The Agency of Art. When will we take art seriously?

As part of our ongoing commitment to the MENA region, we are developing an interview series with Art Historians and Curators who chose to devote their career to the promotion of Middle-Eastern and North African art. Our aim is to give their work more visibility and to create links between them as part of a growing network.

Associate Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, Kirsten Scheid earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Princeton University. Among others, she has published “Divinely Imprinting Prints: Or, How Pictures Became Influential Persons in Mandate Lebanon,” “Can Art Really Cross Borders: Qalandiya and the Problem of Tanzir,” and a co-curated “The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener” exhibition in Beirut.

In this interview Kirsten Scheid describes very precisely which steps – political events, training traditions, personal developments, and opportunities – led her to work as an anthropologist and art historian on middle-east modern and contemporary art. Her trajectory specifically highlights the artificial separation between art and social considerations present in her training. What emerges as a necessity is the need for more connections and interactions with artists and art practitioners, in order to bypass disciplinary and national boundaries. New collaborations had to be invented to develop more efficiently the knowledge of modern and contemporary art of the region.

How did you became an art historian specialized on modern and contemporary art of Palestine and Lebanon?

I think since about the age of six or so, I knew I wanted my life to revolve around art. I grew up in Cleveland. Whenever my grandmother would visit us, she would take me to the Cleveland Museum of Art. It was a special place; it has quite a comprehensive collection, or so it seemed to a little kid. I also was able to take art lessons at the Cleveland Institute of Art where I discovered that I had neither talent nor vision of my own! Despite this, I knew I wanted art to be a focal point in my life.

So it was extremely natural for me to end up applying to Columbia College to study art history. I certainly didn’t know what career I wanted to make with art history, but I didn’t have to. As a middle class white American Christian couple, my parents were totally happy with me just getting a BA from a big deal school. The idea was that life would follow; no pressure to think of this strategically, which is quite fortunate. So I ended up at Columbia studying art history. New York City was such a great place to be studying art history in the late eighties, with multiple museums and internship opportunities. I was a docent for the Center for African Art under Susan Vogel, and I was very happy with my major until the end of 1990.

During the middle of my junior year, I started to be a little bit disillusioned with my department of art history. There were questions they said I shouldn’t be asking in the department. Questions like: Why do some places have museums? Why do some societies preserve art? I was not asking: Why do some cultures make art and others don’t? I had this very kind of relativist idea that art is whatever anyone wants it to be. Therefore, I was interested in the institutionalization of art through museums. When I asked the director for undergraduate studies in art history, Theodore Reff an Impressionist scholar, about it he asked me whether I was a Marxist or a Feminist, and said: “We don’t do that kind of thing here.” But he gave me Michael Baxandall’s book Painting and experience in fifteenth century Italy1 to read and said: “You might enjoy that.” And I did because it started to answer my questions.

At about the same time, the war on Iraq happened. I was in demonstrations. I was automatically against the war, just any war. I thought Americans should have nothing to do with war. I was horrified by what I heard people around me saying to justify the way: Iraq doesn’t have anything; Iraqis haven’t given anything to world culture since 2000 BC or so; it’s not a civilization that still exists. All said in a way that would justify depriving people of life. It was unbearable.

During a demonstration in Columbia, which was quite small despite Columbia’s history of student involvement though activism, I met some Palestinian artists. I was shocked, like: “What do you mean you are doing art now?” “How can you?” “How do you do it?” and “How is it possible?” They were dancers, and it was astonishing to me that they took art very seriously, despite the very difficult situation in which they lived. They made me think about what art can mean to a community or a society. This was very novel to me. I had been told art was always an upper-class phenomenon, that it was something we find people do in their leisure time. That was basically how Columbia was presenting it to the undergraduate students. So I thought I should learn instead from the Palestinians. If I really wanted to learn more about art, I really should not depend on the university programing.

To understand the situation further, I started to learn Arabic. I love languages; I have studied French, Swedish, Latin, German, and Hawaiian at some point; it was like, Arabic was on the list. I also took my first anthropology courses. My thinking was: my country is killing this people; I should know more about them. There was a course about “Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa,” so I enrolled in that one. And there was also a course called “Art and Society,” and it seemed like a great title given those questions I had. In that context, I did a project where I interviewed fourteen people from different social backgrounds on how they saw Islamic and Arabic art. I went to the MET with them, walked around the collections and asked them to speak about certain pieces. It was the first time I had an audience oriented project, and I saw how much people create what they see, basically. This is the process by which I could learn about cultural production that would not have been accessible in my art history department.

So, by the end of my senior year—I graduated in February 1992—I was excited about anthropology, disillusioned with art history, and ready to go to the Middle-East.

In June, I joined a language program in the West Bank. Through the artists I had met in the demonstrations, I had a connection to the Popular Art Center in El-Bireh to work as an intern with them. For almost a year, I was in Palestine, learning Arabic, interning at the center, and doing my own research. I interviewed all the artists active in the West Bank that I could meet. I went to the shows and also interviewed audience members. As at the MET, I would show them artworks and ask them, “What do you see?” I was just trying to apply Baxandall’s perspective. I assumed that I needed to learn to see with different eyes.

It was the second time you interviewed audiences with the aim to access their understanding of cultural production. Why was it crucial to access audiences’ perspectives and to address the relation between art and society?

Actually, I didn’t sit and analyze in that way. To give you an answer just now, I was struck by how necessary it was to understand the context. Personally, I was trained to look at an object aesthetically, a term by which I mean trying to see a modernist kind of aesthetic, see the formal integrity of the piece, the relation between elements that were in the piece itself. Whereas people I interviewed would talk about those objects as a set of messages that they could see, and they were rewarded for understanding them by interacting with that object. In a way, it was much more alive to them, because it was referring to their identity and belonging. Don’t misunderstand me, it was early nineties art thinking! I wouldn’t necessarily espouse the strong identity-production link today. Those issues were not brought up by my art historical training at that time; they were just assumed, as Vasari assumed the identity and belonging of the Venetian or Florentine painter.

I became even more aware of this situation when I started working in Lebanon. I tried to do the same things that I had been doing in Palestine, but it didn’t work at all. For two logistical reasons: the first one is that Lebanese artists of early nineties were very famous locally. They had newspapers columns and regular shows in well-established galleries. They were not very interested in talking to some young woman, still figuring out her Arabic and not necessarily offering anything to them. The second, and more important reason, was that, despite the great number of artist interviews I made, and my intern work in two galleries, it was not rewarding. It didn’t feel I was getting anywhere, because people kept telling me, “I’m the only artist who does art despite having to struggle.” Or, “Lebanon is not a place for art, not like New York where you are from.” They would often say, “People here don’t care about art,” or “People here don’t understand art.” There was such a strong theme that there was no art in Lebanon, that Lebanese couldn’t understand art, that art was not supported. But the persons speaking were artists or even gallerists, and we were surrounded by art works. I wondered where this paradox came from.

Even if I had moved from Art History to Anthropology by starting my Ph.D. in anthropology in Princeton, I ended-up being more interested in the history of that idea than in the contemporary social interaction. Or maybe better put, I was interested in how that idea undergirded current art-society relations. Themes such as the social role of art, audience interactions, and how objects matter to people discursively and politically, were not absent from my research, but my methodology was largely historical, based on archives and on a corpus of three artists’ dispersed works.

Your early trajectory makes very clear the impact of the training, and of familial and political context. It led you not only to question the relation between art and society, but also between modernity and contemporaneity, and to navigate between art historical and anthropological tools. From those points of departure how did you develop your research? How did you choose your main topics?

I wanted to look at how the circulation of ideas about art and objects created a setting in which people call upon each other to make social changes, to universalize and nationalize or – what they would call – modernize their art genres, their use of public space, their expectations of public resource usage. But first, I had to face the fact that people kept explaining the present situation of art as based in an absence of the art in the past. I thought that somehow that idea was more foundational than we tend to think, meaning not descriptive, but structural.

I found a way to deal with this alleged absence by mixing two academic points of view: the first one, the canon was saying that art is a reflection of society, that art mirrors society; and the second one that art can be an agent. This second idea was introduced to me by Hildred Geertz, who gave me the opportunity to work on the early twentieth-century Balinese art collection of Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. She revealed that Balinese art of this period was created in an intercultural junction between tourists and Balinese. The artists, or the people how were making what got taken up as “art work,” sought to figure out the colonial situation they were in through the production of art. She got me thinking that Balinese society was up for question. This is how the idea of the agency of art was planted in my mind. On the other hand, the idea that art was a mirror effected how people acted after seeing “themselves” in art’s reflection. I understood that art could be a social agent for appearing to mirror, and that doing art could be a sort of social action. At that time this was contrary the common anthropological understanding of art.

With those two tools, I tried to retheorize how people I met in Beirut discussed art, and particularly the alleged absence of history in Lebanon. I started to think of this absence as a foundation for people’s relationship to the idea of Lebanon, to fellow Lebanese citizens, and to modernity as a concept. Let’s say an artist does something and says, “This is the reflection of society.” Then the society has to, sort of, match the reflection somehow or justify itself in relation to the so-called reflection. So rather than a reflection, I understood art as a manifestation of something that my interlocutors held to be true. And if you think in terms of social action, it can’t be true until people make it true. So this idea that art reflects society became a way to understand art’s agency.

This idea was specifically interesting in the Lebanese context of the 1990s. It was post-civil war again and Lebanese were trying to figure out what Lebanon was and what were the bases for being Lebanese. The notion of art’s reflectiveness allowed them to think of themselves as members of a society in relation to an art object when they couldn’t necessarily do so in relation to the political conditions which had neither clarity nor self-evidence. In talking about art, they referred to a past leading to a hopeful future, but not to a present.

It was anthropologically fascinating to put side by side the concrete art objects I encountered in Beirut, with their materiality, and the non-concrete idea of a society that those objects supposedly represented or expressed. That’s an anthropological question before anything else. For me, it became necessary to study this relationship, and to study it historically, because I had some glimpses suggesting that the idea that there was no history was, actually, an old idea. In sum, my main topic is the agency of art [See “The Agency of Art and the Study of Arab Modernity].

Another topic would be imagination. How peoples’ imaginations crystalize, compete, and just matter. Yet another one is materiality: what do we do as art historians and anthropologists to understand the materiality of art objects? If art reflects something, it does so in a specific material form. How does that material form affect what it’s supposedly reflecting? Why did the artist chose this material form and not another one? I felt that in anthropology we didn’t have technics for studying that. I felt that art history could help me more. I insist on materiality because intellectually and methodologically it means foregrounding the objects. I don’t take art objects as stemming from other things. For example, I really loved Alfred Gell’s book Art and Agencyobviously2, but I also was really disturbed by the implications of his methodology that presume a kind of cultural barrier for interpreting objects (“being abducted by them” in his model) and takes history for granted. This is also a problem I have with Bourdieu’s vastly insightful corpus.

I think those are the three big themes. From there my work as gone into genres—the landscape or the Nude—which I guess is a sub-topic for materiality. And I haven’t written so much about it but I have been interested in art historiography: What narratives get told in text books and how they get passed on.

It’s astonishing how clearly your trajectory shows the necessity to articulate methodologies! At the end, are you more an anthropologist or an historian? How would you present yourself?

It’s funny because I teach anthropology, and yet my publications, the research that I get to do is always more on the art history side. But when I do history research, my fieldwork is more of an ethnographic kind. Not to mention that I’m a member of the American University of Beirut, and AUB thinks of itself through an American framework all the time. My colleagues and I have to justify ourselves in this framework of American anthropology, so it’s hard for me to step out of that. Indeed, I have sought to publish in anthropology journals and Middle East journals, because I want such readers to learn from art, but it’s not an easy barrier to break. When I write about the Middle East, it’s not the normal things you are supposed to talk about. For example, when I was looking for a publisher in 2007, I sent my book to Stanford University Press. They said this sounds very interesting but, “We already had a book about art in the Middle East.” “In the Middle East!” I felt they would not have this numeric restriction on studies of art production for another area. This is where I feel most vulnerable. The relationship is different with art history. I find that art historians are generally much more willing to validate my projects, but I’m also not in such need of that connection institutionally, so I’m free not to fit their standards at any point.

In the end, it’s true that we have to answer this very question because we are in disciplinary houses and institutional frameworks. As a matter of fact, I have to prove myself in anthropology, even if I feel very much out of the loop of US anthropology generally. I would wish that I could create my own little field, but if I do that I would also lose what anthropology and art history offer as fields too, and possibly the ability to speak meaningfully to those audiences.

The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener @Kirsten Scheid

The Arab Nude: The Artist as Awakener @Kirsten Scheid


In addition to this circulation between anthropology and art history networks, you also have a strong panel of activities inside the art world itself. What led you to experience curating for example?

My method of foregrounding objects in my research, and my political attunement to the stakes in the notion of art, have made it important to share my findings in different ways. That led me to curating exhibitions (just a few of them), to participating in art exhibitions as an artist (again not many!), and to presenting my research to the arts community, in settings like the Pergamon Museum, Ashkal Alwan’s Home Works Forum, ArteEast Quarterly Magazine Launch, and Frieze Talks. It’s a different audience, not strictly academic.

Another way was to share my archival material with artists. I think Walid Raad has photographed everything that I collected, and he may be still making works with that. His work helped me think about the limitations of my own. For example, Raad’s triptych, “Appendix XVIII: Plates 56–58 Dr. Kirsten Scheid’s Fabulous Archive,” included in “A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art: Part I_Chapter 1: Beirut (1992-2005)” helped me recognize my reliance on evidential, empirical outcomes rather than lost efforts and fantasized investments. Also, Mirna Bamieh, an artist from Palestine, has worked on the material I collected there between 1992 and 1993.

Walid Raad, Appendix XVIII: Plates 56–58 Dr. Kirsten Scheid’s Fabulous Archive, A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art: Part I_Chapter 1: Beirut (1992-2005), Exhibition view Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, 2008 @Kirsten Scheid

Walid Raad, Appendix XVIII: Plates 56–58 Dr. Kirsten Scheid’s Fabulous Archive, A History of Modern and Contemporary Arab Art: Part I_Chapter 1: Beirut (1992-2005), Exhibition view Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut, 2008 @Kirsten Scheid


Sadly, those things don’t count for anthropology as an academic profession. They do not directly support my career as a scholar. They look like a waste of time on my CV. Nevertheless, those discussions and exchanges with artists and galleries are very important to me. They have helped me to reflect on my research. To reflect on the limitations and how I looked at my research when I set out to do it. To question the pressures of disciplines to use certain terms according to certain paradigms. I think it has been productive.

We should have our final word about the evolution of this field of research. You said that it would be convenient to create your own little field, particularly during the 1990s so few researchers were interested in modern and contemporary art in the Middle East. Do you feel that nowadays things have evolve in the right direction?

There are so many more people, especially in art history, working on contemporary or modern Middle Eastern art, on Arab art, on art outside of the metropole, and on circulation. More researchers look at what has been excluded and how the canon itself came about through circulations as an expression of a place. This evolution is very exciting.

But in the other hand, it’s striking to me that we still have pretty strong national boundaries around our work. I worry what is lost because of those boundaries. This has to do with our formation and institutional control mechanisms. As a matter of fact, we tend to learn at most three languages, but our objects move much further than that. In the same way, we tend to get to know one place really well, at best two, but that’s not how art itself has come about. With Anneka Lenssen, I put together a panel at Middle East Studies Association in 2013 called A Relocated Politics: Making Art Elsewhere than the Nationaddressing this issue. Can we envision Middle Eastern art outside a national framework? We pretty much couldn’t. I don’t know that we have the methodologies to carry it out.

I’ll give you a simple example. I have a friend, Kristine Khouri, who has been studying a gallery in Kuwait. She can speak Hindi, Arabic, French, and English. Because of her Hindi, she developed her understanding of the art in an altogether different nexus that I wasn’t even able to imagine. I mean Kuwait is so much in the perimeter of my interest, and it’s obvious they historically and currently deal much more with India, but I can’t follow that! She can. But she is disenchanted by the disciplinary and political boundaries attendant to scholarship so much that she doesn’t want to deal with institutions at all. It seems she may neither teach nor publish. So her voice and perspective is being effaced by our institutional system. I just wonder what other configurations we erase by the ways we are trained and the ways we have to get founding, etc. We somehow re-implement national boundaries.

I’ve been disturbed by boundary-making. I’m not sure we are following the art and taking it seriously enough. And I don’t know how we could change this situation. Maybe it is linked to the fact that art seems to matter to scholars and often curators only for its relationship to politics. Politics always come first. We are not able to just start to look at art practices and simply see how they produce imaginary settings in which people are creating political and other possibilities. Once more, it’s the agency of art that is underestimated.

[1] Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in 15th century Italy, a primer in the social history of pictorial style, Oxford University Press, 1972.

[2] Alfred Gell, Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford: Clarendon. 1998.