Aesthetics and social capital: the case of Pakistan

January 23, 2022

With the institution of family in the state of steady erosion, the need for social capital becomes even more imperative

Aesthetics and social capital: the case of Pakistan

In the previous column, I tried to highlight a propensity (apathy) that has pervaded the Pakistani society to the very core. I underlined four facets: physical/instinctual, intellectual, moral and aesthetic, which constitute the human personality of an individual as well as that of a collective.

Complex intersections of these facets not only lay the foundation of a human civilisation, they are also vital instruments in the evolution of the society. My observation is that the Pakistani society is stuck with physical/instinctual facet. I tried to discuss three of these facets in the previous column. In this piece, I will start by underscoring the importance of aesthetics with respect to its appreciation (or disregard) by our society.

Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of beauty and taste as well as the philosophy of art. It examines values, often expressed through judgments of taste. Aesthetics covers both natural and artificial sources of aesthetic experience and judgment. It considers what happens in our minds when we engage with aesthetic objects or environments, such as viewing visual art, listening to music, reading poetry, experiencing a play or exploring nature.

The philosophy of art specifically studies how artists imagine, create, and perform works of art as well as how people use, enjoy and criticise art. Thus, an artwork with which we engage at a contemplative level, as opposed to performing a practical task, is what originates in us an aesthetic experience.

In Urdu and in Arabic, aesthetics is translated as jamaaliat — a derivation from the word jamaal which is translated as beauty. Ironically, jamaaliat has never been a part of our mainstream (national) narrative. At the levels of decision-making, there is hardly any appreciation of the fact that aesthetics is one of the primeval faculties that plays a vital role in cultivating the sensitivity, essential for anybody to qualify as human.

The society at large demonstrates same sort of inanity towards both the art and the artists. Besides Abdul Rahman Chughtai, very few artists have been feted socially or academically. Art exhibitions are rare and theatre is in an utter shambles so that there is little hope of its revival.

The film industry has been unable to re-invent itself after the Zia regime virtually muzzled it out of existence. All these factors have rendered us unable to appreciate beauty, balance, and proportion.

Even television channels, after having made politics and political debate that signifies preposterous exchange of fiddlesticks into a form of entertainment, have rendered great disservice to the cause of art. The consequences of indifference to such an important facet are dire. Our people, across the caste and class divides, have developed a thick skin and social myopia that prevents them from seeing anything beyond their own selves.

A society is atomised where voluntary associations have not evolved. The Edhi Foundation has been an exception but it attained recognition after several decades of unflinching resolve of one man.

One instance proves the point. Felling of age-old trees to widen roads is not something that baffles us. In Lahore, Lawrence Garden (Bagh-i-Jinnah) has been squeezed to make more space for the vehicles to pass by. The same has been done to the Shalimar Gardens.

The projects (several critics call them monstrosities) like the Metro Bus and Orange Train are a disaster for the environment and have thrown Lahore’s beauty into jeopardy. We can see a mindset at work that is totally devoid of the aesthetic sense. The mindset is dominated by a concept of development that has no idea of taste or sense of proportion.

That probably is the reason that the practical aspects of development have added shabbiness to our urban spaces. Our apathy towards nature and various objects of nature is a big cause of our social malaise. Closely concerned is our environment and our carefree attitude towards it.

Aesthetic sense, involvement with Nature and concern for the environment are intertwined and complement one another. Renowned polymath, Jared Diamond, attaches extraordinary significance to the environment as a factor in the organic growth of the society.

But now I will turn to another important facet, the scant presence of social capital in our midst. This is a big cause of our societal degeneration. But first, let me define social capital with utmost brevity. Social capital is the equivalent of what used to be called public spirit defined more precisely in terms of trust, norms and networks, informal social links that may be mobilised to get some things done. This concept became a focus of scholarly interest in the1990s because of theoretical formulation of the American political scientist, Robert Putnam.

While studying Italy, he described North Italy where institutions worked better because there was more co-operation and less mistrust. The characteristics were conspicuously absent in Southern Italy. He also studied the United States and argued that its stock of social capital, measured by participation in voluntary associations, had steadily declined over several decades.

When it comes to Pakistan, mutual trust among the countrymen is abysmally low. This leads to a deficient level of cooperation. Therefore, the social fabric is inherently weak and unsustainable. Mutual mistrust and lack of cooperation is quite pronounced in the urban spaces.

Thus, the society is atomised and voluntary associations have not evolved. The Edhi Foundation has been an exception but it attained recognition after several decades of unflinching resolve of one man, which is hard to emulate by ordinary humans.

To conclude, I assert that with the institution of family in a state of steady erosion, the need for social capital becomes even more imperative. Pakistani intelligentsia must play an active role to provide moral anchorage to our social formation. Social movement with an explicit aim to create a social ethos may enable Pakistanis to trust one another.

One must be mindful of the fact that not everything can be left to the government to attend to. The society has an equally important role to perform not only to sustain itself but also to keep growing at a steady pace.

Aesthetics and social capital: the case of Pakistan