The way it was: Gelded art and gilded capitalism

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

I must confess that the economic forces set into motion by capitalism are quite awesome. Many people of my generation fought to the best of their abilities for democracy and human rights. Is it not ironic that today the forces of imperialism should have usurped that agenda from us

Aldous Huxley believes that no activity, research and speculation, is possible without a preliminary hypothesis about the nature and the purpose of things. Human mind cannot deal with the Universe directly and can only work on a simplified symbolic plan, abstracted by the mind out of the complex and multifarious reality of man’s immediate intuition. A premises or a hypothesis may be wrong but ‘Man approaches the unattainable truth through a succession of errors.’ Having ‘invented’ a hypothesis, he proceeds to act upon it. Experience shows him where he erred, which leads him to an indefinite process of questioning and modifying the hypothesis. Huxley believes, ‘thought must be divided against itself before it can come to any knowledge of itself.’ He also points out that ‘religious hypotheses, being less susceptible of experimental verification than the hypotheses of science, have undergone less modification.’ (Wordsworth in the Tropics, Purple Patch, Daily Times.)

What does this mean? Applied to contemporary situation it means, simply, that today believers and some liberals are really birds of the same feather. For most believers religion is an act of faith, which needs neither verification nor modification. Most liberals would have no truck with someone who upholds a hypothesis or an ideology for explaining or understanding the world and human conduct. None will submit to reason and the right of others to uphold a belief or hypothesis that is at variance with their own. It is ironic that Liberals should themselves rigidly uphold their ideology while denying others the same luxury.

Albert Einstein writes, ‘I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’ I believe Einstein must always have begun with a hypothesis and then proceeded to investigate its veracity. Having a premise is different from blindly believing in something. In the first case a person proceeds with doubt, in the latter he begins with an act of faith.

In today’s world, an idea or premise that fails to laud the benefits of globalisation and market economy is considered obscurantist. People, who happily give away their self for a cause, are declared terrorists. Regardless of the predatory intrusion of foreign capital across sovereign national boundaries, it is supposed in the end to take care of everything. When the flood abates, regardless of how many continents have been drowned, the water will establish an equal level. It is in this hope that humanity must find its solace. Speculations about the world and fate of man are futile. Attempts to abstract from ‘immediate intuition’ or experience, the means to redress appalling disparities, should be regarded positively subversive. And all those who fight to defend their sovereignty, their homes and their way of life can only be terrorists who should be put down on sight for the general good. Join us or get killed, is the slogan of the day. Might has always been right, but never before was it so abundantly declared right.

I must confess that the economic forces set into motion by capitalism are quite awesome. Many people of my generation fought to the best of their abilities for democracy and human rights. Is it not ironic that today the forces of imperialism should have usurped that agenda from us? It is evident that, today, human rights in their hands should become a tool of aggression. It provides the imperialist power a ready excuse to invade and interfere in the conduct of weaker countries to promote its own political and economic interests, on the plea of establishing democracy or correcting human rights misdemeanours.

In the field of art, when in the sixties the new generation tried to create an alternative culture, it was not opposed but effortlessly absorbed by the economic forces of capitalism. Even the men’s ware at London’s Carnegie Street, considered quite weird in the beginning, soon became a symbol of the avant-garde. They were selling at higher prices than clothes in some of the pricey stores on Bond Street.

Similarly, Pop Art was considered an errant art movement at its inception. It was in fact anti-art, which dismissed and mocked abstract art for being esoterically speculative and irrelevant. Pop artist deliberately supported the lowbrow popular images because they were common and considered vulgar by the highbrow modern artists. Their inspiration came from road signs, labels, advertisements, hoardings and objects associated with mass consumption. It was a revolt against non-representational painting and its highbrow aesthetic pretensions. It was not long before the galleries, instead of declaring it trash, baptized it instead. By the sixties, it was accepted as a new vital art form and praised for its vernacular character.

Since the sixties there have been successive efforts to challenge established institutions and aesthetic standards and ideas. Some of these have been in opposition to the authority of museums and the exploitative character of the galleries. Others have been directed not merely against the crass commercial forces of capitalism, but were hostile to the anti-humanist nature of capitalism itself. Let us not forget that many of the prominent modern painters had strong leftwing leanings. They were, however, not sidelined or silenced but absorbed by the ‘System’. But artists continued their struggle. The Conceptualist artist who felt that the dealers exploited their work and the museums buried it alive, ‘strove to banish the pictorial and visual aspects of art’ because they were of the view that art, which has a permanent tangible existence, can be easily converted into a commodity and exchanged for cash.

To save art from becoming a commercial commodity, they asserted that an idea was more significant than the work itself. They strove to create a conceptual response rather than bringing into being an aesthetic object in the form of a painting or a piece of sculpture. Happenings and Environmental art are also closely related to Conceptual art. Events and environmental constructions are, by their nature, transitory and can only exist through memory and the experience of a spectator in his mind. In the words of a critic, ‘The work is what is left after the object has been removed.’ The Conceptual works, which were amorphous, intangible and transitory, also failed to escape the clutches of the market forces. The art dealers found the means to seize these transitory moments and make capital out of them. An artist crucifies himself on his Volkswagen as a form of social protest. The iron nails with which the artist had been crucified were retrieved by a dealer and put up for sale, in a box lined with velvet, at a New York Gallery and sold at an exorbitant price.

I wonder what happened to work of the artist who became a ‘martyr to his notions’. Apparently, he died by slicing his manhood, inch-by-inch. I will tell you what happened. The photographs of the event had been taken, which were later sold to the art collectors. The western artist finds himself at the total mercy of the Establishment. It seems so powerful that it has an overwhelming capacity to absorb any form of expression, which is directed against it. Even many of the protest movements, particularly in the US, are easily absorbed and presented to the rest of the world as examples of its tolerance and respect for freedom of choice and expression. The Goliath/Centaur tolerates these movements and individual activism because they are useful in imparting to it a human image.

If publicly dicing a penis can be reclaimed for commercial purposes as art, there is no cause whatsoever to be baffled if mere concern for self-defence is termed as an act of terrorism. Speaking for myself, I would certainly find residual effect of a person publicly castrating himself far more terrifying than the sight of someone who was trying to defend his pair. Does that make me into a terrorist and not an artist?

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