Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Soft Power of Contemporary Art

As artworks continue to command record prices over $100 million, the market for contemporary art has been expanding at the other end. A demand for “affordable art” has created new opportunities for aspiring artists to market their work to local interest and inspired curiosity abroad. Contemporary artworks garner soft power by conveying and attracting support for cultural ideals instead of coercing cooperation through military or economic pressure. As works circulate internationally, their aesthetics and societal messages intertwine to develop the political power of the group, community, or nation of the artist.
An exhibition of works by Iranian artists provides an example. In summer 2009, the Chelsea Art Museum in New York presented an exhibition titled, "Iran Inside Out." The exhibition happened to follow Iran’s presidential elections, which led to protests over controversial results.  The protests revealed an ambition of political reform, and the exhibition complemented the sentiments by presenting progressive societal views. The exhibition gave a view from within Iran, in that a majority of the artists reside in the country if not in Tehran. As a reflection of the views of Iranian citizens, the artworks demonstrated  freedom of expression more in line with Western sensibilities than fundamentalist Muslim societies.
A more recent exhibition of works by Syrian artists offers another example. This summer, Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam presented, “Culture in Defiance,” which exhibited works by Syrian artists. Through satire, Syrian artists peacefully demonstrate against the regime. Employing a range of media from paintings to songs to puppets, artists bring balance to the violent news images of fighting across Syria by demonstrating that the defiance extends beyond armed conflict. Syrian artists also found support in the Middle East. Mashrabia Art Gallery in Cairo presented the exhibition “92s Syria” in March. By showing in Egypt, the art sent a message across Arab cultures that Syrians seek freedom of expression. Presentation of artworks from Amsterdam to Cairo not only shows cross-cultural support for the insurgents but also shows the world that a living culture seeks an opportunity for peaceful existence.
Presentation of artworks abroad also has potential positive derivative effects in post-conflict economic development. Continued expansion of the market would make contemporary art a viable export. The trend may enable artists to combine passion and profession by earning a living while pursuing individual expression. As a global phenomenon, the contemporary art market provides a venue for artists to communicate political views abroad, gauge affirmation of their views, and potentially realize financial gain. The resulting interplay of passion and profession further enhances the soft power of contemporary art.

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