Scott on Toukan, 'The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan (Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures)'

Hanan Toukan
Melissa Scott

Hanan Toukan. The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan (Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2021. 336 pp. $30.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5036-2776-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5036-0434-6; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5036-2775-8.

Reviewed by Melissa Scott (University of California, Berkeley) Published on H-AMCA (September, 2022) Commissioned by Alessandra Amin (UCLA)

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Hanan Toukan’s The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan makes explicit what is often intuited: neoliberalism and geopolitical power intimately inform the work of artists, even those understood as critical or “dissenting.” Through her examination of art in Beirut, Ramallah, and Amman, Toukan offers a model for understanding the relationship between art and cultural diplomacy that accounts for a wide range of state and nonstate actors, interrogating the possibilities afforded and foreclosed by cultural funders who champion “diplomacy,” “democratization,” and “exchange” (pp. 49–50). The book’s broad title—The Politics of Art—allows her to deftly move between different media forms, historical contexts, and modes of political engagement. In so doing, she elaborates on how transnational capital forges elite networks, exacerbates inequality, and (re)produces dominant liberal norms. She goes beyond reductive analyses of Western cultural hegemony, however, by carefully considering the dynamics of “al tamwyl al ajnabi” (foreign funding) for domestic and regional politics, the tactics of the individual artists who apply for and receive it, and the emergence of prominent art funders and markets in Arab Gulf states.

With evocative writing, Toukan draws on her interdisciplinary training in the social sciences to interrogate the narratives and contexts of judiciously selected artistic projects, as well as related press coverage and artist interviews. Her analysis of paintings, multimedia projects, and performance pieces is primarily discursive. Importantly, the author incorporates her own interviews with prominent artists and directors of embassies and NGOs, leveraging her impressive access to clue readers in to the logics of international cultural funding. This perspective helps her further a descriptivist, rather than prescriptivist, approach to art in cultural diplomacy, countering academic wishful thinking that focuses on “what it can do rather than what it actually does” (p. 13).

The text is divided into two halves. In the first half, Toukan offers broad discussions of the historical and political contexts of cultural diplomacy in the Arab eastern Mediterranean and their implications for artistic practice. In the introduction, she outlines her theoretical and methodological frameworks, delving into her understanding of the “political” as inextricable from imperialism and capital. Chapter 1 (“Cultural Wars and the Politics of Diplomacy”) examines shifting attitudes toward concepts like “foreign funding” and “cultural diplomacy” across different historical moments, particularly the Cold War and following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Her discussion of Hiwar, a 1960s avant-garde journal ultimately revealed to be funded by the CIA, and the lasting impact of its scandal on artists is a useful reference for scholars writing on cultural diplomacy in the region. Chapter 2 (“‘An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist’”) shifts to a broad discussion of the “NGO-ization” of art worlds since the early 1990s, where the expectations of Western cultural funders (e.g., English-language proficiency) impact the work of artists and how they imagine their audiences. A final section, on the rise of art markets in the Gulf, further considers how intersections of neoliberalism, political censorship, and Arab identity politics complicate cultural NGO initiatives and artistic opportunities. In chapter 3 (“The Dissonance of Dissent”), Toukan then outlines an intriguing taxonomy of artist “generations.” She traces ideologies of, and stereotypes about, two cohorts of artists: a 1967 generation animated by nationalism and political imagery, and a “post-1990” generation disillusioned by the Oslo Accords, Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, and the formal (yet unresolved) end of civil wars in Lebanon.

An “Intermezzo” offers a transition to the second half of the book, where the author focuses on artists and art scenes specific to three cities, dedicating a chapter each to Beirut, Amman, and Ramallah. Chapter 4 examines debates regarding the politics of memory and the archive in postwar Beirut, and chapter 5 explores how government political pressures and economic liberalization inform artists and organizations in Amman. Importantly, the author’s discussion of Beirut and Amman bring visual and multimedia art projects into dialogue with a large body of scholarship on neoliberalism and urban space in these cities. Chapter 6 then offers a close study of the Picasso in Palestine project (2011), which brought Picasso’s Buste de Femme (1943) portrait to Ramallah, in order to reveal tensions between local and global discourses regarding the relationship between art and politics in Palestine. In the conclusion, Toukan reflects on the implications of her work for a new generation of artists emerging since the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011.

Scholars working in humanistic domains may miss a more sensorial engagement with the artworks considered. Elements such as materials, brushwork, pigmentation, composition, perspective, spatiality, movement, and vocal timbre are briefly mentioned or left unaddressed in her discussion, which instead privileges text and narrative. For example, it is unclear why the book reproduces the painting Jamal al Mahamel (Camel of Hardship, 1973) by Suleiman Mansour, when the author dedicates only two sentences to its description and explanation (pp. 73–74). Toukan insists throughout the text that she discusses artworks to “read their conceptual and theoretical, rather than aesthetical dimensions” in order to argue that neoliberalism produces a “dematerialization of art into critical theories that reflect on rather than ‘do’ resistance” (p. 18). A closer analysis of the featured artworks, however, would clarify and strengthen her arguments. For example, Toukan identifies an argument that artists in Beirut orient their work in ways “fathomable” to global art audiences, at times through the vocabularies of universal humanism; however, the author does not clarify her own perspective on this critique (pp. 149-156). As an ethnomusicologist, I would emphasize that making art “fathomable” crucially implicates the contours, design, and sensorial dimensions of artistic projects, in addition to the overt political narratives about them. More sustained aesthetic analysis would bring further nuance and material for her discussion, perhaps revealing tensions and slippages in the process of “assimilating” art for international art circuits.

Overall, this book lays important groundwork for research on art and cultural diplomacy in Arab-majority societies. As Toukan acknowledges, she focuses on “seemingly elite” and “secular” international networks largely funded by Western embassies and granting agencies. Further work is needed on, for example, the politics of art and funding for Islamic organizations. Since reading the book, I have already found myself utilizing some of Toukan’s vocabulary, such as “neoliberal cultural funders,” in the classroom. This text will be particularly useful for graduate courses on cultural politics, international diplomacy, neoliberalism, and art in the eastern Mediterranean. By rendering the implicit explicit, Toukan’s text speaks to the quiet anxieties of both artists and academics who navigate international funding regimes, offering an important and highly interdisciplinary contribution to understandings of soft power and the politics of cultural production.

Citation: Melissa Scott. Review of Toukan, Hanan, The Politics of Art: Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy in Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan (Stanford Studies in Middle Eastern and Islamic Societies and Cultures). H-AMCA, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL:

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