The term ‘Avant-garde’, in the sense of being at the forefront of something, while predating the 19th century, was first used specifically in relation to the arts by the French social theorist Henri Saint-Simon in 1825. In his writing, he highlighted the social power of the arts and the ability of artists to assimilate visions of social progress with rational, discursive ideas and translate them into accessible and appealing forms to the people. By this, he defined artists as the leaders of social reform.
If we look at Syrian art within this context, then a decade has now passed since what could be called the first Avant-garde Syrian artistic performance. At sunrise, one day in September in 2011, surprised inhabitants of Mount Qasioun watched as thousands of white tennis balls with the words ‘Freedom’, ‘Dignity’ and ‘Justice’ written on them, bounced down towards the heart of Damascus. The performance by a group of anonymous young activists, confirmed that a new language of artistic expression was disrupting the accepted status quo of socialist realism. More importantly, it brought attention to the potential power of artists in being able to manifest a new society in Syria.
Syrian artists – and their collective leadership in effecting change in this sense of creating an avant-garde or frontline movement – have been celebrated in numerous publications, articles and exhibitions around the globe in the past decade. The first time the term ‘frontline’ appeared in relation to Syrian artists was in the book Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, which examined the works of 50 artists and writers whose work embodied the fact that in Syria “culture has become a critical line of defence against tyranny.” In their prologue, the editors state that artists have been a first line of defence and determination in the bid to reclaim dignity, freedom, self-expression and imagination.
Today, 10 years after that sensational, revolutionary moment on Mount Qasioun, it is time to ask ourselves: to what extent has Syrian freedom of contemporary artistic expression been given space to operate?
In his book Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, art theorist Hal Foster insists that the Avant-garde is not over, but is, in fact, perhaps more necessary than ever – not in the sense of the heroic historical avant-garde of “radical innovation” or “transgression,” but a more subtle avant-garde that is “immanent in a caustic way,” one that “seeks to trace fractures that already exist within a given order, to pressure them further, even to activate them somehow.”
If we are to look at Syrian artistic output in the period since 2011 within this framework, in which, by Foster’s definition, aesthetics act as the essence of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ in challenging the status quo, then the Syrian artistic community has indeed been producing art intensively over the past 15 years: but has it truly challenged norms?
Displacement: The First and Second Syrian Artist Exodus
By the beginning of 2012, after an extensive campaign of persecution targeting peaceful thought leaders, the majority of the country’s established and emerging artists left Syria. They were displaced at first to Syria’s neighbours: Beirut, Istanbul, Erbil, Amman and Cairo, where many of them were hosted by their peers and were therefore able to continue producing a diverse range of work. Their art was characterised by its response to the unprecedented levels of violence they had witnessed and bore witness to these artists’ experiences of shock alongside a quest for truth. In parallel, they continued to take the lead in supporting humanitarian action for more vulnerable refugees in host countries – not only by echoing their voices and stories in their art, but by directly helping aid organisations through volunteer work. Sometimes they also offered their art as a tool to serve emergency needs: from arts education to cultural heritage protection or even art as therapy in the treatment of trauma and distress.
The second wave of Syrian artistic migration took place in early 2014 to the ‘golden’ cultural cities of Europe – Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Madrid, London and Athens – as well as the Gulf region and, to a lesser extent, the Americas.
It was expected by many that this artistic mobility would bring new artistic voices to the forefront of the European art scene – that within its galleries, museums and public spaces a new palette of pluralistic aesthetic values, would succeed, as a priority, in highlighting the need for public institutions to broaden the range of perspectives that inform their policy-making, institutional decision making, curation and critique of different types of artistic work.
However, institutional and governmental support for Syrian artists abroad has been influenced by pedantic – and therefore limiting – interpretations of the arts-focused UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The result has been an agenda in which artists have simply exchanged one lack of freedom of expression for another: in order to receive public resources and funding, Syrian artists are encouraged to express themselves through submissive, accepted narratives which include integration, resilience and reconciliation.
This trend continues a wider colonial and post-colonial tradition going back a century: except in rare cases, the artist is encouraged to express themselves in a way which conforms with the way in which they are viewed by the host country – that is, international cultural institutions have not really helped Syrian artists emancipate themselves from the rule of ‘power’ they sought to escape, but, rather, have imposed on them a different type of influence – one in which they are not encouraged to continue challenging of the status quo in Syria and use their art as a platform for stark political expression. By forcing this sort of intellectual pressure on artists, to ‘perform’ to pre-determined expectations, it hinders authentic expression, true democratic cultural relations and locally rooted organic, diverse cultural expression. As the artist becomes stereotyped into an acceptable form of cultural expression, so institutions focus only on the narratives they want to show, leading to serious neglect of emerging talent, whose new fragile output stems from artistic experimentation and non-conformative ideas. The artist is denied their own sense of agency as challenger and bringer of change, relegated instead to victim and survivor.
The major exceptions to this rule, of course, have been the powerful political artworks that have become recognised internationally because of the artist’s choices of positioning them as directly related to – and a statement about – the Syrian revolution.
This phenomenon has been examined by British Council officer Martin Rose. In an article analysing research by King’s College London into culture as a soft power tool in UN diplomacy he raised concerns about how soft power can all too easily fall into the void, without standard definitions, parameters or ways of measuring success. He advocates for “the examination of more scientific approaches to defining objectives – and then evaluating projects and institutions against those objectives.”
Many will remember how, in the past decade, it is precisely these sorts of soft power agendas that have been exercised over vulnerable displaced Syrian artists, conditioning their artistic production and restricting their expression. As long as the artist gives donors what they want, they receive funding: a well-known joke repeated in these circles revolves around ticking the right boxes, as “what the donor wants, the donor gets.”
In fact, it is only now that the needs of artists are being recognised at the highest policy-making levels. As outlined by the 2019 Global Report by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), there is now “a more sophisticated understanding of the value and social purpose of arts and culture is emerging which recognises the unique ways in which artists contribute to social transformation.” Perhaps this new understanding will also be reflected within contemporary expression in the Syrian art scene. The report continues: “This understanding creates space for government agencies responsible for arts and culture to play a unique role to help address issues surrounding global migration, including displacement. Cultural leaders can demonstrate new ways of engaging with complex issues by modelling open attitudes toward difference and change, which are grounded in curiosity, creativity and care.”
In his book Propaganda, Edwards Bernays writes about its role in limiting audiences’ choices by creating a binary mentality – black/white, right/ wrong, etc. We could take this definition further and say that politicising artworks (sometimes even without the artists’ permission) has cornered their audiences into a binary reflection (with/against) and has deprived artists of their own political narrative by politicising their works to adapt to the narrative of an ‘Other’. Equally disadvantageous is that this deprives audiences of having a surprise element, of a space for their imagination to flourish – rather than truly examining Syria’s story, their perception of it is limited by ready-made answers and positions. When so many cultural institutions curate Syrian art through this widespread homogenous, pre-conceived lens, what is the outcome? In seeking to achieve harmony, to promote impartiality and reconciliation, instead they risk falling into the trap of dismantling creativity and polarising audiences unconstructively.
Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, windows of freedom are opening to artists: first and foremost, through the restless, newly-clustered Syrian artistic and cultural institutions outside Syria that have played a key role in interpreting and adapting soft power agendas in a way to provide artists with free spaces. These clusters have carried the values of the present moment by coming together as a task force which has succeeded over the past decade in maintaining valuable artistic friendships. International Syrian institutions have become part of global artistic circles, and they have established sustainable partnerships with key regional and international foundations, adapting their policies to embrace new Syrian artistic talents.
On the other hand, the commercial art world – spanning museums and galleries to art fairs, biennales and auctions – faces two main curatorial challenges if its protagonists are to successfully remain apolitical and neutral in introducing new artists to a market that has thus far tended towards art that is ‘saleable’ (e.g. keeping to existing depictions of Syrian art as encouraged by major institutions as referenced above), rather than art that is – in their eyes at least – too political. This is the first challenge and has led to a taboo towards complete freedom of expression in Syrian art – some within the commercial art market have feared to curate and critique against accepted narratives. The second challenge has been a (albeit well-meaning) priority given to aesthetics. While this has been due to solidarity with the Syrian people, in some instances collectors have been jumping on the opportunity to acquire and auction trending Syrian artworks while neglecting to campaign for the narrative of Syrian freedom behind them.
This is perhaps indicated in a 2015 article entitled ‘The Artist vs. TheCulturally Opportunistic ‘ covering Beirut Art fair, in which writer Nawal Al Ali wrote:
“The Syrian crisis raised the price of the Syrian paintings and promoted Syrian artists in a way that they could not dream of. Some of them benefited, without presenting Art to History. Equally media outlets gained from this phenomenon, including having access to images and urgent news.”
While intentions and motives may have varied, the one positive in this has been the unspoken consensus to showcase Syrian art at the forefront. However, there remains the question: has Syrian Art in the past decade been an Avant-garde movement?
One could ask: aren’t all dynamics within the avant-garde movement an answer that produces ruptures and fissures? The avant-garde pushies the boundaries of the Contemporary, wherein the audience of the here and now is invited to a new spatiality facing Syrian artworks and finds itself bound to it emotionally, psychologically,socially, perceptually, politically and philosophically. Syria’s new artistic movement, no matter how closely linked to drastic moving realities and violence, is historically and geographically repeated, returned, renewed and recreated through conceptualisation, and in the differences ingrained within its ultimate significance to the Syrian people. That artists have managed to destroy patriarchal definitions of ‘beauty’ within art in order to create works that are true to themselves is an essential human right – that of the freedom of self-expression and not creating works to any outside agenda.
 Halasa, Malu and Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud (eds), Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, Saqi Books; Illustrated edition, 2014
 Foster, Hal, Bad New Days: Art, Criticism, Emergency, Verso Books, 2017
 https://www.britishcouncil.org/research-policy-insight/insight-articles/art-soft-power. Rose was a Senior Advisor, Cultural Relations at the British Council – he is now retired.
 IFACCA Global Report 2019, p.2
 Bernays, Edward, Propaganda and Political Leadership, Routledge, 1928, p.455
 Al Ali, Nawal, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 17 September 2015
- Al Ali, Nawal, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 17 September 2015
- Artists, Displacement and Belonging, IFACCA – International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, March 2019
- Bernays, Edward, Propaganda and Political Leadership, Routledge, 1928, p.455
- Foster, Hal, Bad New Days Art, Criticism, Emergency, Verso Books, 2015
- De Saint-Simeon, Henri, L’Artiste, le savant et l’industriel: Œuvres complètes de Saint-Simon et d’Enfantin, vol. 10, 1875, p. 201–258. Extrait p. 209–213.
- Halasa, Malu, and Zaher Omareen and Nawara Mahfoud (eds), Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, Saqi Books; Illustrated edition, 2014
- Rose, Martin, The Art of Soft Power Review, 2017
- Nisbett, Melissa and James Doeser, The Art of Soft Power: A Study of Cultural Diplomacy at the UN Office in Geneva, King’s College London, 2017
- McWilliam, Neil and Catherine Méneux and Julie Ramos (eds), Anthologie de textes sources: l’Art Social En France, De La Revolution a La Grande Guerre, Publications de l’Institut national d’histoire de l’art, PUR, 2018
- United Nations’ SDG’s Sustainable Development Goals