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Art — coarseness or culture?

By Huzaima Bukhari

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection” — Michelangelo

Although the biological needs of humans reduce them to the level of animals, there are some exceptional qualities which elevate them to the position of a remarkable species, capable of performing impossible feats and with a life-style that is clearly distinguishable from other animals. Other than living in large groups, their lives are woven around regulations that are distinct and which set them apart from most of the existing creatures. Gifted with intellect, humans have carved out for themselves a visibly different mode of living that can hardly be equated with animals. Where the need for survival in the wild is merely based on eating and slumbering in protective zones, humans have not only taken care of their bodies but have gone a step forward and found food in the form of culture, for their souls as well. Thus, man became not just a social animal but also evolved into a cultural being.

With culture, man discovered his identity — a realization that there was something which transcended his biological needs and was a source of satisfaction for his eternally starved soul. It helped in alleviating his sufferings, boost his morale, release his tensions and provide an effective vent to his restless feelings besides giving him pleasure and tranquillity inexpressible in words. It enabled him to find a reason for his existence, an inspiration for his creativity, a past-time, a mode of expression — all put together, man stumbled upon his humanity and his superiority over God’s other creations. He became aware of the power that he could wield and through which he could exert influence in a way that could change the course of life.

Thus began a journey that took him from being uncouth to becoming civilized. A journey of folklore, prose, poetry, music, dance, art, architecture, drama; and above all, civility. He was still looking after his physical survival, for example, not by covering up with leaves and fur but by cultivating cotton, making yarn, weaving cloth, making garments; not eating by hunting but through practice of agriculture and use of sophisticated utensils. Once man got comfortable he diverted his attention towards aesthetics. From the earliest known cave paintings to modern day graphic art, from crude stone forms to abstract metallic sculptors, from hieroglyphs to computer language, from mimicry to motion pictures — the list is endless — man has and continues to develop his passion for beauty. So when there is discussion about the value of art and culture, it usually winds around how these are important elements in illuminating our souls and enriching our emotional world while simultaneously their impact on the economy, health, education and general well-being of the society cannot be ignored.

Culture conditions man’s attitude towards different issues like religion, morality, marriage, obedience to elders, teachers; kindness to children and weak and conversely, cultural values have and will continue to affect his thought processes, knowledge as well as entertainment.

If observed closely, the Almighty appears as the most profound artist. He has created beauty, painted the universe with vibrant colours, produced mind-boggling plants, filled the air with musical and dancing birds, animals of all kinds, made this earth a paradise and most of all, sculptured the human form, declaring it His best creation. In copying the great Creator, as long as man retains the finer elements of divine artistry, he can be both skilful and articulate but the moment he debases art, he makes it loathsome and repulsive. For a good artist, art is sacred but those who misuse this medium, are responsible for making it detestable and indigestible.

Life is generally very tedious with the same types of activities day in and day out. In order to break this monotony, one needs some form of enjoyment that can capture attention and provide some moments of delight. This helps to maintain one’s sanity and strike a balance between dreariness of routine and pleasure-seeking. People derive happiness in a variety of ways. Chief among these are hearty meals with family and friends, sports, books, shopping, fairs, expositions, travelling etc. but the most common and popular forms of entertainment are the performing arts.

These relate to theatre, cinema, dance, music — both instrumental and vocal — developed over many centuries. History reveals that royalty has always patronized artists and held them in high esteem. Consequently, performing arts enjoyed respect from the public and those who were skilled in these arts were looked up to with awe, admiration and appreciation and some were also considered polished enough to tutor princes in mannerism and conduct.

A good example of the performing arts would be the rhythmic movement of the body to music or beat, traditionally known as dance. This genre is native to all types of culture, from the most conservative to the most liberal. No one can claim that he never moves or nods his head on hearing melodies, whether accompanied with or without instruments. Thus, anyone reciting Quranic verses lyrically or crooning a eulogy for the holy Prophet (PBUH) or singing a qawali is sure to draw the attention of mesmerized listeners who are bound to sway in ecstasy. Sufi saints of the Sub-continent have been known to attract people towards godliness by their singing and dancing. If these forms were so disgraceful, they would have never been employed by these men of God.

However, there is always a flip side to any proposition and when horrific acts are done in the name of art there certainly would be a total reversal of goodness and sanctity reducing these forms to deplorable levels. Where a classical dance with all its nuances gives joy, one performed by a bar dancer would invoke disgust with its main objective being a lustful luring of customers. Such instances have badly damaged the repute of sophisticated cultural activities meant to enhance the taste of the public

When misused, art and culture become instrumental in dehumanizing the society rather than bringing peace and serenity. Such ill-treatment can cause restlessness, disrespect for others, broken homes, dissatisfied youth, concerned parents, indulgence in unhealthy and unnatural activities, disease, anxiety, even increase in the number of suicides. The main reason for disruption in society cannot be on account of art but purely on the mindset of the people. Those who claim to be pious and look upon with disdain on artists would have to revisit their ideologies. Anything, no matter how beneficial, can always be converted into evil by vested-interest or those who are bent upon destroying a society and its values.