Aesthetic Realities

How anthropology, history, and art shape contemporary political struggles

By Roger AndersonSeptember 19, 2018

Standing between armed progovernment forces and Cairo’s Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Northwestern anthropologist Jessica Winegar was living a revolution.

It was February 2011, the third month of a series of demonstrations and revolts in the Middle East and North Africa that came to be known as the Arab Spring. For more than a decade, Winegar had traveled to the cradle of civilization to explore how the politics of art and culture shaped contemporary Egypt. As the 30-year presidency of Hosni Mubarak neared an end, she was struck by the aesthetics of revolution: the manner in which protesters broke with tradition to create new forms of performance art, criticize the government, and rebel against the formality of police uniforms with casual clothing and curse-filled chants.

“There was this breakdown of the strong authoritarian aesthetic that had been long established in Egypt,” says Winegar, a former Public Voices Fellow and interim director of the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities from 2017-18. “Political cartoons were more daring, the lyrics within music and prose within poetry pushed for change. This helped drive the revolution rather than merely being a reflection of it.”

And yet, Winegar points out, Egyptian life seems to have slipped back toward “normalcy” in the years since, fueled in part by a counterrevolutionary aesthetic that positioned protesters as an antithesis to national prosperity.

“Today the revolution appears dead, the economy is in steep decline, and the majority of citizens support the new military strongman heading the re-entrenched regime,” says Winegar, who is fluent in Arabic and whose research is dependent on long-term immersive fieldwork. “How could millions of people come to support a status quo they had earlier rejected?”

The complex answer to why authoritarianism persists often involves religion, politics, and economics, and Winegar points out that aesthetics play an equally important role.

Winegar is currently a fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where she will rely on previous fieldwork to complete her book Counter-Revolutionary Aesthetics: How Egypt’s Uprising Faltered. The text will examine how aesthetic forms, judgments, and practices play a central role in both delegitimizing revolutionary movements and reproducing the longstanding power of a regime.

Sixty years before the Arab Spring, Egyptians used force — as well as art — to revolt against British rule. It was then as it is now: after a period of time, revolutionaries who used political cartoons and music to gain popular support found themselves arrested, exiled, or under threat of such repercussions.

Winegar’s ongoing research builds on her prior work on cultural production and politics in Egypt and the broader Middle East. Her first book, the award-winning Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2006), examined the visual arts scene at the turn of the millennium. It looked at how artists, especially young artists, managed artistic aspirations in relationship to nationalist sentiments, state support and control, increasing global opportunities, and the hierarchies of class, race and ethnicity, gender, and nationality to which the artists were subjected.

“Many scholars and journalists focus on the rise of conservative authoritarian regimes through a lens of Islamism, corruption in party politics, or military institutions, but I think we need to start paying more attention to the alluring aesthetics of the right,” says Winegar. “These other factors do shape the persistence of authoritarianism, but aesthetics are just as important and they also hold the key to revolutionary change.”

Winegar’s work will engage multiple disciplines — anthropology, history, philosophy, and literary studies, visual culture studies, religious studies, and media studies — to explore the trajectories of contemporary political struggles.

“Art and aesthetics are not just reflections of society — they also play a strong and active role in creating political action,” says Winegar, who studies politics, arts, and aesthetics alongside a diverse group of scholars at Northwestern, including Hannah Feldman, art history; Michael Rakowitz, art theory and practice; and Shayna Mei Silverstein, performance studies. “Northwestern has emerged as possibly the most robust US research setting for understanding modern contemporary art in the Middle East, and we will continue to contribute to this global endeavor for the foreseeable future.”