The way it was: How to win freedom

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

The Pakistani artist has no patrons and can be said to be free. But freedom has its own problems. To begin with, it needs to be exercised. The establishment doesn’t either have a strategy or the strength to absorb any form of political opposition

The concept of the starving genius is a creation of modern times. Even a casual student of art history will not be able to recall men of talent dying of neglect. It is interesting to note how the concept of the starving artist is put to profitable use by critics and art galleries.

First the bourgeois society starves an artist out of disregard and then, when he has been safely buried, makes capital by romanticising him as a rebel. The last thing capitalism desires is rebelliousness, but supports it when it can be profitable. It encourages innovation and novelty in art and in other spheres of production but not dissent. Poverty for the bourgeoisie is synonymous with evil, but it is incredible how the galleries have been able to market it, by idealising the sufferings of the poor. Like charity it helps the consumer to ease their conscience.

In ancient times, Socrates took the poisoned cup not because authority spurned him but because he would not forsake his ideals. Political enemies of Pericles treacherously poisoned his friend, the great Phidias. It was not that the perpetrators of this heinous crime were unappreciative of Phidias’s greatness as a sculptor, but believed that his unexpected death would make Pericle’s heart fester.

There were many artists who liked to wield a sword and got killed, but they never died unheeded. Marlowe, the great precursor of Shakespeare, for instance, was slain in a sword fight over a woman, which brought his successful career to a rather abrupt end, leaving the stage vacant for Billy. But as long as he lived, Marlows was regarded as the superstar of Elizabethan theatre.

Artists were greatly prized and honoured in the Old World. The kings after losing a fight and having their cities sacked were required to pay tribute money and hand over a few artists of merit. It may please the reader if I narrate an account, which concerns Mohammad II, the great grandfather of Suleiman the Magnificent, who captured Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1453.

Some years later he waged war against Venice, which came to an end in 1479. Soon after, we are told, an ambassador from Venice brought some portraits painted by Venetian artists to the court. The ‘Grand Turk’ was filled with wonder and amazement. The Sultan ceaselessly praised the artists and requested that a master be sent for. The Signoria of Venice immediately obliged by sending Gentile Bellini to Istanbul. Gentile on arrival presented Mohammad II with a ‘lovely picture’, which pleased the Sultan so much that he wondered ‘how a mortal man could possibly posses such divine talent as to be able to express natural things so vividly.’

Among other works, which Gentile painted was a remarkable portrait of Mohammad II himself. After a while the Sultan, with a heavy heart permitted Bellini to go back to Venice, but not before, as the legend goes, pointing out to Gentile, that the manner in which a head severed from the neck was depicted in a battle scene was not rendered truthfully. The simple Gentile Bellini politely begged to disagree, at which the Sultan instantly ordered a demonstration.

A head was sliced off and the sultan gently asked Gentile to ‘look!’ The ‘Grand Turk’ was obviously right. The gentle Gentile should have known that the mighty Sultan had seen more heads fly off than Bellini had chops for a meal in his lifetime.

Gentile was sent off with innumerable gifts, the honour of a knighthood and a letter of recommendation. Among other gifts and privileges accorded to Bellini, ‘by the lord of the country, a golden chain worked in the Turkish fashion and weighing 250 gold crowns was placed on his neck.’

On Gentile’s return the entire city was delighted at the honour rendered to his skill by Mohammad. The Doge and the Senate decreed that 200 crowns per year be paid to Gentile, which he continued to receive for the rest of the year. This is how friends and foes treated artists who transcended transient military and political squabbles.

Buonaroti Micheal Angelo ceaselessly chiselled marble statues and painted frescoes for the Medicis and the reigning pontiffs of the church. They would not let him out of their sight. Leonardo de Vinci the second great giant of the Italian High Renaissance felt inclined to leave Italy, but is said to have died in the arms of the French Emperor. The inimitable Velazquez and even the notorious Goya had access to the Spanish king and chambers of the royal household. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir took immense pride in his ability to identify the individual style of most of his court painters, even in a miniature that had been created by more than one hand. Many of the Chinese emperors and monarchs wrote poetry, some even painted; almost all prized the company of artists and men of learning.

It is said that while a famous calligrapher was inscribing a verse on paper, the reigning caliph held the bottle of ink for him. The Caliph was fascinated to see how the Khattat formed letters and shaped words into sentences. The spontaneous ease and aesthetic refinement demonstrated by the artist so delighted the Khalifa that he said with some sadness, “This art will die once you are gone?”

The great Khattat modestly replied, “My lord there will be many to replace me, if there are Caliphs like yourself willing to hold their ink pots.” Gulgee, our reputed artist, recently recounted this episode, but he could only remember the name of the famous calligrapher, which at the moment I cannot recall. But the point is that in the past artists had an established function in society, and were respected. With the emergence of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class, art and artists lost their undisputed traditional standing.

The political changes in France, like in Holland, pushed the artist out of Versailles, on to the Paris streets. The new rulers had no interest in art. Whereas in the past, individuals had faith in art and ideas, the new rulers only believed in commerce. The old rulers employed the labour of their slaves and the talent of their artisans, to build temples, palaces and cathedrals.

The bourgeoisie exploited the labour of their workers to primarily generate capital. Anything ephemeral, transcendental and non-tangible, which failed to promote production, was summarily brushed aside. Every object or activity had to have a function, and the only honourable function anything could have was to make profit. We all know that people who are out to make money are also adept at finding the means to make it too.

The speculators and entrepreneurs, finding artists starving on the street, soon conjectured how money could be made at their expense. That led to the new trade of buying and selling art. The art dealers knew their clients were astute businessmen and that art could not be sold to them as art. Before art could be sold in the market place it had to be converted into a commodity. That is when the art dealers enlisted the support of critics, whose job was to make art a worthy and profitable investment.

Rockfeller senior is himself on record for having advocated to his fellow businessmen to collect art because it helped to build the image of business corporations and improved sale of their products. Wealthy men often delegated the menial task of buying art to the dealers. The artists have always resented the dealer because the latter exploit the former and their work. But the artists have no choice but to accept their hegemony.

The Pakistani artist has no patrons and can be said to be free. But freedom has its own problems. To begin with, it needs to be exercised. The establishment is hostile but weak. It doesn’t either have a strategy or strength to absorb any form of political opposition or even social contrariness. Writers and painters have been hounded for expressing independent views in the past. My own works were on several occasions in the past censored because of the images and ideas they expressed. Perhaps that was the best manner of acknowledging their worth.

It is strange that unlike capitalist corporations our state is not interested in improving its own image through art. But the task before the artist in the modern world is not how to find a patron, but how to win his freedom, which can only be won by believing in something which he is convinced can be turned into reality.

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