A substitute for the real thing

By Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan




Where must everyone stand in this landscape is a matter that each must judge for himself individually. What must a poet or a painter address is a question to which each writer and artist must find his own answer

Some people believe great poets and painters must transcend the mean, small events and tackle larger existential and cosmological issues rather than dealing with human beings. Others say man is what he does; actions make a man.

How can an artist or a writer these days merely reminisce about the past or dilate over his aesthetic or private inner life when he can smell the stench of rotting flesh, hear tragic chants of wailing women, peer at the gory sights of decimated human bodies spread like litter — flesh stuck to walls, limbs dangling from ceiling fans. Can an artist detach himself from such events and indulge in esoteric pursuits? Art ultimately is the product of an artist’s mental processes. But the question is: What should concern the artist since art is not a product or an end in itself.

A distinctive trait of modern art has been that it lives off itself. One art movement takes off from the previous one. It spurns description and yet depends for its own existence on words. The periods of modernism and now post-modernism are glutted with endless tracts of verbosity and inventive jargon by which the trivial can be elevated, the trite can be imbued with profound meaning and vice versa.

Are events in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq a legitimate subject for painting? Why were the cubists, who evolved an inventive bold method with which they could express the profound new ideas of their time and address important events, content with painting bottles and guitars? Even the great Picasso after painting the Guernica and the rather timid presentation of the Korean War regressed into making playful forays into formal dimensions of his creative deliberations.

I salute the photographers who, armed with loaded video cameras, have the courage to be in the heat of battle, frequently caught between the crossfire. In the old days — a relief that they are no more — it was months, sometimes years before a distant event would reach one. The slow pace of information helped exonerate those who could have intervened in time. The German Jews were herded to gas chambers by the thousands but the world came to know of it years later. I believe the Allies knew but feigned ignorance.

Today, ignorance can’t be an excuse. Everything is happening on the television screen. The media is controlled and manipulated but there are enough honest journalists who are not afraid to report truth, often at the cost of their lives. The art, today, more than ever before, cannot be considered an inherited or an acquired creative skill: it has to be physically lived and acted out. I recall an hour-long documentary produced by the BBC on the events in Bosnia and titled ‘Two Hours from London’. About eight to 10 cameramen lost their lives in filming the brutal assaults and cleansing of the Bosnian people. It was not fiction based on reported events but live events. And yet it was more intense and moving than ‘Apocalypse Now’, the famous film on the Vietnam War.

In the last scene the camera zooms in on the placid face of a young woman seated on a bench and lost in a trance. There is no other living human in sight; the neighbourhood has been reduced to rubble. A battered apartment building with shattered windows and gaping holes stares in silent disbelief. A stray polythene bag and fragments of paper roll around in the freezing draught across the town square. If there were a brass band playing in the distance, it would have transformed the scene into a veritable Federico Fellini presenting a slice of experience leaving us to make up our own mind. But in this case in the tradition of neo-realism it is unambiguous in presenting pain, human suffering and waste, ensuing from upsurge of madness among a herd of humans: the irresistible urge to kill and purge those who aspire a different faith.

There is an indistinguishable line that separates civilisation from barbarism, sanity from dementia, but each human must be judged for what he does, and his actions make him what he is. I wonder if in the case of ‘Two Hours From London’ Michelangelo Antonioni would have quipped as he did about Vittorio de Sica that if he had made ‘Bicycle Thieves’ he would have told us more about the man and less about the bicycle.

For many years now, in fact for centuries, man has been led to believe that he was something special, because he could reason, he had invented science and was able to distinguish what was good for him, the society and the world as a whole.

Man aspired to be larger than himself. He tried to explain his actions in a moral context. Literature is full of vivid examples where heroes are made to pay the price for their aberrations, even when they are inadvertently committed. In the Greek world, protagonists may repent but there is no forgiveness. In the Christian Europe’s literature and cinema, a recurring theme has been the Fall of Man and his Redemption. In the modern times it has been increasingly questioned whether individual redemption was possible by penance or living a virtuous life.

Philosopher-poets have awfully complicated our lives by redefining individual responsibility. The balloon of intimate individual existence inflated with personal dreams and aspirations has been pricked by an enhanced collective awareness. Individual redemption today is only possible through collective human struggle to redeem itself from pain and degradation inflicted by tyrants. Where must everyone stand in this landscape is a matter that each must judge for himself individually. What must a poet or a painter address is a question to which each writer and artist must find his own answer.

I am here once again reminded of Antonioni. In ‘The Eclipse’ when the heroine who is open to experience is confronted by substitutes for the real thing, which is all the bourgeois society can offer her, she says, “We don’t have to know each other to love, and perhaps we don’t have to love...” In the end, “The eclipse of the emotions casts its shadow” writes Penelope Houston, “and when finally darkness descends on a street corner it is as though a world was ending.” Let us not let that happen.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist