THE WAY IT WAS: With as much wind as possible

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Some art critics are of the view that if, to use a neutral word, the donor elephant was invited to defecate in person at the Tate, the audience could have experienced both the form and size of the artwork as well as the music, which went unrecorded

The National Exhibition was inaugurated in May this year. The Director General of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts informed the audience in his speech that the Exhibition was being held after seven years. The last one was held in 1996. Not bad? The audience was also told that it was the 8th National Exhibition since the establishment of the PNCA.

The Director General bravely confessed that he felt ‘ashamed’, that we still didn’t have a National Gallery. This is the first time in the annals of our history that a government official has behaved like a public servant and publicly accepted responsibility. I hope the DG who is a poet as well as a painter is not fired for stepping out of line from the approved conduct, which is never profess to be wrong and always claim to be right. State officials fail to realise that acceptance of fault will not merely enable them to right it but it will also make them and the institutions they serve strong.

It is unfortunate that we as a country try to portray arms akimbo, nose in the air, ugly image of ourselves. We have an aversion to being recognised for our art and literature, our crafts and decorative skills, our accomplishments in the field of music and architecture and other talents where our people express and demonstrate their humanity and aesthetic sense of beauty. Instead we are content to swagger about our being a transcendental Islamic state. We are indifferent to how the Muslim World views us. We have a closed mind. In half the century we have learnt little or nothing from our own experience let alone of others. I think it was King Farouq of Egypt, who while referring to Pakistan a few years after its inception, quipped that it was a country, which had recently discovered Islam.

The military dictators on the pretext that citizens cannot rule themselves have disenfranchised the nation, causing havoc to its legal, cultural and democratic institutions. We have achieved much more in growing fruit, as a result of private effort, than the Dictators have achieved by usurping and militarising the state. In order to further their private agendas they have callously subjected our children to illiteracy, our sons to unemployment and our elders to disease and death. We are a martial nation, so we must have more torpedoes and tanks, more short-range and long-range missiles than housing colonies. There is no doubt that our people are brave, who have in the past resisted both dictators and aggressors.

But above all we are a nation of Iqbal, Faiz and Jalib, a nation of Fareed, Shah Hussain, Khushal Khan and Lateef Bhittai. A nation of Roshan Ara Begum, Shareef Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Noor Jehan; a nation of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro and of the Starving Buddha; a nation of Chughtai, Allah Buksh and Shakir Ali. Above all it is a nation of you and I because we must alone today define who we are. We must not allow others to dress us in robes of their liking.

It is one of the great ironies of human history that while man has technologically advanced to a stage where he is intellectually armed for journeys to the heavens, he is, emotionally and aesthetically, primitively equipped to deal with himself. That is why he continuously regresses to barbarisms. Man considers hunting a great sport even today. He takes pride in killing a running deer, getting him under the right shoulder, with one shot through the heart. He is not even ashamed of being a killer of his own kind, eater of the dead.

If man continues to love ride tanks and doesn’t culturally improve himself, as he has done in the field of technology he has no future. Today he is condemned to destroy himself. There is evidence of it already. The idiom and meaning of language and words, for instance, has undergone a momentous change in recent years. Language which was a tool for exploring new emotions and ideas, language which was required to enrich human thought and feelings has become an instrument to cover lies and conceal horrors.

Language has really stormed ahead of Aldous Huxley’s days and his famous essay ‘Words and Behaviour’ included in the book of English prose prescribed for the undergraduate course in the late fifties. The essay illustrates how words and phrases are coined to conceal actual facts. In our times the phrase collateral damage has become quite common for describing civilian deaths. What in its turn civilian deaths means is death and destruction of children and their families, of their sisters and their brothers, caring parents and ageing grandparents and relatives.

In reality non-military targets means schools full of young students, hospitals choked with patients, industrial enterprises with poor workers supporting large families, cities with commuters, pedestrians and shops, power and water facilities and other assets necessary to sustain civil society. Non-military targets are often deliberately targeted to create ‘terror and awe’ among the people and pressurise governments to submit to the will of the aggressor.

It is not coincidental that even art and the language of art criticism are becoming intentionally more and more obscure. Elephant dung is prized as art, by the Tate gallery, whereas the Mona Lisa is dismissed with a quip. Once a famous surrealist painter put a pair of moustaches on the Mona Lisa.

Mocking the past may help to create something new but not necessarily something better. I wonder how many dung cakes can be made out of single elephant excreta. One thing is for sure there would be enough in number to go around for all that have sponsored the work. Next we will hear that Christy’s or Southeby’s are selling Hitler’s dehydrated turd. That would certainly be followed by a claim that it was a forgery and that the auction didn’t smell right. Apparently it was not the Fuhrer but Goebles who sat for it.

The politically concerned would also wonder whether it was one of the enslaved elephants from the zoo that was pressured to perform the act or was it the result of free choice exercised by an elephant living in democratic wilderness. Some art critics are of the view that if, to use a neutral word, the donor elephant was invited to defecate in person at the Tate, the audience could have experienced both the form and size of the artwork as well as the music, which went unrecorded.

Finally the question remains, who is the artist? The ingenious person who thought of putting the shit up for display or the elephant who actually did it. Obviously elephant defecation as art has a much wider scope for art criticism than the faint smile of the Mona Lisa. To be a person with an international reputation an artist has to think ‘big’ and ‘sever the umbilical cord’ which connects him or her with the tiresome process of birth and life and instead intently focus on the rectum and work up as much wind as possible.

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