THE WAY IT WAS: Art and globalisation —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Globalisation is being perceived today as a coercive force. Its most controversial aspect is the neo-liberal economic onslaught by the powerful, industrialised nations. It is heartening that perhaps for the first time the people of North and South have jointly demonstrated all over the globe against the imposition of harsh and exploitative measures of GATT and WTO

In the post-colonial era the Third World has undergone two distinct phases. In the first phase they were made to feel that they were no longer at the bottom of the pit but on the fringes of the great cultural centres like Paris and New York. Before that — as a light-hearted aside, I recall, David Frost quipped in his talk show on the BBC in the early sixties that racist South Africa had enforced a law by which the white keys in the pianos were separated from the black keys. A white person played the white keys and a black person played the black ones.

In the second phase, the word ‘contemporary’ was brought into circulation. In this phase, an artist aspiring to be ‘contemporary’ had to create global art that had severed itself off its ethnic, national and regional ties. It was terribly homogenous and bland like the food that is served by the airlines on international flights so as to appear slick but not offensive to any taste. Most contemporary art from New York to New Zealand or America to Asia looks the same. For an Asian artist to be admitted to this neutral, trans-national zone, he had yet again to get his/ her visa endorsed by the West.

Let me add in passing that as a reaction to contemporary art some artists and galleries reacted by mounting and promoting art that made virtue of ethnic and regional individuality. While this challenged the international monopoly of cotemporary art, it tilted to the other extreme. Ethnic and regional identities are forged by the past and frozen in time. An artist while being a product of the past must overcome parochial limitations and aspire to have a larger and more composite human vision of him self and the world.

The Post-Modern period presents an alternative narrative and practice. Although it mocks the great European tradition of painting, in a way it liberated painting from highbrow pretentiousness of Modern Art. I remember when a stranger asked the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai what he thought of the hippies, he responded by saying that there were many ways of expressing revolt against the establishment and that the hippie movement was one of the forms. In the sphere of the sartorial arts it was revolt of the Carnegie Street against the Seville Row. I remember as a student in 1962 quite unwittingly buying a rough cotton blue shirt worn by the slave farm labour in the southern American states, as a result of which my English friends at Cambridge regarded me, considerably avant-garde. But let’s not forget that Post Modernism is a product of the inner crisis of Modernism or — in plain words — Capitalism, like the hippy movement was in the sixties. In these circumstances elephant dung displayed at the Tate Gallery in recent years is not going to hurt any one, although the question remains, as I pointed out on another occasion, which is the artist the elephant that defecated or the person who transported the shit at the Tate?

Incidentally, lest anyone forget, in the West, Capitalism is more sacred today than Christianity. An artist can immerse the Holy Cross into an empty jam bottle filled with his urine and display it without fear as a work of art on a street in Manhattan, but try offending the multinational monopolies or attacking their cultural and material assets and you will be regarded blasphemous, declared a terrorist and held in Bay for the rest of your existence. Maybe that is the reason why the Western artists have — quite sensibly — agreed to work within the system. Democracy and Pluralism are eminent needs of Capitalism but for us they end where capitalism begins.

While Post Modernism attacks the avant-garde, highlights some social concerns such as minorities and gender issues, sexual preference, and defends marginal cultures, it trivialises cultural traditions and the high moral ground that modernism sought to defend.

For an artist from Asia to be Modern it is imperative for him to rely on his own perceptions and collective experience. Modernism as it emerged during and after the Great Wars, in its essence was neither a style nor a set of rules and forms. It was an invitation to an artist to be always ready to renew himself through his perceptions, awareness of his environment and information that relentlessly flows to him — often causing pain and provocation.

Globalisation is being perceived today as a coercive force. The most controversial aspect of globalisation is the neo- liberal economic onslaught by the powerful, industrialised nations. It is heartening that perhaps for the first time the people of North and South have jointly demonstrated all over the globe against the imposition of harsh and exploitative measures of GATT and WTO. The protest marked the beginning of global solidarity movement, which signifies an alternative type of globalisation.

Some intellectuals feel that cultural aspects of globalisation are rather problematic. The cultural nationalists, whether they are Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshis; Muslim fundos, Hindu fundos or the American Christian fundos and neo-conservatives, find the spread of legitimate, liberal values threatening to their notion of cultural purity. An urgent need exists today to establish a cultural strategy in order to reinterpret and establish an alternative discourse to Modernism, The Contemporary and the Post Modern narratives. That is where the Third World critics come in.

Some basic issues need to be particularly addressed: A) Why in our discourse do we have to accord centrality to the issues that are of concern to the artists in London, Paris or New York? B) Should our narrative not concern our own real issues and not be detracted by events and happenings in museums and galleries of affluent consumer societies. C) Should we not set our own agendas and priorities and not be swayed by the seemingly liberal neo-colonial deceptions that detract our artist from his role as a creative precursor of new ideas and dispenser of a vision of new human possibilities?

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist. This is the second part of the paper presented at the International Seminar hosted by the National Section of International Art Critics Association (AICA) on November 25-26, at Karachi. The first part appeared in this paper on December 14, 2004