In praise of art
Last week, at an art exhibition, a reporter covering the event asked me what the use of art was, given our current political climate. The art at the exhibition was fresh, fun, vibrant. Most of it was abstract, colours exploding onto the canvases in swirls and whirls and geometric squares unfurling inside their frames. Some shapes swum about murkily on acid-washed backgrounds of Martian maroon, some were gaunt figures piggybacking the other. The use of art in troubled times? The utility, in other words, of the supposedly frivolous, when there are more ‘serious’ issues at hand, is an argument that has no end. Why bother about animal rights when people don’t have any, why write poetry when there is jihadist propaganda to fight back against, why sing when so many weep.
The answer to all of that, and what I tried to compress for the reporter lady, was that art is the medium for our emotions. It embodies the response we have to the world around us and to things that happen to us, and whether we are creating the art or the audience for it, the language is the same. We need that language to make sense of the world, and often times we lack the creative force to find the right words, so we turn to art for it. Every time you have listened to Iqbal Bano sing ‘Dasht e Tanhai’ on a lonely, rainy afternoon, you have turned to art. Every time you have taken a photograph, you have turned to art to capture the moment. Every time you quote from a book or repost a quote on a pretty background on Facebook, you are turning to art to put words to your feelings.
We are prone to think of art in lofty terms. Art with a capital A, the great masters at work, Michelangelo’s fresco of God giving life to Adam, Shakespeare, the works. Art is that, but what one forgets is that the old art was contemporary then, and each era produces art that is actually meant to be accessible. Shakespeare, for example, wrote with the standing crowd in mind, and his scripts were delivered at top speed, the jokes mostly bawdy, aimed to please the audience in the stalls. The monologues probably went down better with the more genteel audiences in the balcony. That is the beauty of art, and the reason why Shakespeare was so popular- there was something for everyone. Art can mean anything you want it to, and therein lies the reason why we all need and indeed use it so often.
In the strange, mad and bad times we live in, in this confusing and conflicting world of ours, we need someone to be the voice of our worry. To put to music theache in our hearts. To paint the colours of our happiness, however fleeting. To embody in a real, concrete way the things we feel so deeply but have no way of expressing until a kindred spirit is able to do it for you. Art connects us because when we respond to it, whether with enthusiasm or disdain, we are not just saying a canvas or a photograph or a song is ‘nice’. We are, for that moment, looking at the world through someone else’s eyes, from the lens of their heart, and for that moment we are all just humans, in it together. It’s like the feeling you get when someone perfectly understands your facial expression without you having to say a word, only that happens usually with someone who knows you well. Art makes it happen amongst strangers. Art gives us all a language we can all speak.
In troubled times, distance from others is almost automatic. One is divided over political opinion, over differing moral and ethical and intellectual lines. You can’t go anywhere without someone or the other arguing over how many people are actually sitting around the containers or why DJ Butt didn’t deserve to be arrested. Dissent is natural, and we are a particularly contentious, critical and nitpicky sort of people. We love a good harangue and we love our strong opinions.
You could well say that a short story doesn’t matter. But we cannot deny the way Manto stays with all of us, because he gave words to the horror of Partition that other survivors couldn’t. You could say there’s no need for Coke Studio’s Season 7, but you cannot deny that when the national anthem plays, you stand up and you sing it, even if you don’t understand it. What you do understand is everyone singing it together, the lift in your heart when the trumpet plays, the solemnity of ‘saaya e khuda e zuljinah’. You understand that this music is the sound of the only thing that unites us, and that is that country; ‘quwat e akhuwat e awaam’—the strength of the brotherhood of the people. And that is why art is important, ever more so in troubled times. It reminds us that we are never alone.
The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.