Photo: José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro, via Wikimedia Commons | Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0

Not for Art’s Sake

What is Art? What is this now enigmatic will o’ the wisp? Apart from artfulness in making, a crafty manipulation of base materials transformed, and a focus on materials and technique; art also touches on meaning. It ultimately is a confrontation which engenders reflection and consideration. A piece of art, or a ‘work’ of art also contains another ingredient, sometimes discarded sometimes not, Beauty. This ‘Beauty’ is also enigmatic and maligned. Is it specific and ‘to one’s taste’ or can it be universal? A common call is ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ in other words, each to his own, yet it’s not enough, this seems to be a let out cause allowing people to abandon united agreement.

Within Western Europe, before the rise of the merchant clans of Venice and Florence, the ‘religious’ arts were seen by today’s public and promoted as such as pictures made by painters who couldn’t quite draw! Until that is they were rescued by the renaissance. However as we look again at different ways of perception, we draw towards looking at the essence of what is portrayed not the surface aesthetic, as the likes of Picasso and Giacometti also shout out, so a return to meaning becomes a necessary requirement over and above surface style or approach.

Today’s contemporary art is a strange affair, with skepticism shown by the uncomprehending though sensible masses! What or how to make of exhibited crumpled paper or even a diamond encrusted skull, with of course their accompanying price tags. When looked at objectively it shows a long decline away from the Divine. What used to be high remembrance and celebration becomes on the long historical path, a raising up of the self, then doubt in ones place amongst a cold and lonely universe, until the self arrives at rejection and nihilism. Knowledge as Gnosis and tradition based on revelation has to be discounted; all that remains is the smaller spectrum of one’s intestines or the depths of despair when reflecting upon one’s own finite mortality.

Art’s lost understanding is nevertheless swamped with visuals; images, imagery from the dominating advertising and cinema screens or of the ‘High Art’ galleries. It becomes a sophomore which does not impinge upon current society, either leading it or changing it. This may be Art’s own headline and promotion as change for the better, innovation and originality, but in fact fails. Beauty may be rejected; it is this in fact that can be recognised without the need for intellectualisation, moving the heart and informing the viewer of a truth which can only ultimately be Truth, in whatever form or articulation. 

What informs us when Islamic art is scrutinised? It hold its position without a ‘Renaissance’ and reflects art as a balance between the informing letter or word, (calligraphy) the majestic presence of visual number, (geometry) and the celebration of our lived world, (biomorphic/arabesque.) A technical expertise and skill helps inform the viewer with awe and wonder. It is in its best sense public and shared, with its incredible examples infused within architecture and the lived environment. Its common distinction informs and responds to each people and their geographic location, where each particular genius and aptitude is brought out.

This high art and expression is only found amongst developed and established governance. The ‘art’ then is brought out from an inner meaning and conviction. It is adornment but it also reflects a unified social setting, which encompasses an initial legal rule and just governance, bringing forth worship, trade and family life. This reflection then is simply the inner human endeavor, brought out within the lived society. The illuminated city is then best served not just by its street lighting but by what is contained within the hearts of an established and just society.

Today Islamic art too finds itself marginalised and corrupted. Its essence remains nurtured among small enclaves but its application is usually a pastiche of its own heritage. It has fallen to a last-minute add-on and final styling, without integration to the structure of a building or of a connection to meaning expressed socially by the new patrons. If it is only art for art’s sake, it is meaningless and without substance.

The Islamic arts can only convey the cultural aspiration of those it serves. The high arts of discrimination and beauty can only return when social justice and its governance is established. This dynamic, stored in the hearts of those who return to the source of ‘origin’, and not of originality, will be brought out to grace and benefit all. As the source is known, and is perfect/perfected who would want anything else?

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