The Role of Journalistic and Critical Writing in Cultural and Artistic Support Projects

Dec 2019

Alaa Rashidi

Author and cultural journalist

 

As part of the programme Cultural Priorities in Syria, Ettijahat – Independent Culture has been publishing opinion pieces by a number of Syrian and non-Syrian cultural practitioners and experts. The purpose of this activity is to shed light on a number of issues and challenges faced by those working in the Syrian cultural sector. Scribes is a series of articles which aims to discuss the relationships between artistic content, public events and the concept of ‘message’, and to examine the artistic standards governing creative processes in Syria.

 

This article comprises five sections. The first section focuses on the importance of continuity in the ongoing effort to support Syrian artistic and cultural production. The second section attempts to address a fundamental and recurring issue related to cultural support projects, namely the need to identify and comment upon the types of cultural support and standards which must be adopted when deciding which cultural products to support and develop. The third section focuses on a specific type of cultural product – the artistic product – and the characteristics that make it an adequate area for cultural support amid the current political and social circumstances in Syria. The fourth section discusses the role that journalistic and critical writing could play in cultural support projects, principally by spreading awareness about Syrian creative products, bringing them to larger audiences and initiating conversations about them. Finally, the fifth section proposes a set of recommendations for Syrian cultural institutions regarding the role of journalistic and critical writing as an extension of cultural development projects – a role which should be encouraged and promoted as widely as possible.

 

I.  Cultural support – achieving continuity

I decided to begin my article with this idea in order to ensure continuity with the previous articles in the Scribes series. By doing so, I shall reiterate some of the crucial theses, approaches and comparisons made in previous articles which help to raise awareness about cultural priorities in the societies covered by the articles in general and in Syria more specifically. I chose the title of this section – “Cultural support – achieving continuity” – to express my support for the ideas mentioned in previous articles which address the importance of independent cultural institutions and propose plans to ensure their continued effectiveness amid the political and social circumstances facing Syria. There is no question that cultural support projects are sorely needed at the moment, given how difficult it has become to establish communication between the various segments of society; add to this the violence, displacement and the ongoing refugee crisis, and the fact that Syria now has the world’s highest recorded school drop-out rate among children.

In his article “Forms of Establishing and Structuring Syrian Arts Groups”, playwright and cultural actor Mike van Graan distinguishes between three categories of artists: 1) Artists employed in or supported by the public sector; 2) Private-sector artists who depend on advertisement revenues and sponsorships and who steer clear of political and social issues; and 3) Independent artists who, through their art, adopt critical stances towards prevailing political and social cultures.

Observers following the cultural scene in Syria before 2011 realise that the first and second categories of artists – that is, public-sector and commercial artists – dominated the Syrian cultural scene. As a result, in order for groups of artists who are independent from the two dominant categories to emerge, cultural institutions must be able to support them. It can be said, therefore, that the rise of independent art hinges on the emergence of cultural institutions which can provide support.

The three categories of artists mentioned above can be summarised as follows: public-sector and government institution artists, commercial sector artists and independent artists.

In light of this, the emergence of independent cultural institutions which stand out from the current cultural system is an overriding imperative. Although it is still too early to compare the role of the government sector with the modest capabilities of emerging cultural institutions, the core issue is the ability of these institutions to achieve continuity through planning, no matter how much the political and social circumstances surrounding their emergence may fluctuate. Determination and planning for continuous work are the most valuable outcomes that independent cultural intuitions can achieve through this process.

 

II. What exactly is meant by ‘cultural production’? – an historical conundrum

This question is perhaps the main preoccupation of all institutions active in the field of cultural support, particularly when focus is directed towards the requirements that are necessary to address the current political and social situation in Syria. However, by examining the history of the relationship between cultural action and social impact, one notices that this issue has long been a major conundrum, on both a theoretical and an empirical level.

Human interest in the social impact of art, music, theatre and other fields of creativity has been an indisputable fact since early Greek writings. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Frankfurt School began to focus on analysing the main issues of cultural production throughout history, particularly with the writings of Theodor Adorno (1903–1969). Later on, Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) and his contemporaries wrote a series of books on the role of social interest, political authority and economic class in shaping what is, culturally-speaking, valuable and not valuable – that is, how ‘artistic taste’ is shaped according to the preferences of said interests, authorities and classes. In 2014, Art and Social Theory by Austin Harrington was translated into Arabic. After giving an historical overview of art and social theory, the author of this book differentiates between sociological studies on the one hand and critical studies and aesthetic theories on the other, stating that each has a different method of analysis.

My purpose here is to demonstrate that the relationship between cultural work and social impact is a dialectic one which evolves constantly with human thought. Moreover, cultural work draws its dynamism from continuous questioning, reasoning, re-thinking and re-evaluation.

 

III. The difference between artistic products and cultural products

Question: What exactly is meant by ‘cultural production’?

Answer: Art.

Although this answer may seem fairly obvious, we must nonetheless remember that the concept of ‘culture’ is much wider than that of ‘art’, as the latter is merely one of the many manifestations of ‘culture’. In his book, Culture (Yale University Press, 2016), Terry Eagleton defines ‘art’ as being only one aspect of culture, which also has several other aspects.

Artistic products have characteristics which make them distinct from other cultural products. These characteristics also make artistic products particularly suitable for development and support projects. For instance, the possibility to move past value judgements in artistic works is greater than it is in intellectual products, such as research or studies. For example: when we follow the story of a criminal in literature or in cinema, the artistic dimension of the work allows us to move past judgements in order to empathise with the character.

Normally, a work of art is not expected to produce statements, findings or conclusions, as is the case in research or analytical reports. This makes it possible for works of art (and I would like to emphasise the word “possible”, as the final decision rests with the artist and their intention) to steer clear of ideologies and to criticise them, or at least avoid the inevitability of adopting one. This makes it possible for artistic products to include paradoxes, which cannot possibly be present in intellectual works.

However, this does not mean that art is always perfect. Art may also incite violence, sexual discrimination or murder, as in the case in battle songs and songs that inspire hatred towards others (We Have Come to Slaughter You (بالذبح جيناكم), A Call to Arms (إلى السلاح), etc.). However, art remains a form of expression, no matter how much incitement and provocation it may include, and a work of art remains an act of expression and not a crime. It is also worthy of note that art is not always ethical and it may be used to promote peace as well as violence and to inspire solidarity as well as hatred. This could perhaps be the starting point for cultural institutions to choose which artistic projects to support. In fact, the ethical dimension is typically the first criterion through which the social impact of art is determined – but that is topic for another time.

Our aim here is to restate the importance of focusing on and paying special attention to art support programmes within the policies of independent cultural institutions. This is by no means a novel contribution, as all cultural institutions allocate grants within their programmes for artistic projects. For example, in the Arab world, we have Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) and AFAC – The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, as well as Ettijahat and Bidayyat, which specialise in supporting Syrian art. Recognised art forms include fine arts, music and singing, performing arts, writing and cinema.

Over the past five years and since the launch of Ettijahat’s Laboratory of Arts programme in 2014, an estimated eighty Syrian art projects have received support from Ettijahat. Meanwhile, Bidayyat, which specialises in the field of cinema, has organised a number of workshops and cinematography training courses and has produced several feature-length and short films. This productivity prompts a question: has there been any critical or journalistic coverage of these artistic products? How can people be made aware of them? The answers to these questions reveal a great disparity between the production of artistic projects and the effectiveness of their reach and impact within Syrian society, caused principally by the absence of critical and journalistic coverage of the independent arts sector. 

 

IV. The role of journalistic and critical writings in cultural support projects

Journalistic and critical writing may contribute to cultural support and artistic production projects in several ways. Indeed, journalistic and critical writing can contribute in four ways:

1) It can support the work of cultural institutions.

2) It can provide insight to artists and project owners.

3) It can increase the reach of cultural products or works of art and, by extension, their social impact.

4) It can complement or enhance the artistic or cultural products themselves by associating them with relevant intellectual issues and other artistic creations.

  1. Assisting cultural institutions: indicating critical reception

Critical and journalistic coverage of cultural support projects helps institutions assess the impact of the projects which have been created through their programmes. This does not mean that critical and journalistic coverage should be used as sources or standards for quality assessment. Rather, critical coverage acts a mirror which can reflect how the project was received and its impact in society. This role differs from that of juries or academic committees supervising artistic projects, as the latter are expected to conduct training, supervision, capacity-building and assessment activities. The particularity of critical and cultural journalism lies in the fact that it accompanies a project’s reception: it provides an immediate reaction following the completion of the artistic project and becomes a product which can be circulated and communicated.

  1. Assisting the artist: interaction with the audience

“Grant recipients”, “grant beneficiaries” and “artists” are all terms used to describe the owners of artistic projects. However, whether the grant recipient has just completed their first work of art or has finished several artistic projects before, their experience in cooperating with the supporting cultural institution would be more positive and beneficial if the institution were able to facilitate critical and journalistic coverage of their project. By engaging in this conversation, artists would inevitably be able to widen their perceptions about their own work. This coverage would also allow artists to reflect on their work through language, which is rare in certain artistic domains, such as fine arts, music and performing arts. At the very least, it would ensure communication with the audience, which is an essential component of experiencing any artistic project fully.

  1. Enhancing social impact: channels for communication

Critical and journalistic writing helps to increase the impact of the artistic project and brings its subject matter forward for collective discussion. Given the difficulty of achieving social communication between countries of origin and countries of emigration, refuge and destination, as well as the impossibility of sharing artistic works with everyone in every country, writing texts and exchanging discussions about artistic works produced by Syrian artists in geographically dispersed locations seems to be a practical method of communication and interaction. Every new artistic work stirs the interest of the entire community and contributes to its dynamism. However, given that geographical dispersion makes it difficult for people to travel solely in order to attend fine art exhibitions, musical concerts or theatrical performances, journalistic writing and critical coverage not only brings the artistic work to people’s attention, but it also brings forward the ideas behind the work for social and cultural discussion. By doing so, it contributes to the questions, topics and suggestions with which society is currently preoccupied. Journalistic writing and critical coverage also allow for more inquisitive and careful examination of artistic products. In light of the above, we can now address the point we raised in the introduction: what relationships exist between the content of artistic works, public events and the concept of ‘message’?

  1. Enhancing the artistic experience: the relevance of cultural questions

In her 2017 article “Is it Avoidance, Evasion or Development”, author Mary Ann DeVlieg raises a question about the impact of current and future Syrian artists on global trends in art. She writes: “Will the works of Syrians influence future artists and coordinators in different parts of the world? Who can track that impact?”. In addition, in her 2017 article entitled “Challenges Facing Syrian Cultural Work in Diaspora”, author Milena Šešić examines the conditions that Syrian artists in exile must meet to receive support and the impact of these conditions at the level of their products. She asks: “Can displaced artists pursue the same aesthetic trends they were following in their own countries, or are they forced to cope with the moods and tastes of critics and coordinators in their host countries in order to have a place in the art scene?” How can we answer the highly important questions raised by these two authors? Indeed, we must address the impact of Syrian art on the global art scene and to international aesthetic trends – but how can we do this without attempting to cover Syrian artistic products in their entirety, which is impossible due to their displacement and geographical dispersion?

With the Syrian community dispersed between countries of origin and countries of emigration, destination and refuge, the impact of art among these groups is an area of great interest: do the works of exiled artists, for example, contribute to societal change back home? Or have they become completely separated from their society of origin? Are they now considered more as artistic contributors to their countries of refuge? Do artists in countries of refuge follow artistic trends emerging from their society in order to understand and grasp it, or have methods of communication, impact and change become impossible? Organised, planned and well-supported cultural journalism may play a profoundly effective role in promoting this process of interaction and contribute to addressing one of the points raised in the introduction: what are the characteristics of the Syrian creative experience today?

 

V. Recommendations for cultural support institutions

In light of the advantages that critical and journalistic writing can offer to cultural support projects, I propose the following recommendations for promoting critical coverage:

  1. Cultural institutions must communicate with a network of journalists and critics and coordinate with them to cover products created within the framework of supported artistic projects. They must also provide journalists and critics with opportunities to view artistic products over the course of their development through artistic project support programmes, provided that they reciprocate by producing critical or journalistic texts about them.
  2. Cultural institutions must hold workshops for Syrian writers from a selection of different diaspora countries to train them in critical writing and cultural journalism techniques. This will allow institutions to establish a network capable of following and covering Syrian artistic production in several countries, thereby reflecting the Syrian artistic experience in different locations.
  3. Cultural institutions must establish online platforms which specialise in Syrian art or publication spaces compatible with cultural journalism and critical writing. Currently, publication conditions are subject to standards of commercial demand which govern the choices of current media outlets. While there are a number of online platforms interested in Syrian affairs, they are not sufficiently large or focused to satisfy the needs of a community of 20 million people. As it stands, the majority of writings about Syrian art are published in newspapers, media outlets and websites catering to audiences in Lebanon and the Gulf. It is worthy of note that no matter how much attention these publications give to Syrian art, it remains secondary material on their pages.
  4. Cultural institutions must hold seminars and conferences which focus on discussing specific art forms, such as contemporary Syrian fine arts or theatre. Their agendas should be organised to be effective and relevant to these particular forms of art in order that they can be discussed by academics, specialists, artists and journalists.  The outcomes of these seminars or conferences should be published in order that they become interim points of references within their respective fields of competence.

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