The role of art in the struggle for a national identity in Lebanon

Term Paper, 2005

13 Pages



1. Introduction.

2. The Theory of Nationalist Art

3. Art and Nationalist Phenomena in Greece, Québec and Israel

4. The Lebanese Case

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction.

“All of us! For our Country, for our Flag and Glory!”. The first verse of the Lebanese National anthem exemplifies characteristics of nationalist art as part of the goal of nationalism, if we consider a national anthem to be some sort of art: The proclamation and praise of all available aspects of the nation that is regarded as being able to include all members and simultaneously, the concealment of differences within the entity. This may be Mr. Mitri’s appeal to the Lebanese nation when he advocates a memory of remembering and forgetting for the sake of a unified national identity. He also mentions Lebanon’s obstacle on the path to a unified identity, i.e. the fragmentation of society and a lack of generally accepted symbols. The paper will analyze the nationalist movements and national sentiments of three other entities, Quebec, Israel and Greece, and attempt a comparison with the conditions for a vital national identity in Lebanon. It will be suggested that the internal differences in Lebanon, dominated by a very intolerant ethnic marker, namely religion, are so predominant that they overshadow any kind of national identity that can detach Lebanese society from their sub-national attachments in order to generate national sentiments for all Lebanese people. Complicating this condition, also foreign intervention through alliances with the various groups within Lebanon comes into play. Using the Québécois, the Israeli and the Greek example, it shall be shown that a certain amount of internal unity is needed to create sentiments of belonging. Only then, art can play a significant role in enhancing national identity through symbols and material objects. Québec developed a strong legal code to protect its distinct Québécois nature against English-speaking Canada. In Greece, the Orthodox Church took the responsibility of safeguarding not only religion, but also language, folklore, dance and literature against Turkish domination and the post-Ottoman conflict over territory. Israel had and still has to struggle with the construction of a national identity that is based on the ethnic marker religion. Furthermore, the political state had to embrace various Jewish communities with different cultural habits and customs and define what kind of Jewish life is truly acceptable. Hence, cultural customs have been defined in order to create a distinct Israeli identity. For our purposes, we refer to the Arab-Israeli conflict from the Israeli perspective, being fully aware that we only spotlight one certain aspect of it[1]. The paper is based and inspired by Richard Handler’s analysis of the Québécois claims for a distinct national character in contrast to the rest of Canada and the independence movement, proclaimed by a considerably high percentage of the population[2].

Empirical data proved to be very difficult to obtain. Various short interviews have been done with people whose opinions were considered valuable. Furthermore, I searched for buildings, sculptures, street etc. that may have some significance for nationalist art in Lebanon. With the latter effort, however, the results were not very satisfying. Most valuable information I gathered in the interview which will be presented later in the paper.

2. The Theory of Nationalist Art

In this process of “cultural nationalisation” art becomes part of generating invented tradition. Nationalist art declares music, painting, dress, food etc. as part of a distinct national culture. Ceremonies become accessible for everyone to celebrate national sentiments. Media becomes the vehicle for mass publication. Concerning the quality of art, it must be general enough to be acceptable for most people and specific enough not to be mixed up with other cultural identities[3]. Under these premises, David E.W. Fenner defines nationalist art as such:

Nationalist art consists of artificial objects accepted and interpreted by the art world as art which supports the assertion of self-identity of a people made over and against other people or states as a declaration of the right to preserve and advance their own identity in an international world.” [4]

Fenner refers to Arthur Danto’s description of art as something changeable through time and as a means for various purposes, such as nationalism[5]. Several famous authors elaborated on the nature and concept of art and thereby contributed to several qualities of national art Plato puts strong limits on art, arguing that it should be state’s servants and in this sense, it should be patriotic[6]. Tolstoy focuses on the communicative strength of art and disqualifies work as art if it is not able to establish communication with the audience. Marx suggests that art is not for art’s sake, but always product of the historic and political events and conditions[7]. Taking all these statements into account, it becomes apparent that all ideas contribute to the power of national art: Patriotism, communication as well as the historic and political circumstances.

Examples for nationalist art can be found throughout the history of nationalism:

- the visual works of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West in the 18th century in Britain
- Richard Wagner’s Der Ring der Nibelungen in the 19th century, based on the 12th century story Nibelungenlied.
- Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco in Mexico
- Nazi symbols and the creation of Germanic culture

Deepening into the theoretical concept of nationalism, there are some important principles to be mentioned about ethnicity, nationalism and its relation to identity. According to Eriksen, ethnic identity becomes salient when pressured and challenged by a force that is considered to be from “outside” the ethnic group. For the interior of the group, promotion of an ethnic and cultural difference to the exterior means a common belonging and destiny that connects the members together. Both proclamations can be used separately or together in order to strengthen ethnic identity. Here, identity has two specific natures. Politically, it is the competition about dominance, sovereignty, independence and/or recognition. For political leaders it may serve pragmatic purposes. Emotionally, it gives power to love for a homeland, fatherland or Heimat, where the individual belongs and shows loyalty towards[8]. This idea of shared values, belief and cultures, Eriksen argues, is created and in no way a natural objective fact[9]. Besides the practice of shared belief and remembrance, there is also “shared forgetting” which assists to overcome internal differences as well as historic divisions[10].

When claiming a distinct national identity, a cultural picture will be drawn that will back the particularity of that culture. Shared language is a powerful tool for this endeavour which may even include modifications in order to construct distinct and different language. When the call for a distinct Norwegian identity and nationhood was expressed, certain dialects from Danish and Swedish had been used in order to create a distinct Norwegian language, which was different than that of its challengers[11]. Regional folklore, customs and habits will be universalized and regarded as national culture. If not available, these national commodities can even be invented for the sake of strengthening the common identity construction. They aim to give culture a constant quality. It cannot be taken away so easily and, in the strongest belief, will be eternal.


[1] The fierce conflict against Arab denial of Israel and its nationhood had a strong unifying power for Israeli national identity since it meant a threat to its existence.

[2] Handler, Richard: On Having a Culture – Nationalism and the Preservation of

Quebec’s Patrimoine in: Stocking, George W. Jr: Objects and Others – Essays on Museums and Material, Wisconsin 1985, 192-217.

[3] Motyl, Alexander (edt.): Encyclopaedia of Nationalism, Volume 2: Leaders, Movements, Concepts, San Diego 2003, 29.

[4] Fenner, 39-40.

[5] Fenner, 42.

[6] Fenner, 45.

[7] Fenner, 47.

[8] Eriksen, Thomas Hylland: Ethnicity and Nationalism – Anthropological Perspective, London, USA 1993, 76-77.

[9] Eriksen, 92.

[10] Eriksen, 93, also: Gellner, Ernest: Culture, Identity and Politics, Cambridge 1987, 6.

[11] Eriksen, 103.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The role of art in the struggle for a national identity in Lebanon
American University of Beirut
Cultural Boundaries and Identities
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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There was no single grade given on this paper, my overall grade was 84%
Lebanon, Cultural, Boundaries, Identities
Quote paper
Farshad Mohammad-Avvali (Author), 2005, The role of art in the struggle for a national identity in Lebanon, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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