The extremist groups that have unleashed a reign of terror at the existential level are divorced from humanity. In their own existence and the society they are brutalising, they seek to stop access to the experience of love, a sense of beauty and truth — forms of being in this world that have been manifested in art and literature and have enriched human civilisation throughout the ages. Now, the human form, whose beauty was celebrated in the dancing figurine of Mohenjo Daro or Michaelangelo’s David, is being torn apart by daily bombings; and human consciousness, whose nobility was apprehended by Iqbal, is being demeaned through bigotry. In the face of this human degradation, art can come to the fore so that through the aesthetic dimension, we can relive afresh the beauty and value of being human. Art can, therefore, play a mobilising role to help confront the onslaught of barbarism.
Last week, Musarrat Hasan’s book on five decades of Mian Ijazul Hasan’s painting was launched. Let us discuss his work in the context of some general ideas on the sense in which we use the word art, its nature and the relationship between art and politics.
Underlying the attempt to define art is the Platonic idea that the meaning of a word is what it names. Now, a set of objects — in this case, art objects — must have some common property that the common designation signifies. Benjamin Tilghman asks, what is that common property in the case of works of art, some latent essence? The linguistic problem of using the word art for a variety of different objects was solved by Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Cambridge linguistic philosopher. He suggested that the way a word functions in language can be understood by how the word is taught to children. We do not, for example, teach children the word “games” by defining it in terms of a set of criteria, but rather describe a game. After getting the description of a few examples of games or actually seeing them being played, the child learns to call other human interactions “games” because they are similar to the games whose descriptions were earlier heard or were seen being played. So it is with the word “art”. We learn to recognise a particular object as art not by grasping some non-existent latent essence, but because we discover strands of similarities with other works of art that we have come across.
While the word “art” can be understood in the sense of Wittgenstein, by the way it works in language, there is also the experiential dimension, the complex set of emotions and imagination that come into play upon seeing a work of art. It is thus that the artist affects other people. Adolpho Sanchez Vazquez suggests that art “contributes to the reaffirmation or devaluation of ideas, goals or values”. By influencing the way people think or feel about issues, art becomes a social force. At one level, the battle against the extremists is a battle of ideas. How else, except through ideology, can rational individuals be persuaded to don suicide jackets or, alternatively, embrace love and reject hate? Art can help in reclaiming our humanness in the ongoing battle of hearts and minds.
Mian Ijazul Hasan’s paintings draw us into the poignant transience of nature as much as human beings. Yet, there is also the intimation of significance of our being in this world. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke says “Just once, everything, only for once … And we, too, once. And never again … But this having been once on earth — can it ever be cancelled?”
Hasan’s paintings enable us to simultaneously experience the sensuousness and transcendent beauty of nature counterposed with the brutality of an unjust society. We are invited to apprehend this polarised metaphor through an existential choice: to actualise the organic connection between our sense of beauty and our human nature by building a humane society.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 5th, 2013.