A Nation's Art.
NuktaArt in its attempt to revisit the writing of early art critics is privileged to reprint Shahid Suharwardy's essay A Nation's Art from his book Prefaces Lectures on Art Subjects (1938). As one of the most comprehensive critiques on aesthetics and art education the writing conveys the earliest concerns on Modernity as well as questions of influence and assimilation and on nationhood; issues that may have taken new forms but are still carried in the baggage for art and ideas in Pakistan and the region. It is by re-opening these pages of the past that we can make historical linkages to our times.
A Nation's Art and other essays were given by Suharwardy to his students at the Osmania University Hyderabad the Visva-bharati the Lucknow Exhibition c. 1936 and from talks given at the BBC London and at the Calcutta station of the All-India radio. In 1938 these lectures on art were collected and published by Calcutta University in the book titled Prefaces Lectures on Art Subjects. It was republished in 2009 by Ameena Saiyid at Oxford University Press Karachi Pakistan with an introduction by Suharwardy's niece the artist Naz Ikramullah Ashraf. It is reprinted here with permission from the Publisher.
I have already discussed certain traits which characterise works of art and mentioned that one national art differs from another according to the ends it intends to achieve and that one therefore can never maintain the superiority of the art of one cultural group over that of another. I have attempted to show that Greek art perfect as it is in its own way cannot be taken as a standard by which to judge the art products of countries for whom beauty meant movement exquisiteness or monumentality. Now the ends that a nation strives to attain result from certain conditions under which its particular civilisation has grown. These ends are limited by geographical factors among others. For instance in regions where there are stone quarries sculpture is always to be found. Form thus is always conceived in relation to the material at hand and with regard to the difficulty or ease in the manipulation of that material.
Hence problems of technique are ever present in an artist's mind limiting the vagaries of his phantasy. The creative artist is hemmed in and by other factors equally important. He is a member of a society and like other member of it a product of its evolution. He has the same preferences and prejudices as they. Whether impelled by a pure urge for artistic creation by vanity or by commercial interest he has to take into account those standards of taste which are embodied in a society's art traditions. Even when he is an innovator as many modernist artists in Europe are today he cannot escape the shackles because he either experiments in the traditions of other countries in a spirit of eclecticism or he attempts to create newer interrelations of lines and masses sometimes in utter disregard of natural forms.
But he is always subservient to aesthetic doctrines which are authoritative in certain social milieus composed of patrons and admirers in his own cultural group or in other groups outside with which he has affinities and in the traditions of which he participates.
The most revolutionary creative painter in his most sensational phases when he is striving to impose on us new traditions by forcing apparently incoherent elements into a pictorial whole is as fettered by the nature of his material and by prevailing social and economic considerations as any traditional artist. He is like those bold legendary warriors in Chinese annals who cover their faces with frightening masks and paint their bodies over with dragons in order to terrorise their opponents and affect their rout; but behind all this horrible paraphernalia there beats a delicate Chinese heart. What can be claimed for the modernist artist whether he be a cubist a supremacist a naivist a dadaist that he is perhaps more sensitive than others to the changes that imperceptibly are often taking place in the national taste. In this he is not so different from that much-despised philistine the businessman who is equally alive to the commercial advantages of newer demands.
In fact the world of art at any given period in all countries may be compared to a large furniture workshop where new shapes for chromium-plated chairs with the seats in unexpected angles to suit the vagaries of the man or woman's figure are being fabricated side by side with sofas in an ancient style appropriate to the period of crinolines and good manners. The contrast thus between the modernist and the traditionalist is not so very marked as is often made out to be. Both types have always existed at one and the same time in a nation's art history and both have produced works in order to supply aesthetic demands. Only one tendency has represented a more prevailing current of taste with a larger appeal whilst the other perhaps a more vigorous cross-current accepted and sensed by a select few. The thing to notice is that both kinds of artists in their creative moments cannot but repose on the flowing stream of a nation's cultural life.
There is a common misconception encouraged by modernist theorists of arts that the so-called traditionalist is not free in his creation. But a nation's artistic tradition is of many kinds and variety and an artist always does exercise his freedom of choice in taking only that which is most suited to his temperament. You will see that within the lines laid down by tradition he can fully exercise his individual creative powers producing thereby variations of current forms. It is not necessary to roam all these as to discover the marvels with which the world abounds; there is enough in a flowering lane to content the heart of man. The limits of traditional art have never stood in the way of a great creator impressing his individual genius on his works.
You have only to look at Early Christian art which flourished in the courts of Byzantium to find how hieratic forms sanctioned by religious usage undergo variations in objects of silver ivory wood and chiefly in painting and mosaic notwithstanding the decorative rigidity of their contours. You can see in the Hindu sculptures at Ellora how the dictates of iconographical texts have been observed and at the same time violated by masters who have made of these caves one of time's most marvellous temples of human talent.
We have seen that both the innovator and the conservative artist depend on national traditions and contribute to national art. I have tried to show that traditions of art do not necessarily hamper creative freedom nor do they interfere with individual expression when it is forceful and bears a message of its own. National taste in a vital society is never static; it is always changing and is being modified by internal and external influences. The thing to remember is that changes in artistic tradition in a living society do not bring about fundamental modifications of those characteristic forms which reflect the national vision of beauty. They are more in the nature of adaptations or adoptions freely made without constraint of any kind.
If the adoption takes place at a time when society is lifeless and therefore certain art forms can be forced down on it from above because they are invested with the glory of military conquest they never become integral parts of a national heritage but remain foreign and irrelevant. Take the case of Hellenistic art which after Alexander's conquests spread over the whole of Asia. In Gandhara and north-western Punjab it was wholly unsuccessful despite the fact that it dealt with Buddhist themes that is Indian because these traditions never touched the Indian imagination. The technique and forms of Hellenistic art were adopted because it enjoyed a great prestige in indo-Greek courts but the society that accepted it was uncreative.
In Chinese art on the other hand where these very traditions were freely incorporated as a part of those influences Iranian Nomadic and Indian which infiltrated from Central Asia they gave remarkable results in the marvellous sculpture of the Tang dynasty after about four centuries of Gandhara. In India itself these very Hellenistic traditions were imported to the South from Alexandria by the sea-route and accepted by a living society. The result was the stone-reliefs at Amaravati vibrant with life and ingenuity contrasting so favorably with the dull stereotyped work of Northern India.
It does not deprive an art of its virtue if modifications are brought about in it by foreign influences. In fact the greater the number of influences in an art the larger its human appeal. There are periods when national art reaches a point of deadness and debases itself into formalism. At these moments foreign conquests bringing in their train the possibilities of international contacts revivify it. India has been extremely fortunate in this respect. At the beginning of the Christian era when it was degenerating into discursiveness and monotony the Kushans a nomadic Iranian dynasty that had ruled in Bactria appeared on the scene with a baggage of Central Asian nomadic and Hellenistic traditions and with the help of a new set of Buddhist symbols helped to create a continental art of Asiatic significance which was founded on indigenous forms that had been overlaid by Hellenism.
In our middle ages likewise the Mughals infused the apathy and dryness into which Indian traditions of painting had fallen with a magnificent urge and contributed to the birth of Indo-Persian art Mughal and Rajput. It is my belief that a national art can be vigorous and effective only when it has the courage to accept freely adaptable foreign influences and is vital enough to assimilate them to its own artistic needs.'