Bombs, Sectarianism and Blasphemy: What’s Art Got To Do With It?

March 4, 2013

Was coming back from an “Art Event” at the Karachi Arts council. I don’t go to such events but mom insisted (emotionally blackmailed to be precise), so I went. While coming back we started getting messages and calls on our cellphones that there had been two bomb blasts a few hundred meters from our home.

It was a stressful time for everyone; obviously much more for those unfortunate people who have been directly affected by this cowardly act, their dear ones killed and homes destroyed. We managed to get back home safely. I started ruminating on the irony of the situation. We had just come back from a book launch and a dance performance. We had just experienced ‘art’. And then just 30 minutes later, we had experienced these bomb blasts. Why did the thing feel ironic to me? In writing what I write, I limit myself to literature.

My first reaction was the same as Orwell. As London was being bombed, Orwell had written that there can be no great art in such a situation. A careful analysis of Orwell’s words is required. I think Orwell was making a political point as much he was making a creative point. Politically speaking, what I think Orwell meant was that when the situation is so bad (daily bombings in London) it is quite irresponsible to indulge in art. His creative point was that when so much is happening in the world, one cannot concentrate on art and is swamped by other much more urgent activities.

March 6, 2013

O, well, I had stopped writing the other day and had gone to sleep. I begin again today. As I was exercising in the gym today, I heard reports on the TV that firing had begun in various parts of Karachi. Anyway, after finishing my workout I decided to head back home (instead of waiting it out in the gym). I saw some traffic on the road, which encouraged me. Driving back, despondent on seeing all the shops closed, I started wondering not about art, but about this very piece that I was/am writing. I mean why even write this? What does it mean? What does this have to do with ANYTHING that is happening outside? (Anyhow, since this is neither a very cerebral piece and nor is it in anyway artistic, I think I can carry on).

And this brings us back to Orwell. I think the above is exactly what he meant. When such things are going on, how can you concentrate on producing art ? It could safely be said that in Orwell’s mind, art is not like doing science. You can’t divorce art from what’s going on in other spheres of life in the manner that one is able to divorce say Chemistry from what’s going on in the political and social realm (that is as much as one can divorce any human activity from what’s happening elsewhere).

But then there certainly has been resistance art under great duress. Is that not art? In fact even as I had begun writing this piece, my father sent me a heart-rending poem that he had written, voicing his anger against the cowardly terrorists who had carried out the bomb blasts.

Tolstoy had written a treatise on art titled, “What is Art?” Much as I admire Tolstoy (and I do VERY much so), and though I think there were some instructive things in that piece, I really do think Tolstoy failed in his attempt to qualify what art is. In fact, I think all such recipes for describing “art” are doomed to fail. The reason is that whatever property X, Y or Z, that you prescribe for an art piece to have or to not have, the very next day someone could produce something that goes totally against this prescription, and could be understood, and loved, to be art universally.

Let’s look at some examples.

Prescirption A: The plot should be logical and the consistent. (add other important points such as the psychology of characters should also be logical and consistent etc)

Rebuttal: The greatest is Shakespeare of course. One of the worst writers ever as far as logic, plot and psychology is concerned. But we all know (and admire) him to be one of the greatest artists ever. As Orwell said about him, “He can survive exposure of the fact that he is a confused thinker whose plays are full of improbabilities. He can no more be debunked by such methods than you can destroy a flower by preaching a sermon at it”!!

Prescription B: Great art needs to be like a scientific experiment, with the proper abstractions and idealizations. And through that experiment, the artist aims to understand facet(s) of human life and our world.

Rebuttal: Given the theme of this entire blog that I write, I really happen to care for this prescription. In fact, as I tried to explain in an earlier post, “War and Peace” was a massive agent based simulation that was carried out by Tolstoy (see here). However, I am sure that many people don’t agree with this prescription either.

March 9, 2013

Well I had stopped writing again because the damn thing seemed so meaningless. Even apart from what’s happening in Pakistan, as I had implied above, I feel the question, “What is Art?” is as futile as the question, “What is the scientific method” (something that I talked about here) Anyway, on the 9th of March, we were greeted with the burning of a Christian neighborhood in LahoreOne Christian man was alleged to have committed blasphemy; people went mad and a mob burnt around more than 150 homes in a Christian neighborhood. 

Anyhow, what were we talking about? O yeah, Art. So let me just cut this damn thing short and come to the conclusion. I think the best we can have in this environment, which prevails right now in Pakistan, is either of two kinds of arts. Neither of these can produce great art, but its still better than nothing.

1) Resistance art, where the artist criticizes the evil-mongers in the society and shows the path to a better future, and instills hope and courage in the masses. This is the approach taken by  Habib Jalib, Pablo Neruda, Krishn Chandra etc.

2) Escapist art, a remedy proposed by, among others, Initizar Hussan, a famous Pakistani writer who has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. He invokes the famous Arabian Nights. I have heard him say this for years now, but he said it again at a recently held literary festival in Karachi. Copying from a newspaper report: “In a festival dedicated to storytelling, Intizar Hussain’s narration of Arabian Nights was an apt choice. A cruel Persian king, Shahryar, would marry a virgin every day and send the previous night’s wife to be beheaded. This way he killed over a thousand women until he married Scheherazade, the daughter of his courtier, who kept the king awake and in awe for one thousand and one nights through her storytelling, until his mind and heart transformed. He shunned cruelty and becomes a wiser and kinder man.”

Bravo I say brother Intizaar, Bravo. By transporting the cruel king every night into the wondrous magical lands of her stories, the queen was able to change him. Genies and magical eagles, lost treasures and magical gates, all laced together with a heavy dose of right and wrong. That’s what we need, don’t we? Well if that really is true, I would rather watch Salman Khan (the biggest Indian actor right now) movies (which I do). His films too are magical, where he flies around and takes on 20 men at the same time. He fights for the good and never for evil, and his movies, much like the Arabian nights, provide a very good way to escape from all the mess that is happening outside. In fact this reminds me of this very “feminist” line from Salman Khan’s latest movie, Dabang 2, which is sung by a female dancer. It goes: “I am like roast chicken lover, gulp me down with alcohol” And indeed our hero does that and the next day goes on to destroy the bad man. However, I don’t think I, or even Salman Khan, would dare call his films “art”.

March 12, 2013

Great art CANNOT be produced under such circumstances that prevail in our country. Given the two choices described above, I would rather go for Choice 1 than Choice 2, which I find to be smug at best and cowardly at worst.

2 responses to “Bombs, Sectarianism and Blasphemy: What’s Art Got To Do With It?”

  1. Upon finding out about this incident in Lahore, i asked one of our office boys who’s a Christian. What he told me was different from what the media covered. He said that a lot of the houses which were burned belonged to Muslim people as well so it wasnt just the Christian community which suffered. Also, there are steel mills in the surrounding area and the factory owners have been trying to get these inhabitants to move elsewhere. It made me wonder what the real story is. Who’s to say the media isnt just trying to sell a story here instead of presenting the facts.

  2. The best definition of art I heard was “art is whatever you can get away with”. Also, I think it was George Steiner who claimed that censorship and oppression can lead to good art – he was comparing USA with Soviet Union during the cold war. However, I think Orwell makes a good point, that in the thick of actual physical conflict – bombs and people dying in front of you – art as a pursuit is nonsense.

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