By Ammar Aziz
Art, in the “free world” we live in, has become the monopoly of the ruling classes which suits the basic nature of their exploitative system by doing both, generating profits and keeping the people in a state of confused contentment
An art exhibition was going on in a posh gallery of Lahore. Installation art was the medium and you could find strange ‘art objects’, hanging and placed, in all the dimensions of space. The gathering – filled with high class ‘intellectual socialites’ and art critics – was enough to represent a ‘positive image of Pakistan’. That positive yet so unrealistic image consisted of the postmodern works by many famous artists. While passing from one side of the gallery, I looked at an art piece. It was one and a half brick, placed on a tiny table with the artist’s name. I kept moving and found a blank canvas, hanging in the middle of a wall. A few art critics were trying to understand the “depth of white” from that blank canvas while others were satisfying their intellectual thirst by relating those bricks to the complications of “consciousness and unconsciousness”. At the end of the gallery, at one corner, a couple of multicolored electric wires were exhibited on the floor. I found that art piece the most interesting of all. I was still trying to figure out what that meant when all of a sudden a man – probably an electrician who was working there – came, grabbed the wires and went away!
Art in our times has lost everything – content – form – meaning and purpose.
It has become a possession of a minority that has not only commodified its very social nature but also has destroyed its aesthetic beauty. This approach, however, has been viewed as the ‘next big thing’ in the philosophical premises of art and being highly praised by the West. One wonders, what’s the reason of promoting a meaningless generation of art in the name of intellect or, more precisely, postmodernism? Why is there a rising trend of obscure and pretentious creations that create a wedge between the intellectuals and the masses? This chaos, known as art, shows the philosophical and ideological conflicts of the 2oth century and their tragic consequences after the end of the cold war. This emerging craze of strictly meaningless art has its roots back in the political interests of the Western Imperialism. The advocates of ‘free-market’ who talk about ‘artistic freedom’ negate the social relevance of art, by limiting it to merely subjective and usually nihilistic themes if not completely meaningless. What on earth is that artistic freedom that rejects the objective truth? The philosophy behind such art is as perplexing as the art itself. Chomsky while criticizing the postmodern theorists said, ““Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, even Foucault…write things that I also don’t understand but don’t hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me.”
The realism- phobia that started during the cold war era still exists in the capitalist West and its intellectual-allies throughout the world, including Pakistan. I remember how one of our ‘liberal’ art history teachers at NCA viciously declared social realism merely as a propaganda while romanticizing abstract expressionism as “the avant-garde” art form.
I feel it’s important here to discuss briefly the origin of this irrational fear of realism. In order to counter the ideologically strong, realistically significant and aesthetically appealing Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union, the CIA came up with a secret policy in the 1950s– known as ‘long leash’ – to promote that sheer nonsense known as abstract expressionism in order to prove the “intellectual freedom” of the US. Donald Jameson – a former CIA officer – conceded in an interview, “yes the agency saw Abstract Expressionism as an opportunity, and yes, it ran with it. It was recognised that Abstract Expressionism was the kind of art that made Socialist Realism look even more stylised and more rigid and confined than it was.”
The materialist analysis of history reveals that art has always been important to people, since its earliest beginnings from the dark caves of France to the present day. What’s the element that has kept those prehistoric cave paintings alive even after tens of thousands of years? Their ability of being understandable owing to their astonishing realism! This not only drives our attention to the fact that art’s initial beginnings were based on the representations of the actual world but also enforces the idea that art was meant for some social purposes. Do you think those prehistoric people would have gone that deeply, crawling into the inaccessible recesses of the dark caves to draw something for the sake of decoration? I highly doubt it. Such drawings were an important ritual among those hunter gatherer societies – a ritual they used to perform for the success of hunting animals for food! Thus, art started evolving as a social activity rather than an individual act.
With the division of labor and evolution of private property – that culminated in the division of mankind into classes, separating mental labor from manual labor and art from craft, the very basic character of art lost its social significance and became a commodity – a meaningless commodity whose nasty importance is based on its price like any other thing in a capitalist society. For example, Van Gogh, who died in extreme poverty, is amongst the most ‘valuable’ painters of the world whose paintings change hands at auctions for millions of dollars. If, somehow, his works go out of fashion tomorrw, these so-called art lovers would divest themselves just like the dealers get rid of the falling shares on the floor of the stock market. Thus, art, in the “free world” we live in, has become the monopoly of the ruling classes which suits the basic nature of their exploitative system in two ways: a) it generates profit b) it keeps people in a state of confused contentment. That minority always use and abuse the role of art and culture for their own gluttonous interests. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engles explain, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force”.
Every sensible rational mind should understand that the cultural aspects of any society (superstructure) can not be fully understood when separated from the material economic conidtions of that society (base). Every society is shaped by the relations of production and exchange (economics) that form its base. History’s most liberating event – the October Revolution – when the working-class played the most important role in striving for a society free of exploitation, alienation and oppression – started an era of undying art that was the outcome of the very basic philosophy their revolution was based on: Dialectical Materialism which has an inseparable relation with realism. The opposing forces of proletarian revolution saw their art – that reflected their liberation and motivated them to struggle – as one of their biggest enemies. But the artists, all over the world, who emerged after the revolution, were able to base themselves on a very rich and progressive tradition of Social and Socialist realism. Progressive Writers Movement is the Pakistani chapter of that internationalist movement of art.
Consider a situation where entertainment no longer works as industries but only as activities necessary to human well-being. Art loses its exclusive and individual character under Socialism and becomes the ownership of all. It doesn’t only reflect the matter but plays its heroic role in changing that too. The masses, so long bound to submit in silence, find a new voice and witness a radical transition. An artist’s role is to fight for the economic emancipation of mankind to gain the lost soul of humanity. Art has played an important role since the birth of mankind and this role will not only conitnue but be greatly enhanced and gloroified when art would become a cause to beautify life. That would be “humanity’s leap from the realm of neceassity to the realm of freedom” in the words of Engles. Diego Rivera, the Mexican Communist Muralist painter, concluded the aims of revolutionary art at the end of his Manifesto, which is the need of our times:
“The independence of art for the Revolution”
Author is an independent film-maker, a political activist, and he also teaches film theory at NCA lahore.