Of art and taste

June 26, 2022

The tables have turned. Now the political is of significance; the rest is seen as of lesser importance when it comes to art and the alignment of the two is what makes it all meaningful and protects it from becoming frivolous

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hese days, whatever is seen as topical is given more importance in the arts than something that is not directly related to the events that are taking place around the world. More so in the Western world which has led us by the nose to ‘show us the way’, ‘determine our priorities’ and ‘fix our taste’.

Though it may sound very abrasive to many who have for decades tried to establish their own narrative as a counter to the meta-narratives that emanate from the sources holding the manipulative strings; broadly speaking, it is so.

The irony is that some decades ago we were told that being besotted with the topical was a shortcoming that the left-leaning art suffered from and that the pointedness of the entire exercise missed the point entirely. Obviously, it was colonisation and its effects that were the main themes over which the narrative was constructed, for it was thought to be of great significance. It was something that ruled our entire world and to fight against it, to struggle and to find one’s own bearings was of greater importance than anything else.

The tables have turned. Now the political is of significance and the rest is seen as of lesser importance. The alignment of the two is what makes it all meaningful and protects it from becoming frivolous. There is also an assumption that the kneejerk reaction might be more appealing than the one that may be more laid back, as the mulling over the fact, the event or the happening is time taking and makes it all about something that is passé. The journalistic urge to be the first to break a story reappears to assert its relevance in the arts.

In the past, and not so distant a past, the preoccupation with the classical forms was seen either as nostalgia or being seduced by the structures of privilege and plenty. It smacked of indulgence and was thought to be not really applicable to the problems of the common person life. Or it was too remote because it was well-wrought and therefore in a way a top-down legislation on what good taste meant. Its opposite were the folk forms that were, so to say more representative of the immediate and the instant and thus spoke about the masses in simpler terms - a virtue in itself. This binary of classical versus the folk ruled the roost for many decades.

But the entire paradigm went into a tailspin with the arts being relegated to a secondary position and in promoting the values invested in religion. For the past four decades or so the relevance has been substituted by the religious truth and it is seen as the real thing, an affirmation that only if overlaid with it, is of value. The substitution or replacement of the arts by religion has reduced it to a means to an end.

So where does it all leave the art forms that were created in direct response to nature? Once living in an agriculture-based society with the economics entirely tied to the seasons, the lifestyle was totally coloured by it and the responses in arts too were as if completely dovetailed. The people now living in urban capes are not that well-exposed to the elements and actually have lost the awareness and sensitivity that was considered to be the building blocks of understanding and emotional receptivity. The life patterns too revolve around office timings and the work schedule of industrial regimen rather than be in tune with the sowing and the harvesting of the crops. The rain in the cities is seen more as a relief from relentless summer heat or as a cause of urban flooding than assessed in terms of its impact on agricultural produce. People associated with agriculture are at times appalled by the total unawareness to the weather cycle and its significance for the crops and agriculture produce and appear to be outsiders in the cityscape where fellow dwellers have other concerns and priorities.

The resurgence of religion in the recent past and the arts being the handmaiden of religion is a throwback as old as the debate itself. That the arts are a handmaiden to politics is also as old as the collective human memory goes. The real issue is whether the arts are autonomous and have their own justification and hence significance or are mere sugar-coated facilitations that serve some other end.

It could be that art does not have the real potential to be on its own or that the arts have always been considered too freewheeling and hence dangerous in their autonomy. Hence, the desire or the urgency to peg it to another end – the strictures against the arts by those promoting order testify to its insidious credentials.


The author is a culture critic based in Lahore



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