The way it was: Not for faith but for sport

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Ibn Khuldun was wise not to enter into a controversial debate and left matters touching divinity to the divines and pursued his study of human history without metaphysical distractions

There was a time I believed most poets were bad. They never ceased to run down others and brag about their own achievements. Today I am convinced that painters can be worse.

In the sixties when most writers only attended the funerals of their fellow writers, the painters made an effort to be present at exhibitions. Those were good days even though paintings rarely sold. A small Chughtai etching was priced at two to three hundred rupees in the fifties. If ever an artist managed to sell a painting at a show it would instantly transform into a spirited evening. The artists never hesitated to criticise the works on display. Sometimes a close friend would even go so far as to rebuke the artist and say that things had not worked out. The main purpose of hanging a show was not just to sell, but make an impression on the avant-garde. Criticism was frank and candid, though even then there was no dearth of a few mean remarks in private.

Things are tidier now. No one opens his mouth either in praise or in reprove. Artists come to a show and saunter around measuring the gallery floor. They accost familiar forms and discuss inane issues, which have not the remotest relevance to the exhibits. The charitable few shuffle up to the exhibiting artist and make a few wise cracks or compliment him for the good frames. Most artists slip out without a word. A word of praise could upgrade the sales of the artist on display, which could lead to losing one’s own customers. But public criticism is shunned because others can counter-attack and devalue the sale of one’s own stuff. It is safer to murmur and mutter in absentia.

Most art criticism is without substance. The media can easily upgrade, downgrade, laud or spurn anything. Words are so amenable and promoting puerile art is no big deal. Art criticism in our press is usually inundated with high-flaunting phrases and adjectives. Most writers responsible for these columns cannot even size the backside of a berry. Their writing is presumptuous and obscure. Soap ads are better because at least their intentions are clear. They promise to make you fair and beautiful. Contemporary art criticism on the other hand is intended to baffle. It lays ambiguous claims for the artist who finds it more profitable to remain silent.

I wish artists would come out and debate and defend their views in the open. The artists’ observation is obviously more valuable than that of unbaked critics and half-baked intellectuals. Without denying the valuable role of intellectuals in encouraging the arts, what the artist and writers have to say about themselves or about art and literature is intrinsically more pertinent to creative expression. Unfortunately we seem to have lost our understanding of the value and purpose of debate and discourse.

Long ago discourse was replaced by manazaraz; in other words, debate was replaced by duel. The purpose of discourse and dialogue is to exchange ideas to bring about a better understanding of an issue. The spirit of a duel is to take a stance, to run through and eliminate opposition. Unfortunately, today, we have even lost the courage to fight duels. We prefer to shoot in the back. In an open discourse, where the intention is to share and refine individual knowledge, everyone gains. No one is the loser. Truth is always far more than the sum-total of individual knowledge. By challenging an opposition to a duel one can kill it, but it is only through intellectual dialogue and discourse that a stride forward can be taken.

It is not, I confess, easy to abandon one’s perceptions. It is a trifle difficult and can even be painful to forsake inherited beliefs and ideas acquired over decades of reflection and social practice. It amounts to abandoning a precious personal possession, which has been traditionally considered a valuable measure of virtue. I have known people getting sad on replacing old possessions even when it is only a worthless wristwatch strap. If a person can develop intimacy with an inanimate utilitarian object, surely it is much more difficult to discard shared social prejudices and held beliefs, howsoever outdated. Often a person rejects a counter argument because of personal vanity or self-interest. Comprehension is based on self-interest. A person will find issues beneficial to him much easier to comprehend than propositions which are to his disadvantage. Consciousness after all rests on the bedrock of class interest.

The Catholic Church spurned evidence presented by Galileo because it was contrary to the Church’s own doctrine of the universe according to which, the sun revolved around the earth with the Pope being its centre. Imagine what must have happened in Rome when they were told that contrary to what Pope believed the earth was not the centre of the universe but circled the sun. From being right in the centre of things to be flung far away into a dark cold nook was naturally considered a blasphemous act by the Pope. The perpetrator of this heinous crime was instantly sent to the Inquisition and tortured. In order to continue with his scientific work Galileo recanted and was subsequently released. Ibn Khuldun was wise not to enter into a controversial debate and left matters touching divinity to the divines and pursued his study of human history without metaphysical distractions. He is however sometimes criticised for his duplicity for not taking a firm position against religious orthodoxy.

In our country the very idea of debate and discourse has been stifled. I remember when I was pursuing my postgraduate studies in 1960 at Lahore’s Government College, most students liked to carry books under their arm. This was their way of showing off that they were better scholars than others. A few years later I learned that to make an impression, students now carried guns. During my studies at Government College, I never once saw anyone getting into fisticuffs. Muscles were flexed, hot words were exchanged, but no one ever attempted to catch anyone by the collar. Using physical force meant the person had lost the argument. Today we don’t waste our precious breath in an argument and instead proceed to kill not for faith but because it has become a popular national sport.

Talking of sport, for an aside I must tell you what my five-year-old grandson Mustafa asked the other day, when he saw his father once again glued to the television, ‘Are they still hitting Baghdad?’

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