Of art, history and political agendas

When I was a kid there used to be WWF and Alif Laila. Impressionable as I was, I used to fight with pillows and then dream about Jinns. Today I realise that all that was normal, for so much is the power of art that affirmations of those who produce it can often become conclusions of those who consume it.

Art, they say, is the humanity’s secret diary–a record of all that couldn’t be said in regular social contacts. According to Herbert Read art is not merely a symbolic representation of reality but a vehicle for the definition and redefinition of reality itself. What is of profound importance to art is the medium. Read mentions the multiplier effect of technology on art. No wonder that Guthenberg’s invention of printing press, Marconi’s radio and Edison’s television generated a tsunami of literary and audio-visual cultural tradition. It didn’t end there, it was in fact a new beginning as both technology and art have ebbed and flowed since then. Today in the age of simultaneous globalisation and localisation, of YouTube, tiktok and Facebook, of 4G and 5G, what happens to art makes for an interesting area of enquiry.

Two recently aired serials give us a sneak peek into how the interplay of art, history, technology and civilizational biases could pan out–the Indian ‘Ramayan’ and the Turkish ‘Resurrection: Ertugrul’. Ramayan which was aired after 33 years broke many records garnering 77 million views (but M*A*S*H, an American series aired in 1983, remains the most viewed in history). The Resurrection: Ertugrul also created ripples across the world. There is no doubt that both are artistic masterpieces, but the narrative spun around them brings us back to the fundamental question: What is the purpose of art? With Ramayan the ‘liberal bashing’ has started in India and ‘secularists’ are being smirked at. The Resurrection: Ertugrul has on the other hand led to a furore in the Islamic world. Some puerile fatwas have been handed down declaring it haram–especially from the Saudi influenced factions. Pakistan has officially promoted it with Prime Minister Khan personally advising people to watch it as a sort of ‘tuition in morality’. So what can we make out of all this?

In December 2019 the ‘New Islamic Summit’ was organised by Malaysia which was actively backed by Turkey and Pakistan. This summit was seen as a counter to Saudi-led OIC, naturally ruffling feathers in Riyadh. Due to severe pressure from Saudi Arabia Pakistan pulled out at the eleventh hour, but the newly developed bonhomie between Ankara and Islamabad continues. At the root of this issue is the age old contestation about ‘who is the real conscience keeper of Ummah’. Both Ankara and Riyadh are trying on one hand to work their spell on Ummah while on the other demonstrating the ‘cosmic necessity of their respective empires’. For want of a historical anchor independent of South Asia, Pakistan is also inventing divine genealogies tracing them to Persia, Arab and Turkey. The role of art, digital technology and internet (OTT) comes handy in these exercitations. All this has led to the weaponisation of art wherein in the name of entertainment an alternative, farcical reality is being cultivated. This in turn feeds some egos and also gives people some meaty stuff to chew on.

So what impact does this type of art have on history? Everyone can’t be that ‘smart millionth man’ of whom Dale Carnegie used to talk about. Most of us have, in Schutz’s words, approximate, cookbook knowledge of history. We don’t have time and proclivity for knowing plain history, we would rather prefer it in episodes, garnished with sauce and pepper. Art can provide us with that. But if the motive of art is ulterior we may, like junk food, get junk history–appetising but dangerous. Note that the Hegelian hangover over Asia is still strong as we see attempts being made to pull the rope of history either towards East or West. Kautilya is very much alive in Indian imagination putting India at the centre of the universe, the ghost of Sun Tzu keeps fanning the ‘middle kingdom complex’ in China and the Ottoman nostalgia continues to carry the imprimatur of assumed divinity for Turkey. Thus, we see a kind of ‘plebeianisation of history’ happening, leading not to the simplification of history but sillification of history. There can then be a whole generation harbouring baises: one, anchoring bias–never wandering out of our narrow cultural cocoons, two, confirmation bias–living in echo chambers, singing hosannas for ourselves, and three, ostrich bias–deliberately ignoring the dark underbelly of our own history and culture.

To end with, what is the way out? For the sake of peace and amity, and for liberating history from the clutches of agendas, we need to reimagine art, untether it from its argumentative/combative moorings and bring it into conversational arena. Civilizations can no doubt employ art (they have every right to do so), but it should be for maintaining a right amount of vanity, not for irredentism of raw nature. We need to remember that if art can’t be reformed then it is immensely important that people be given eyes to be able to ‘discriminate’. If we fail to do that as well then, as G.B Shaw said about professions, art becomes just another conspiracy against the laity.

Currently enrolled at Centre for Coaching and Career Planning, Jamia Millia Islamia, Mohammad Muqaddas Hussain has done B Tech from NIT, Srinagar, also JRF in Political Science.