Note on the Conference


Bridging the Divide Between the United States and the Muslim World through Arts and Ideas: Possibilities and Limitations is an academic, cultural, and policy conference that will bring together approximately 50 artists, producers, religious and community leaders, scholars, curators, and policy makers from the Muslim world, the United States, and Europe. Discussions will focus on three broad themes: the “World of the Artist,” which examines artists’ place in the Muslim world and their access to audiences and venues; “Art and Social Commentary,“ which considers art’s power to transform artist and audience as well as its capacity to offer social commentary and political critique; and “Cultural Exchange,“ which investigates how cultural capital can be harnessed to encourage dialogue and engagement across cultures, and suggests new arenas for cultural diplomacy. Each theme will be the focus of two panels; each panel will begin with remarks by three designated panelists, after which a moderator will open and guide the floor discussion.

The conference, which will be held in English and French, will blend performance, panelist presentations, and group discussions to spark conversations about how the rich expressive arts of Muslim cultures might re–invigorate relations between the Muslim world and the West, particularly the United States.

World of the Artist: Landscapes of Creativity

Where do today’s Muslim artists work and how does their art fit into Muslim contexts? This panel will examine the individual and collective life experiences of Muslim artists, whether writers, musicians, dancers, or visual artists, and will investigate how Muslim artists fit into Muslim societies. It will consider the socio–economic positions that artists occupy, and the moral spaces they inhabit. It will also look at how “art” has been defined in different places and times; question the meaning of distinctions such as “art” versus “craft” and consider the impact of religiosity and professional training on the practice of particular art forms.

Panelists will reflect on several related questions. The first speaker will comment on the ways in which Muslim artists fit into today’s cosmopolitan cultural environments. S/he will consider the complex, multi–layered cultural contexts in which Muslim artists live today, and will offer his/her thoughts on how they negotiate the cultures in which they live, and with which they interact in their professional and private lives.

The second speaker will comment on the implications of how “artists” are defined in the Muslim world, taking into account the fact that in many parts of the Muslim world, artists have historically been somewhat marginal figures. S/he will consider the different ways in which artists are defined in the Muslim world, and how those definitions are impacted by access to professional training, degrees of religiosity, and exposure to outside notions of arts and artisanal crafts.

The third speaker will be an artist who will present his/her experience as a case study. S/he will comment on the inspiration that led him/her to take up his/her particular art form, as well as the training or education s/he had. S/he will discuss how s/he defines herself/himself as an “artist,” and what this term means to his/her family and friends. S/he will outline the cultural and artistic traditions with which s/he affiliates, and reflect on the impact that this has on his/her art.

World of the Artist: Venues and Institutions

Where art is produced, displayed, and performed matters. The focus here is on the impact that location has on both the art and its reception, by mediating and regulating artists’ access to audiences. This panel will examine the role that government ministries, museums, and privately owned galleries play vis–à–vis the artist, and how this in turn affects the content that reaches audiences — in terms of what art is shown or performed — and in terms of how it is received.

Panelists will address several related questions. The first speaker will survey the spaces — public, private, and commercial — in which art is created, produced, and displayed in the Muslim world today. S/he will comment on the impact that the type of space has on artists and the art they produce.

The second speaker will look at different institutions that mediate and regulate artists’ access to audiences — locally, nationally, and internationally: galleries, art schools, museums, government ministries, markets, festivals, and other cultural institutions. S/he will comment on the venues through which artists reach audiences; the factors that affect artists’ ability to reach audiences; and the impact that mediation has on the types of art produced and viewed.

The third speaker will be a gallery owner, a curator, or a ministry official who will present his/her experiences as a case study. S/he will comment on the types of art that s/he handles and describe the institution where s/he works, as well as outline the experiences s/he has had in presenting art and artists to different audiences.

Art and Social Commentary: Transcendence and Transformation

Here, the emphasis will be on the possibility of artistic production to act as a means of spiritual inspiration for both artists and audiences. The panel will consider how Qur’an chanting, religiously focused music, calligraphy, and arabesque design can bring about feelings of transcendence in individuals and groups. The panel will discuss whether this should be a primary role of art, particularly in a religious or devotional context, and what parameters religion places on particular art forms.

Panelists will consider several related questions. The first speaker will focus on the ways in which spirituality influences Muslim artistic expression, examining the role that religious faith plays in some artists’ approach to their work, including how their art is produced, in what venues it is exhibited, and how it is received by audiences.

The second speaker will look at the boundaries that religious practices put on particular art forms, including cultural expectations connected to religious practices, like calligraphy or dhikr. S/he will also consider how this affects art forms seen as less connected or at odds with religious practices, like dance or popular music.

The third speaker will be an artist who will present his/her experiences as a case study. S/he will comment on how s/he mediates the cultural or religious boundaries established for his/her particular art form. S/he will also assess the impact of location: how particular venues can influence expectations of art’s relationship to religious practice.

Art and Social Commentary: Fusion and Satire

This session will consider how art can bridge global cultures and traditions to produce rich combinations of influences. The panel will look at examples of Sufi poetry, story–telling, spoken word/hip–hop, literature, music, and theater that cross cultural boundaries. It will also examine art’s capacity for political and social commentary, including a history of Muslim satire in both poetry and prose, such as karagöz theater, jokes and caricature, and “wise fool“ figures like Nasr al–Din.

Panelists will reflect on several related questions. The first speaker will examine how many and sometimes conflicting cultural traditions interact and meld in Muslim artistic expression today, and how juxtapositions of local and global influence artists.

The second speaker will examine the impact of art as political and social commentary in Muslim societies, and the effect that oppositional art has on audiences. S/he will reflect on the question of whether art bears social responsibility and, if so, whether there are limits to it.

The third speaker will be an artist who presents a case study in his/her particular genre. S/he will reflect on the type of social commentary that his/her art offers, and will discuss how s/he balances aesthetic demands with social responsibility, as well as how this impacts the art’s reception and access to venues for display and distribution.

Cultural Exchange — Cultural Capital

This fifth session will look at the role of art as cultural capital for promoting mutual understanding between peoples and nations. The panel will look at the role that patrons –– public and private, religious and secular –– and individual artists play in generating cultural capital and making it available outside their own societies. At the same time, the discussion will recognize that exchanges of cultural capital often occur asymmetrically, with cultural products flowing primarily from more powerful countries to less powerful ones, while commercial–sector activities (advertising, filmmaking, recording, and broadcasting) facilitate exchanges that occur largely outside government control. Panelists will consider how cultural capital can be harnessed to support dialogue and the creation of substantive, positive relationships among global populations.

The first speaker will outline ways in which art and cultural capital can promote mutual understanding among Muslim and non–Muslim individuals, communities, and nation–states. S/he will suggest examples of ways in which arts and culture have helped bridge divides between Muslim and non–Muslim communities at the local, regional, and national levels — and how these successes might serve as models for future efforts.

The second speaker will consider how the very real inequalities of power and money impact cultural exchanges. S/he will discuss the consequences of today’s unequal distribution of cultural capital, and suggest ways that this imbalance might be counteracted.

The third speaker will present a case study, sharing his/her own experiences in the realm of cultural exchange. S/he will discuss how the need to manage power inequalities impacted his/her efforts, and what s/he did to address them, and will offer recommendations for future initiatives.

Conclusion: Re–Envisioning U.S. Cultural Diplomacy

This final session will invite participants to critique and re–envision U.S. cultural diplomacy. The session will look at the value of cultural diplomacy — the exchange of art, ideas, information, and other aspects of culture through official channels — as a means of advancing understanding and achieving national objectives. It will consider the role of the state versus the private sector, and it will probe the degree to which the private sector can and should be mobilized to help realize diplomatic goals. Participants will be asked what practical steps can be taken by institutions involved in cultural exchange to maximize their ability to meaningfully promote mutual understanding on a personal as well as state level.

The first speaker will focus on the question of what roles the public sector and private sector — both commercial and non–profit –– should play in facilitating cultural exchange, whether large–scale exhibitions, conferences, festivals, workshops, or individual residencies and fellowships.

The second speaker will focus on the need to examine other models of cultural diplomacy, and will consider how public and private institutions involved in cultural exchange can maximize their ability to meaningfully promote mutual understanding on a person–to–person as well as state level.

The conference will conclude with a closing session that addresses next steps.