The Social Significance of Art
Most, if not all, children like to make marks. Infants start making marks if handed a mark-making tool by the age of one and a half years. For the infant, the line emerging from the tip of a stick is nothing less than magic. Soon they start scribbling everywhere. At this stage, there is no attempt at representation, rather, a circular movement is followed which comes naturally, given the anatomy of the hand and arm.
Soon children discover that the marks can be symbolic. But at this stage, the symbol does not necessarily have to be representational of the thing it stands for. Slowly the child develops the skill to match the symbol with the thing, for example, a human figure is made by adding arms and legs to a circle that stands for a head. These details keep getting more intricate with the addition of other body parts such as eyes and fingers. By age four, children become aware of gender differences, color preferences, style of clothing, etc. By this time, children also start developing the skill to combine representations to tell stories to express themselves or to make sense of the world. By age nine, children begin to get interested in representation more than in symbolic storytelling. They start drawing their favourite cartoons, cars or action heroes. Girls get more interested in drawing flowers and patterns. This is also the time when most children grow disinterested in drawing. The two biggest reasons for this are dissatisfaction with their drawing skills and discouragement from elder figures.
I, too, loved to draw as a child. My mother’s makeup kit was my first palette. I used to draw everywhere: on the walls, on my grandmother’s bible, on my school books. As I grew older, I continued to draw as a hobby and drew immense pleasure from it. Ironically, during the very first year of art school, the joy I felt while drawing fizzled out. This was partly because drawing was seen merely as a preliminary step during the process of making artwork and partly because of the over-emphasis on the idea. The art education I received was so concept driven that I could not draw even a single line without thinking about the reason for it first.
Moreover, I soon realized that art was a commodity fetish fueling a capitalistic international art market and artists were cogs in a machine with a false sense of freedom. Contemporary art was like the story of the ’emperor’s new clothes’ and everyone was playing along either for some personal gain or because of the fear of appearing dumb for not getting it.
Making art seemed like a game so I learned the tricks and chose to play. When it was time for me to pick a theme for my art, the choice came readymade. I was a Christian. What could be more enticing to the Western art galleries than a Christian artist based in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan making artwork about his plight as a Christian minority? But, in truth, I had never suffered as a minority in Pakistan and had no emotional connection with those who had suffered, since discrimination in Pakistan is usually based on caste (surviving legacy of Indian caste system) and social standing rather than religion. Internal strife led me to give up making artwork about my own experience as a Christian and, instead, I turned towards other Pakistani Christians’ suffering as content for my artwork.
At the time, I convinced myself that I was fighting for their rights. But soon I grew uneasy as I could not ignore the fact that by making artworks about others’ suffering I was not changing anything and, worse still, I was directly benefiting from their tragedy: I was using their stories for personal gain. I felt disgusted with myself. I was fed up with the art world and my artwork appeared powerless to me.
I longed for the pleasure I had derived from drawing as a child and wanted to rediscover the passion for drawing. But I knew I would not be able to draw with freedom until I clearly understood the process of drawing and its need and purpose. While struggling to answer these questions, I realized, much to my frustration, that art historians, theorists and critics had presented views that were self-serving and self-referential. I had better luck when I turned to other disciplines, anthropology and psychology in particular, for answers. One scholar whose work proved the most enlightening for me was Ellen Dissanayake.
Dissanayake wrote her first book on the subject of art, titled What is Art For, in 1988, in which she described art as behavior and emphasized its evolutionary significance for the human species. She is unique in her approach in the sense that instead of focusing on the art object, she writes about the process of making art. She calls this process, for the lack of a better term, ‘Making Special’. She proposes that making art is a behavioral tendency that developed in early hominids somewhere along with their evolution one to four million years ago.
This behavior must have improved the chances of survival of the host for it to have developed and been preserved through natural selection. Dissanayake finds this reason to be the impulse to create a symbolic order parallel to the natural order as a way to escape its violence and to exercise control over the chaotic powers of nature.
If the behavior of making special has evolved in the human species through natural selection and adds to their quality of life, then it should be practiced by everyone and not just by a select few who have been trained in ‘making special objects ‘ and given the authority to practice ‘making special’ by the self-serving art world. The label of the ‘artist’ should be dissolved, along with all the structures of the art world.
Everyone should be an artist, as I feel that labeling only some people as ‘artists’ and placing them on pedestals turns ‘art’ into this complex activity, perhaps akin to doing surgery or developing a drug, which requires inborn talent, special education, and years of practice. This intimidates people and they develop a creative block―the art gallery or museum is an intimidating space. A visitor, seeing the crowd in front of the heavily guarded Mona Lisa, can be scared of not ‘getting it’ and not being intelligent enough to appreciate ‘high art’.
The art gallery or museum’s function is to maintain the status quo of high art and of all those who are linked to it in some way. The art world has become self-destructive and as collateral damage, the arts suffer. Only a radical rethinking can restore the arts to their rightful place in society. I am not against the arts, neither am I trying to undermine their importance for society. On the contrary, I am insisting that art is too integral for the development of a balanced personality for its practice to be restricted to a select few.
The shift from art being a privileged activity to it being a cultural phenomenon has to be slow. This shift cannot happen as a result of a change in policy on the governing level, it can only happen through educating people about the real value of art. Contemporary art has gone full circle and has become so vague that its actual purpose has become confusing. The arts are aboard the sinking ship of contemporary art. They should be rescued and brought safely back to the mainland, that is, society at large.