Theses Doctoral

The Aesthetics of the Modern: Art, Education, and Taste in Egypt 1903-1952

Ramadan, DIna

This dissertation explores the ways in which an educational mission was central to the conceptualization, production, and consumption of the category of modern art in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century. It is structured as a series of four case studies, each offering a rereading of a moment that has been repeatedly highlighted in the literature as a turning point in the development of modern art but that remains unexamined. Chapter One is a study of a fatwa by the leading Islamic reformer, Muhammad `Abduh, which is considered to be his declaration of support for representational art. In a close reading of this understudied text, I demonstrate the ways in which this fatwa has been misinterpreted and misappropriated; `Abduh never mentions "art" [al-fann] specifically but instead discusses the merits of pictorial representation [al-taswir] as a form of visual knowledge, a useful tool for preservation and learning. Chapter Two focuses on the establishment of the School of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1908. Relying on largely unexamined material, I describe and analyze the prevalent discourses that shaped the kind of education that the school offered, the perceptions its founders, faculty, and students had of its role, and ultimately the role of modern art and the artist within Egyptian society. The second half of the dissertation attends to the reception and consumption of art through the development of art criticism [al-naqd al-fanni] and the role of journals in educating Egyptian audiences. Chapter Three is a study of and Sawt el-Fannan [The Voice of the Artist, 1950-2], "the first monthly magazine for the fine arts." I focus here on the writing of art history and criticism as a means of educating Egyptian eyes to see and appreciate in a specific set of ways. The notion of taste [dhawq] and its complex social and moral functions demonstrate that what is at stake here is something much larger than an aesthetic sensibility. Chapter Four examines Al-Tatawwur, a journal published by al-Fann wa-l-Hurriyya [Art and Freedom] in response to André Breton and Diego Rivera's 1938 manifesto "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art." Al-Tatawwur professes a commitment to "protecting the freedom of art and culture." However, this often seems in tension with their almost militant educational and political mission. Throughout these four cases a series of recurring concerns emerge. First, painting and sculpture are presented as important first and foremost because of the ways in which they can be useful or beneficial. Their uses differ from chapter to chapter however each group approaches artistic production through the prism of function and benefit. Secondly, in each situation we find ourselves at a moment of crisis, in which a particular group feels threatened and thus attempts to reach out a larger public, as a means of reasserting their position and reaffirming their relevance. Repeatedly, artistic production seems to be the most appropriate way of doing this. The third central theme of this dissertation the educational quality and potential of the fine arts; despite their seemingly varied positions, the writers and thinkers I discuss attach an educational function to artistic production. There seems to be a unanimous agreement on the stakes, despite political orientation: the struggle is a civilizational one, and art is the barometer for progress. In tracing the establishment and development of modern art in Egypt, this dissertation offers a set of innovative perspectives and engages with a number of different fields of inquiry related to the cultural and intellectual history of Egypt. While a literary and linguistic Nahda, has been the subject of much study, the existence and importance of a visual Nahda has been largely absent.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Mitchell, Timothy
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 1, 2013