Last year, during municipal elections in Beirut, posters bearing the shadowy image of a man named Al Murashah started appearing on walls that line the streets of Beirut. He took his place next to the many thousands of images of familiar sectarian leaders that become ubiquitous during Lebanon's political seasons.
But Al Murashah was a fiction, a candidate invented by an underground art group called Heartland. This year, during Lebanon's first elections without the presence of Syrian troops in almost 30 years, Heartland was back, not with Al Murashah, but with a project they call "Propaganda." Instead of a generic face, they've posted blank sheets of paper.
The work was intended as a counterpoint to the explosion of visuals that have confronted the Lebanese over the last four months of tumult: the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the protests against Syrian occupation, and the current parliamentary elections, which continue through June 19.
Sandra Dagher, the owner of an art gallery here who is in touch with the Heartland group, said the blank sheets of paper represented a protest to the riot of political messages, a graphic counterattack to the slick election placards, protest banners, graffiti and T-shirts that are everywhere.
Lebanon, once a leader in the Arab arts world, has enjoyed a flurry of artistic production in recent months. Galleries that specialize in selling high-end abstract art to wealthy collectors have turned to painters with overt political themes. Photographers and writers have embraced the subject of the events known as the Cedar Revolution, parsing its meaning and criticizing its direction. With the sudden departure of a military presence that many younger Lebanese have lived with their entire lives, there is a vacuum in Lebanon that artists and intellectuals are struggling to fill. Everything about Lebanese culture and identity, it seems, is on the table.
Among the first to rush in, immediately following the assassination of Hariri on Feb. 14, were the musicians. Dozens of songs have been composed lamenting Hariri's death, adding to a rich culture of political music that now includes at least one new song celebrating the emergence of Hariri's son, Saad, as heir to his father's legacy. Even Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group, uses composers to get its message out.
Naji Zaarour, who hawks CDs and tapes out of a small corner store, said he had sold hundreds of copies of a Rafiq Hariri compendium album, which he made himself. Music circulates quickly in Lebanese society, where copyright enforcement is lax and access to influential radio stations is much easier than in the United States.
Zaarour called his Hariri disc "a big hit," and said it accounted for much of his business. Songs that became very popular during the protests and on discs such as Zaarour's include "Beirut Is Crying" and "No, the Story Hasn't Ended," with lyrics such as, "No, the story hasn't ended, no, this is not the end, no we haven't forgotten, you're still living in us, and our hope is still our aim."
Many of the Hariri songs found their way to the desk of Jihad Murr, chairman and chief executive of Virgin Megastores of Lebanon. Most of them, he said, were composed and recorded too quickly to have any lasting value. More interesting, Murr added, was how a body of preexisting music, recorded by a generation of Lebanese stars touched by the civil war, was put to new use at the rallies. Recordings by popular vocalists such as Majida Roumi and Julia Boutros were put to service as unifying elements, much like the Lebanese flag took on new importance as a nonsectarian patriotic symbol.
Also quick to enter the cultural fray were the photographers, designers and visual artists who documented and contributed to the surge of newly revived patriotic imagery -- photographs, banners, T-shirts, armbands, face painting, even cedar tree designs shaved into hair on men's heads. Photographer Christian Catafago has published a collection of short essays and photographs created during the headiest moments of the large March street rallies; it's filled with images of the Lebanese flag.
As with Heartland, Catafago produced his book anonymously, to deflect attention away from himself. In a country where names are often markers of religious background, anonymity (whether among artists, or electronically on the Internet or in cell-phone messages) is seen as a way of speaking to the public without invoking potentially divisive issues of identity.
Catafago's book celebrates the frenzy of the spring protests, but raises a question that haunts many Lebanese: How can they turn that energy into actual change in their society? The photographs in the beginning of his book show a flurry of motion and the crush of the crowds. At the end, he shows the iconic red-and-white "Independence 05" stickers that were everywhere during the protests, torn off and abandoned on the ground.
"What use is it for the country to replace some by others?" he asked in his book. "They've only taken advantage of the system, nothing more. It is the system that needs to be transformed and some accountability be brought in."
What Lebanon's artists do in their work every day -- weighing the claims of memory and reconciliation, optimism and cynicism, personal and collective identity -- has emerged with new urgency as the country struggles to chart a more democratic future without Syria's long-dominating presence.
Philippe Aractingi, a producer and director with more 40 documentaries to his credit, is finishing what he said was the first feature film produced and funded in Lebanon since the civil war, which ravaged the country from 1975 to 1990. Tentatively titled "The Autobus" (a reference to the attack on a bus that sparked the country's civil war), the new movie is a musical, with a bright, glossy Bollywood sheen. It follows a group of young dancers who are trying to introduce a contemporary techno version of the classic Lebanese dance, the dabke.
Although he has been working on the film for years, its central themes -- the tension between global and Lebanese culture, and Western influence and Lebanese traditionalism -- are rising to the surface once again, as the Lebanese question whether the country's cultural identity will be dissolved by greater political and economic integration into the Western world.
On a computer editing screen, in a vast 1950s apartment he has turned into a production studio, Aractingi showed a clip of his new film, a dance sequence that ends with fashionably dressed young dancers making a yin-yang pattern with older, traditionalist Lebanese villagers. Aractingi said the yin-yang shape was his metaphor for integrating identities that are usually seen as locked in hopeless conflict.
"It is a complete echo of what is going on," Aractingi said of his film.
It's difficult to gauge the degree to which the work of Lebanese artists, many of them cultural elites drawn from the country's Christian minority, has an influence on the wider political dialogue.
In the cosmopolitan Hamra neighborhood, a window of the Agial Art Gallery featured a painting directly inspired by recent events. Sabhan Adam, a painter based in Syria, has filled a canvass with dark, screaming faces, violent X shapes and the colors of the Lebanese flag. Adam's paintings, which sell for thousands of dollars, don't fly out of the gallery very often.
"They are not cheap," said Carol Chehab, a designer at the gallery.
The distinction between cheap, mass-produced forms of creative expression and "high art," made to last longer and appeal to more discriminating tastes, has even taken on a political dynamic in Lebanon. The Lebanese, critics argue, have become very good at producing "instant" culture -- graphic design, fashion, pop music -- while they let a deeper and potentially more unifying artistic culture languish.
"Beirut has become the capital of kitsch," said Samir Khalaf, a professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, who sees a post-civil war tendency to escapism in Lebanon's taste for "mass consumerism" and "public entertainment." Khalaf argues that the arts can help "neutralize the overwhelming constituent features we see around us, the churches and the mosques."
There is also a deep undercurrent of nostalgia for the halcyon days of Lebanon in the current artistic efflorescence. An exhibition of photographs and texts at the Goethe Institute, titled "Shared Spaces in Times of Crisis," contrasts images of Beirut from the 1950s and 60s with images from the civil war and its aftermath. The texts recall Beirut as an open, intellectually and culturally vibrant city, and suggest its future is to return to that past. But there's risk in that, which artists here are keenly aware of.
"Beirut scares them," read one panel, referring to Arab leaders in the region. "It has always been the source of their terror, for in its journals, clubs and theaters, it used to uncover all the anti-humane practices taking place in this Arab capital or that. Its freedom is their constant worry, its democracy their fear."