Cultural Sovereignty in a Global Art Economy: Egyptian Cultural Policy and the New Western Interest in Art from the Middle East

Essay Excerpt

This article is concerned with what happens in state–centric fields of cultural production when the intensified global circulation of art and money pushes for the privatization of the culture industries and the disaggregation of the nation. This process is occurring in other countries exiting socialism, but it has been especially fraught in places where socialism arose from the struggle for national liberation and where ideologies of culture were cast in anticolonial nationalist terms and instrumentalized in state institutions.1  (Winegar, 174)

About the Author

RESEARCH AND TEACHING INTERESTS:  Sociocultural Anthropology, cultural politics and culture industries, material and visual culture, the culture concept, class, gender, Islam, Middle East and North Africa.

Jessica Winegar is a sociocultural anthropologist whose work investigates how people articulate understandings of history and political-economic change through cultural production and consumption, in particular through competing notions of culture and culturedness.  She is primarily concerned with the multiple ways that culture projects create social hierarchies and modern subjects while frequently hiding the mechanisms of these processes, thereby contributing to their durability. 

Her first book Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2006) focused on these processes in the realm of the visual arts.  It is an ethnographic study of the intense debates over cultural authenticity and artistic value that occur in a postcolonial society undergoing market liberalization.  It examines how cultural elites reckon with the legacies of colonialism, socialism, and modernism in order to produce meaningful, yet competing, versions of national and elite visual culture in a context where “culture” itself is becoming increasingly globalized and commodified. 

She is currently working on two new books.  The first, tentatively titledCulturing Youth: Democracy, Creativity, and Development in the Middle East, charts the meteoric rise, successes, and challenges of state and NGO cultural development programs directed towards poor and working class youth in Egypt. It studies how and why such programs feature arts, etiquette, and literacy training in attempts to make poor and working class youth more “cultured” with an eye towards building a democracy based mainly on market principles, and it investigates how youth engage with such elite projects.  The book is ultimately concerned with the ways that “culture” has become so important to postcolonial state governance, NGO programs, and religious projects to create moral communities, in an era of waning state legitimacy, economic restructuring, and revolution. 

Winegar is also writing, with Lara Deeb, a book entitled Anthropology’s Politics: Discipline and Region through the Lens of the Middle East (under contract with Stanford University Press).  This book examines how social life in the post-Cold War Middle East, as well as developments in academic thought and the structure of the American academy, have challenged traditional culturalist anthropological approaches at the same time that “culture” has become a key device to explain the Middle East outside of academia, particularly in government projects.  It looks at how anthropologists have responded to the confluence of shifts in intellectual thought, the corporatization of the university, the militarization of knowledge, and the “War on Terror” in ways that reshape the relationship between discipline and region.

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