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Is Pakistani Art Secular?

Some years ago, as an art student and then a practicing artist, I felt attracted to a certain philosophical position that maintains that there is no such thing as ‘Pakistani’ art, that such regional, local and cultural qualifiers were in fact completely misapplied to the actuality of the art-world’s situation after the event of modernism. I wrote frequently, as well, from the standpoint that there is such a thing as an ‘international language’ or Esperanto of art, not as an ideal and universal entity, but as a result of globalization which has created the very idea of ‘art’ in the cultures it encounters; that is to say, I believed (and still believe, although in a more complicated way) that the battle-lines between the local and the global in the context of art were simply and badly drawn, since Art (with the capital ‘a’) was itself a colonial export, a concept incubated in some European countries through the 19th century and itself becoming part of the ideology of ‘the West’ and nationalism.
There is ample evidence to suggest that the above picture, as a historical fact, is broadly true. It is far more difficult to maintain that the idea of art as we understand it today, is universal, and has always existed. As we know for Plato there was no ‘art’, only the ‘arts’ (just as the ancient Greeks might have found it strange to say ‘God’ instead of ‘the gods’). Music, painting, sculpture, poetry all had in common their role as techniques, without the need to posit an underlying spirit or unity.
It seems to me that the case for a universal art relies on the idea that art is like a language. That is to say, that an art object carries certain meanings which are mutually understood by convention, assuming that all humans have the same fundamental capacity and form of thoughts and intentions. So a Campbell Soup Can in a gallery, to use the example beloved of philosophers, is an art work anywhere in the world because it communicates exactly the same set of meanings, and can be read in the same way everywhere (much like, say, Jane Eyre is read by schoolchildren wherever English is taught.) This picture, however, risks simplifying the overall background within which an art object finds meaning and value, almost to the point of caricature. For it is the very coalescence of all the separate arts into the singular concept ‘art’ within the last two hundred or so years that has allowed the unmooring of art from the task of representation, and to find a position between the pure presentation of music, the conceptual nature of philosophy, and the semiotic power of language. This unmooring, incidentally, was already remarked on by Hegel and is in no way a 20th century aberration.
If we say (with Danto) that art is what is decreed as art by institutions such as galleries, museums and academies (the institutional theory), then we can imagine a global multinational corporation of art, sustained by biennials, triennials and art fairs and art schools, all bestowing legitimacy and universal comprehensibility to the objects within them. This idea seems closest to the point of view espoused by those who argue that there is no such thing as Islamic art or Pakistani art or South Asian art, because ultimately these works of art, whatever their geographical origin come to rest in these homogenized ‘non-spaces’ or heterotopias, that resemble each other and serve the purpose of eliminating cultural difference and friction. Further, the idea of categorizing art geographically can be subjected to a reduction ad absurdum, by asking why there shouldn’t be a Karachi art and a Gujranwalla art and a Model Town art; and reversing this method, surely a global art is just as valid a set of objects as Pakistani or Indian or Islamic art.
But let us look at this equation a little closer: can we not say, following this reduction that in fact the idea of a global art is as foolish as the idea of Model Town art? In which case we are left to choose categories as a matter of convenience for exhibitions, as a way of ordering images and objects in pavilions and rooms and sections, without pretending to have arrived at any ontological truth about the objects concerned. In fact, the absurdity of this reversal stems from the fact that the idea ‘globe’ is in no way simply a larger version of the ideas ‘Pakistan’, ‘Model Town’ and so on. ‘Globe’ signifies the very excess or limit of our ability to imagine a coherent or distinct identity formation. It is under this limit that the particularities of identity begin to form themselves, to derive their shapes, real, virtual, imaginary and so on. To put it another way, it is only when we begin to conceive the presence of an impossible to conceive totality such as a ‘globe’ that we can see our reflections as our ‘selves’, nations, indigenous people, immigrants, illegal aliens, invaders etc.
Art has been part of this process of globalization for a long time now, and has in fact emerged from ‘the arts’, from craft and technique, as an embodiment of philosophies such as humanism and later, nationalism. To separate art from these philosophies and from the underlying ideological struggles- which are themselves struggles for the future of civilization (i.e., the political)- is to undermine the very reason for the existence of a singular ‘art’ that travels across the globe and finds or creates the space of its own understanding everywhere. Perhaps, then, we can say that art carries within it still the ability to reflect certain underlying systems of engagement with the world, not in its explicit content but in the manner of its presentation, in its posture or stance (which in the case of contemporary art could be anything from material to technique to style to concept).
Most recently, the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has begun an impassioned project which he calls the Deconstruction of Monotheism, dealing most explicitly with the need to understand Christianity and its legacy in the West- indeed the legacy whereby Christianity and the West are in some ways overlapping concepts (though not reducible to each other naturally). In his book Dis-Enclosure, Nancy proposes the idea that Christianity deconstructs itself. This is because alone amongst the religions, Christianity posits a god that is withdrawn to the extent that it practically invites atheism; or more precisely, the Christian god, through the insistence on a universal structure that does not require a ‘present’ god, or a specific representation of god, contains the seeds of atheism within it. Nancy acknowledges that this withdrawn god shares most of his features with the god of Judaism, but reiterates that the specific nature of the Christian god, and of Christian texts is linked to atheism in a way that inevitably led to the present, supposedly secular and modern world as we know it. Christianity, on this account, must be seen as the historical engine that drove the world to where it is, simply because it is globalizing itself and its legacies (as modernity and secularism). In the process, however, Christianity is also effacing itself and removing itself as an idea through its very ubiquity; i.e. when the entire planet inherits the effects of the specific historical event known as Christianity, then Christianity as a specific idea ceases to exist, dissolves into the world of its own creating. This is of course, another way of saying ‘globalisation’, specifically in the sense that Nancy elsewhere calls mondialisation (the French usage which carries the sense of a process of world-forming rather than a homogenization and reduction.)
This singling out of Christianity, for Nancy, is not a kind of simple exceptionalism, it must be stressed, since he makes explicit links with Islamic traditions, and the withdrawn god of Ibn ‘Arabi and other mystics to claim that there exists an Abrahamic tradition within which and from which globalization is happening (as an example of this withdrawal he cites the unspoken or secret 100th name of Allah with which mystics are often preoccupied). Nancy, moreover, sees in modern art a continuation of the principle of withdrawal- or absentheism as he also calls it- as it moves away from representation and towards examining the edges of the sayable, the limits of experience, the indication of the unsayable that must be ‘passed over in silence’. This fits in neatly, of course with a modernist vision of a ceaselessly inventive and revolutionary art, but we could justly say that-especially today- this tyranny of novelty seems far less attractive than it once did. Nonetheless, I think the idea of exploring the unrepresentable and approaching its borders is a useful way of understanding a spirit of art, an ambition and an ethical posture that remains even in the most tepid and mundane of examples of art.
I have asked- in the title of this short essay- whether there is a secular Pakistani art. This is because, at least in the public discourse in Pakistan, the word secular is associated with a global or universal order by some, and with the worst excesses of neo-colonialism by others. I believe that neither of these pictures holds under any examination. If we follow Nancy, then the West (which, increasingly, is the globe today) is not secular in the sense of being irreligious, but is deeply Christian in its genesis and destiny. The secularism of the West is a particular division of belief and public action which is not even the same amongst the many countries that today constitute the occidental world (as Talal Asad has repeatedly and convincingly pointed out). I fact, to follow Asad, we can say that the secular is not the opposite of religion; that it is, in fact one way of life amongst others, jostling for space and overlapping, merging and differentiating constantly with its rivals and allies.
Our picture of a secular Pakistani art begins to look less secure if we accept these definitions; for surely, there must be, carried with the globalized ‘style’ of art from Pakistan, something of the current of an ideology, or ideologies or histories that echo even as they merge in the processes of mondialisation. These could be visible things: repetitions of motifs or forms or ideas, our own understandings of concepts such as abstraction, minimalism etc- or they could be invisible things: the absence of performance, real bodies, the relationship to bad taste, disgust and aversion which marks so many other aspects of ‘our’ culture. To indicate these things, provisionally, as Pakistani or Islamic or South Asian is not a sentence or consignment to some eternal periphery of the art world, but merely a reminder to look deeper into the background from against which our art is emerging.

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