capitalist motion is part of the natural development of mankind and that its findings are not false. We still need to understand the artists this market embraces and why it embraces them just as we need to understand the revolutionary artists and how they are affected by capitalist motion and/or by the success or failure of revolutionary change.
The state of art follows the state of society, which since the mid 19th century has experienced the growth of class struggle. Throughout this period, advanced pictorial art has been created by those who support working class revolution, whether with deep lifelong understanding or for specific periods of revolutionary zeal. The remainder of artists, the vast majority, range in shades of loyalty to the bourgeoisie or to being unaware. Political intuition and their life’s situation have enlightened them in different ways.
This graduation of persuasions from revolutionary enthusiasm to levels of innocence to bourgeois loyalty asserts itself in the pictorial arts. Historically, the revolutionary avant-guarde receives attention from the bourgeois art market a bit late but is then embraced and co-opted so that its message would be dulled. This co-optation takes many forms. There are many examples, misrepresenting the Soviet Constructivists, setting Arschille Gorky as a the first abstractionist, attempting to limit the giant Diego Rivera, co-opting and terrorizing the Abstract Expressionists, the disregarding of the American leftist Stewart Davis, embracing modernism, washing it clean of its content, and finally condemning it as passé by spokespersons of post-modernism.
We need to study the motion of the past century-and-a-half within its own social and economic context and with the light of knowing the maturing class contradictions worldwide. We also need to place it within the larger perspective of the development of the visual language since the earliest available record. Once we develop as clear and accurate a view, we might then look for the nature of art’s motion and on that basis deepen our capacity to judge what we study and give it its proper place and description.
Q. What role does scholarship (art criticism, art historical discourse, etc) play in shaping our perceptions and understandings of art?
A: Sadly, art criticism and art historical discourse are not always scholarly. The critic and the historian are just as subject to class power as the artist. Their situation is often clearer as most of them are directly employed by publishing companies or by universities. In either case, they have a boss directly over them who might, without explanation, reject or edit their work. Art propaganda is rampant and more often confuses than clarifies. Either way, our receptivity to it depends on our location in society. But there is will power and there are scholars who insist on searching for the truth regardless of the dangers and losses it presents. Scholarship is important to the artist as well, even while it does not replace intuition.
Like painting, serious writing about it undergoes a process of development and must undergo a process of historical examination. I would expect that those whose writings are independent of their livelihoods are different in their writings than those who write for a livelihood.
There are substantial attacks on serious art history. The discipline has been threatened during the past decades by the attacks of those who deny it its rightful methods, attempting to exploit its potential and its power by grafting onto it methods borrowed from other areas of study where the application of fashionable bourgeois theories overrides the material understanding of history. Serious art historians have been barraged by the ignorant application disconnected principles and pretentious borrowings from semiology, structuralism, post modernism, anthropology, and sociology. Historians are encouraged to borrow, willy nilly, verbal constructs from various disciplines then try to see how they can make the artwork fit their formulations. Art history is at its finest when it applies materialist and scientific attitudes and draws conclusions after study of subject matter rather than the reverse.
Q: How do you read the current interest in Middle Eastern and “Islamic” contemporary art in European and North American art institutions, markets and galleries?
A: Like everything else, it varies. Many use it for racist reasons but some are genuinely excited about it. Either way, it is the artist who makes art and the best of them do not come in from the cold.
Arab art is decidedly misunderstood by most Arab historians who mimic the misunderstanding of European and US historians. Very few take an international and historical view and are able to see the relationship of contemporary Arab art and the history of Arab art. Most see a huge divide where a small one exists. Most do not see the relationship of contemporary Arab art to medieval Arab geometric abstraction and architecture or to Arabic calligraphy. Most historians are unable to understand why medieval Arabic abstraction is not decoration and that its value is as great as any European painting. These are basically problems of colonial inferiority complexes and not realities in the history of Arabic art, historic or contemporary.
Moreover, there is the fact that many of the advanced artists and movements were politicized in their content. The colonial oppression applied to the Arab World had a two-sided effect. While many historians and artists embraced the racist misconceptions of the colonizer, there was a complementary effect of those who resisted and asserted their views despite the lack of material ease or recognition. Recognition is important as it is essential to the preservation of the art product itself, especially in a part of the glove where destructive war is being applied on a daily basis.
The liberation movement of Palestine, the important early movement in Iraq during the 20th century and the many original and politicized artists of Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria, are all candidates for serious study and preservation, as they are all threatened by war and destruction. The newly emerging international interest presents a danger of a different type, a type where the carrot to obedience is extended to those that escape destruction.
Q: What artists, movements, or schools have had the most impact on your work?
A: The revolutionary artists of the past 150 years, Impressionism, Constructivism, Cubism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism, the Mexican Muralist movement. I respect Malievich, Rivera, Seurat. I also love some of the Renaissance artists. I love Arabic geometric abstraction and calligraphy; they move me deeply.
Q: As art progresses into the 21st century, can you reflect on art of the last century? What or who marks the importance of art in the 20th century? What or who has ushered in art of the 21st century?
A: The 20th century was a wave motion between progressive and regressive ideas. We are in the bottoms right now. It is not artists but rather bourgeois critics who are ushering in the 21st Century. First they co-opted modernism, stole abstraction from the Soviet Revolution, and once they had it as theirs, they set out to tear it down. It threatens them. Post Modernism is a movement created by critics and pursued by artists who dream of Bourgeois success. HO HO HO SUCCESS.
Samia Halaby is an artist, writer and activist based in New York. Her artworks have been acquired by numerous museums and institutions including the Art Institute of Chicago, the British Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. She is the author of Liberation Art of Palestine: Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of 20th Century (2001). Her articles on Arab art have been featured in a variety of publications. In recent years, she has curated several exhibitions of contemporary Palestinian art in the US. Halaby was born in Jerusalem.