With the globalisation of the art world, national differences among artists have grown increasingly marginal. There is little to distinguish Pakistani art from the rest in the growing list of intercontinental art fairs and biennials. At the same time, ‘Pakistani art,’ however defined, is widely assumed to reveal something of the inner life of Pakistan as it changes over time. So there is a value in an exhibition such as the National Exhibition of Visual Arts (previously held every two years in Lahore, to showcase works by masters and young upcoming artists), which is restricted to Pakistani artists, since it may, at variable intervals, tells us something worth knowing about where we are as a culture. During just the past decade, the Exhibition’s organizers appear to have tried meeting this challenge by assembling shows that did not merely present Pakistani art but simply something about the objective spirit of the country through art. And viewers have responded to what these shows seemed to tell them about Pakistan. ‘Moving Ahead’ of 2007 was vehemently political, and even though some of the shows were highly reviled, viewers were forced to measure the art against what they believed they knew about Pakistani realities.
But even if there was not this encrypted criticism, it was impossible merely to think about the art as art, and not about what it told us about the political moment in Pakistan. In some way, art is always political, and Pakistani art is always somehow informative of Pakistani political reality. When I think about the Punjab Artists’ Association’s Annual Exhibitions, it seems to me that one could feel the moral pulse of the province in the landscapes and still-lifes, which they comprised. In his monograph on Milton Avery, Robert Hobbs writes that Avery’s political activism in the 1930s is important to his art, for “it indicates that his simple themes – his emphasis on family, his blank masks, his combinations of peoples of different races sitting contentedly on beaches – stem from his deep concern with social issues and his desire for a better, more harmonious life where humour, charm, intimacy, and human dignity all assume their rightful places. “ If Avery’s ingratiating beach scenes had a political implication, it merely requires an exercise of hermeneutical will to identify the political subtext of work that had seemed to have different agendas. So it is difficult to resist reflecting on the self-consciousness of the Pakistani artist as a ‘Pakistani artist’ today, given the current political landscape.
Pakistani artists today need no longer acquiesce in such compensatory consolations, for just the reason that Pakistani art is part of an international art scene, in which it is no longer expected that art should display the attributes of a national identity. I am not even sure that the consciousness of being a Pakistani artist is at all part of the consciousness of artists in Pakistan today. It hardly seems relevant and I think this is reflected in the framing questions: Being Pakistani seems to have so little to do with the ‘practical and interpretive discourses of art’ that many individuals have made the inference that nationality itself is a fiction. But it may well be true that by the time Pakistani art began to be taken seriously, the idea of a national spirit being expressed through art had a definitive pathology. The great political movements of the century constituted themselves as dictatorships of artistic rectitude. Moscow and Berlin, Rome and Beijing made painting outside prescribed formats too dangerous to practice unless one were exceedingly courageous and prepared for an underground existence.
In the 1990s, many artists used the term ‘intervention’ to describe their interdisciplinary approaches. While intervention specifically means to stand between things, or to bridge a situation, in the case of the arts, it points to practices that use the strategies of art to engage a larger public. What makes a work of art ‘political’? One answer is that all art is political, the problem is that most of it is reactionary, that is, passively affirmative of the relations of power in which it is produced. This includes most symbolically transgressive art, which is perfectly suited to express and legitimise the freedom afforded by social and economic power: freedom from need, constraint, inhibition, rule, even law. But if all art is political, how do we define political art? I would define political art as art that consciously sets out to intervene in relations of power, and this necessarily means on relations of power in which it exists. And there’s one more condition: This intervention must be the organising principle of the work in all its aspects, not only its ‘form’ and its ‘content’ but also its mode of production and circulation. This kind of intervention can be attempted either self-reflectively, within the field of art, or through an effective insertion into another field. Most other artistic ‘excursions’ into the so-called ‘real-world’ end up reducing that world to signifiers to be appropriated as a form of capital within art discourse.
Generally speaking, a lack of clear political alignments – ‘artistic autonomy’ – works well for most Pakistani artists and their institutions. Who are we, after all? What are our allegiances? ‘Embourgeoisement’ – in home, health, family, and leisure – has for many supplanted bohemianism, making it harder to identify too strongly with the dispossessed, the dejected, and the disenfranchised, let alone with those who observe how little use the organised Left has had for artists. But the total freedom of the artist in Western society also ineluctably signals total irrelevance, just as obsessive interiority speaks of social disconnection and narcissism, if not infantilism. The collapse of utopianism as a horizon has often deprived art of a philosophical or ethical backstory, allowing curators to treat whimsical activities (tartly termed ‘sponsored hobbies’) as symbolic of autonomy, of artistic advance, or even of social transformation. Thin notions of communalism pass for social engagement, and weak interpretations of art as a gift freely given reduce the claims made for its socially transformative power to a therapeutic time – out for atomised individuals – the new post bourgeois subject performing self anew every day.
In this vacuum, ‘political art’ becomes popular under circumstances of pressure, when it’s absolutely necessary, even unavoidable, to recognise the inherently political nature of culture. There is no work that’s more or less political than any other. Rather, movements within history necessitate the framing of all cultural production as politically consequential. We are entering a crisis moment when what is pictured and what is said carry great weight, determining the kind of life we want to lead. How do we continue to make genuine art in an increasingly moribund cultural apparatus?
I am ambivalent about the return of ‘political art’ as a flat field of action or analysis. Fashionability makes it susceptible to dismissal. Much worse, artists are hailed as merry pranksters, as some curators actively celebrate the frivolously empty riff on ‘60s collectivism. Conversely, there is a sad superficiality in reducing art’s political possibilities to agitprop, ignoring the debates about the instrumentalisation of art between Adorno, Brecht, Benjamin, and others. This thought drove me to revisit Adorno’s 1962 article ‘Commitment’, in which art is called upon to provide a silence and reproach to the deformations of modernity: ‘Today, every phenomenon of culture, even if a model of integrity, is liable to be suffocated in the cultivation of kitsch. Yet paradoxically in the same epoch it is to works of art that has fallen the burden of wordlessly asserting what is barred to politics.’
Paper presented at Panel on occasion of show titled ‘ Postcards to Faiz’, exhibition organized by Nukta Art, Aman ki Asha and Progressive Writers Association , Karachi October 2011.