Against all odds?

The political potential of Beirut’s art scene

"I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we'll turn the world... INSIDE OUT." These are the words of the French street art artist JR introducing his project INSIDE OUT at the TED prize wish speech in 2011. His project is a large-scale participatory art project that transforms messages of personal stories into pieces of artistic work. Individuals as well as groups are challenged to use black and white photographic portraits to discover, reveal and share the untold stories of people around the world about topics like love, peace, future, community, hope, justice or environment.

This project can be taken as an example of an artist’s work changing the one-sided division of roles between stage and audience, which was already demanded by Walter Benjamin in 1934. In his essay “The Author as Producer,” Benjamin postulates that the art system has to be changed as it only produces art works without any impact. He wants to redefine the hitherto clearly assigned roles between stage and audience, text and performance, director and actor. According to Benjamin, art turns into practice when artists educate and thus enable consumers to take over the position of the artist. One example given by Benjamin for such a conversion of the production system is Bertolt Brecht’s Epic Theater. The goal of Brecht and his colleagues was to display complex social and political realities in order to induce the audience to change society for the better. The overall idea is to “re-assign” theater, or art in general, a new social use.

Nowadays, we can observe more and more art working in that “Brechtarian” way. “From visual arts to literature and music to dramatic performance, the arts exert a powerful influence on societal development” states the Global Agenda Council on the role of arts in society. But how is this influence or alternative potential generated? What can artists, alone or in communities, accomplish in the political and social dimension?

Artists have the potential to challenge views and perspectives by creative thinking as invoked by JR and his INSIDE OUT project. They are able to raise awareness for social issues that are underrepresented in the public sphere. And moreover, they can break down barriers between cultures encouraging a global dialogue and understanding. However, in practice this potential might be restricted by society itself, i.e. the local conditions might restrain an artist in his or her political work. Therefore, the realisation of the potential might vary from country to country.

Lebanon, being the most liberal and democratic country in the Middle East, apparently has a higher potential for political art than other countries in the region. Beirut as its capital gains more and more international recognition for its booming art scene, which is also reflected in the high number of small and big galleries all over the city. It is, however worthwhile to have a closer look at the everyday reality of artists and how they see the environment they live and work in. To what extent can the art scene truly act in a free manner? Do artists have the desire to influence society, and if yes, how do they judge their potential to do so?

This project examines the actual political potential of artists in Lebanon, based on interviews with artists active in the current scene. It sheds light on the art scene’s structure, its problems and how it interacts with society. Moreover, the research also includes the question whether specific characteristics or problems are only restricted to one particular art form, thus allowing some art forms to develop a different potential than others. Knowledge about these differences could in turn help to better understand and analyze overall trends in the art scene.

First of all, the report will display what theoretical potential for societal change the artists see in their specific art form. Afterwards, it will be shown in which environment the artists work. Therefore, their perspective on culture, governmental censorship and on the relationship of arts and economics will be illustrated and furthermore discussed examining their actual potential for societal change. For this reason, the relevant results can be divided into four main categories: art and change, art and culture, art and censorship as well as art and financing.

Product details
Date of Publication
March 2013
Heinrich Böll Stiftung Middle East
Number of Pages
All rights reserved
Table of contents

1. Introduction - page 3
2. “Putting a mirror in front of yourself”: Art & Change - page 5
3. “Art smoothens the edges of differences”: Art & Lebanese Culture - page 6
4. “You can talk about it but you cannot confront it”: Art & Censorship - page 10
5.”We can’t speak about art without speaking about economy”: Art & Finance - page 13
6. Conclusion - page 17 7. Sources - page 19