Since the 19th century European colonization of the southern and eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Arabs have revolted with arms, pens and paintbrushes against the imposition of unjust systems and agendas. Decades of dissident cultural production followed independence, testifying to intellectuals’ determination to create new ways to oppose authoritarian rule. In the 21st century, youth movements in the Arab world, Iran and Turkey have created communities of protest that cross national lines and form tribal cosmopolitan alliances based on shared political and aesthetic norms. Musicians, artists and writers from the region are beginning to question their former skepticism about the ability of the word and the image to bring about political change. Whether or not we like the current state of affairs in the Middle East, it demonstrates that graffiti, rap, street theater, film and popular literature have helped to mobilize unprecedented street action. Such action has not produced a utopia but it has highlighted an urgent ethical project. How does creative energy persist after revolutionary exhaustion when the people have left the streets?
Resistance movements from Tunisia’s Sidi Bouzid to Egypt’s Tahrir to Turkey’s Gezi Park have deployed discourses of democracy, dignity, rights, freedom, and equality. Conference participants and performers will address the relationship between politics and aesthetics, their cosmopolitan synergy, and the democratic potential of popular forms of expression. The Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-`Ali once said, “The function of a political cartoonist is to provide a new vision.” This conference will look to creative artists for this vision out of the current chaos.