An Open Letter to Artists in Pakistan
Rasheed Araeen Bio
Rasheed Araeen in front of Third Text archive,
Rasheed Araeen in front of Third Text archive, photo Socrates, Mitsios, 2006

During my last visit to Karachi in during December 2007 and January 2008, Durriya Kazi asked me: 'What can artists do...?'  I couldn't respond to her question immediately. But it kept me thinking. However, I think Durriya's question was not just about what was happening politically, but about art's social role in society and how one could take up this role effectively.

I'm glad that artists in Pakistan are concerned with political situation in the country, and want to do something to improve it. I therefore welcome the recent meeting of artists in Karachi on 29 February 2008. I wish I had been there and joined the meeting. However, it is imperative to recognize, first of all, that art does not possess the quality to intervene directly in political power and change it. All that artists can do is to protest against the violation of basic human rights and the suppression of the rights of individuals for self-expression. In this respect, I'm in solidarity with the meeting.

This meeting has however given me an opportunity to say something about the situation of art in Pakistan. The main problem here, in my view, is not and should not be only about what is external to art (politics) but, more importantly, what constitutes art itself and the nature of its own production and recognition. Why do we make art? Is it merely to express one's inner needs, or/and to understand one's place in society? If it provides a value to society, how do we detect or recognise it? And how do we assess its significance? Do we have a rational system by which to discuss it, assess its merits and significance?

These questions are seldom asked in Pakistan, let alone to pursue a critical discourse that can deal with these questions. When in fact I look at art in Pakistan, I find it extremely depressing. Every Tom, Dick and Harry (sorry for this expression) claims to be an artist. The problem here is not so much to do with someone claiming to be an artist, but with the problem of its reception and acceptance. First, does the claimant understand why he or she is an artist and what constitutes a responsibility in this respect? I'm not invoking here one's social or political responsibility, but a responsibility to art itself. Art demands a serious responsibility, dedication and commitment within its own discourse, which I'm sorry to say is totally lacking in Pakistan. Second, as for those who claim to be critics, I have not yet come across anyone who has the ability to distinguish horses from donkeys. The consequence of all this is that art in Pakistan, in general, has become deeply immersed in the culture of mediocrity. Worst of all, nobody can question or challenge this situation and change it, because mediocrity is the basis of power in Pakistan, and the imagination which is fundamental to art is trapped within and its existence is dependent on this power. In fact, it is not just mediocrity but its celebration that leads to the delusion of great claims: a spectacle of self-aggrandisement that is the product of infantile mentality.  

Let me be more specific about the problem of art in Pakistan. First of all, we must recognise that art is not just about making (pretty) pictures, sculpture (which doesn't exist in Pakistan), or what is now fashionable — performance, video or installation art — but a discipline. In order to understand the seriousness of the word 'discipline', let us turn to other disciplines, such as various braches of science, and see if we can learn something from this comparison. No serious scientist would ever say: 'Look, this what I do. This comes from inside me...', and so on. If someone were to say this, he or she would be dismissed as an idiot. But this happens in art all the time, specifically in Pakistan.

The function of science is to produce new knowledge, so is (and must be) the function of art. In order to judge and evaluate the significance of what is claimed to be new knowledge, whether in science or art, it must be placed within the whole body of knowledge humanity has so far produced.   

Of course, the rules of art are not as rigid as those of science. Art involves one's own human subjectivity, and this subjectivity operates somewhat differently in science. It seems that art demands much more freedom of imagination, more play with the material involved in making art. But both art and science have something common: their histories. These histories tell us how both art and science originated and how they have evolved since their origins, accumulating a body of knowledge or ideas that are now there for humanity with which to move forward into the future. In fact, without an understanding of this body of knowledge — specifically of art, as this is our concern here — we cannot understand our present situation and have a vision of the future.

Since I have used the analogy of science to explain the problems of art, let me take you to the time when I was a student of science. I'm in the chemistry lab with some of my fellow students, working with some chemicals. When we mix two chemicals, a fantastic change takes place in the tube with the appearance of a beautiful colour. We see in front of us a spectacle so exciting that we all jump with laughter. While we are amusing ourselves, our chemistry professor passes by: 'Ah, you think this is magic. Do you know why has this happened?' We are first dumfounded, by this sudden question, but then try to explain. If we didn’t know that there was a rational explanation for what happened in front of our eyes, we would have been thrown out of the lab. We would have no right to be there pretending to be doing serious work.

Art has now also been turned into a spectacle, and we amuse ourselves with it but without knowing if there is anything significant behind or within this spectacle. This came home to me recently when I watched the program 'Khuli Baat' on Pakistani TV on 24 December 2007. It was paying homage to Ismail Gulgee, who had been brutally murdered a few days earlier, and it was right that we had this program. It was also right on this occasion not to look at his work critically. But the participants — who were important members of Karachi’s intellectual life — did talk about his work and put him high on a pedestal of greatness. Gulgee may be one of the great artists of Pakistan. But how do we know? Did anyone talk about the source of his work? Yes, they did. The words 'action painting' were repeatedly used. But no one asked how action painting arrived in Pakistan, and why? How come Gulgee became an action painter overnight, without a difficult process that artists have to go through to discover something new?

A few weeks later, an article on Gulgee appeared in Dawn, the leading English daily newspaper published in Karachi (13 January 2008), in which the writer claimed Gulgee to be a visionary who 'harnessed the energy of the gesture in Islamic calligraphy and fused it with the dynamism of modern action painting'. If it were an ordinary journalist, one could ignore this nonsense. But these were the words of an important critic who did not know that there is nothing in Islamic calligraphy which can be described as 'gesture'. Islamic calligraphy is contemplative, which is opposite of the gestural angst of action painting. The meeting of Islamic calligraphy and action painting is like a meeting of two opposing forces; they cannot be fused without going through a confrontation out of which must emerge a synthesis. We do not find this in Gulgee's work. In fact, the supposed presence of Islamic calligraphy in Gulgee's work is an illusion, a superimposition or a mask, to hide what is a disturbing reality underneath; a reality that has entered Pakistan as a cancer to destroy its creative body with its own authentic vision.

It is not my aim here to offer a critical scrutiny of Gulgee's work (I have written an article on him, but I was told it would not be possible to publish it in Pakistan). I'm here only using his example to ask some questions which are fundamental to art; questions that must be asked if we are interested in the seriousness of art. Artists must concern themselves with what is happening in Pakistan, but whoever comes to power will make little difference to art. The problem is not only with who is in power, but the culture of mediocrity that has penetrated our every walk of life and is destroying our creative imagination.   

I am writing all this because I have a faith and confidence in people's creativity in Pakistan. We don't have to look to the West and follow whatever it offers; nor should we succumb to nostalgia for the Mughals. Artists can offer an example, if not a lead, in developing a modern vision for Pakistan which is not only its own but offers a way forward for humanity at large.   

With best wishes,

Rasheed Araeen
London, 2 March 2008



Rasheed Araeen is the founding editor of Third Text. The journal has been published since 1987 and is now in its 92nd issue. The Asian edition, Third Text Asia, is being launched in April 2008 in Karachi, Pakistan.



Rasheed ARAEEN

Tue, 1 Apr 2008

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