Friday, 13 February 2015

The Question of Art and Religion

Opening up of the first Art Gallery in Kashmir is great news, not just for art lovers but also for all of us who believe art is an important aspect of education and life and none can claim to be literate who is ignorant of art. Many art forms are often assumed to be alien to Islam, a misperception forcefully dispelled by Mualana Abul Kalam Azad in the concluding lines of his great work Gubar-i-Khatir. Islam, like other traditions, has regulated expression of art and not banned it. In fact Islam employs art physics and theology by calling God Beauty or Beautiful and advocating love of beauty whether it is in nature, in souls of prophets and saints or in any object of utility made for consumption or object of art made for contemplation. Islam has cultivated rich tradition of art that is no less important than Fiqh and requires art education for spiritual development of every Muslim by emphasizing the principle of perfection – Ihsan. One can find emphasis on art in traditional calligraphy, in book designs, in Quran recitation, in Azan, in Na’t or poetic tradition, in architecture of all buildings and not just mosques. Art and worship are artfully woven together in Islam as in other traditions. One may well ask: Why not teach religion through art -Sufis have been doing this for centuries. Attend a mahfil-i-sama with proper etiquette as Al-Ghazzali and many other great saints have recommended and one leaves tasting something of the Beyond, the Other World. Who says toari kus aaw wuchith? Artists know the otherworld that art object evokes, that virgin nature evokes for the poets.
With Schuon we could say, “After morals, art—in the broadest sense of the word—is a natural and necessary dimension of the human condition. Plato said: “Beauty is the splendour of the true.” So let us say that art—including crafts—is a projection of truth and beauty in the world of forms.”
Art demands escape from personality. An artist has no self.  An artist is simply a medium through whom the Great Artificer expresses Himself. The Muse demands moral, intellectual and spiritual virtues in the artist.  A genuine artist may hardly care if anyone knows him or he is given any award or recognition, especially by the state’s institutions, which are often though not necessarily, tailored to promote a certain brand that doesn’t infringe on its power structures. The great rebel artists are exiled rather than recognized by the academies representing the state.
Abhinavgupta has been a key theorist who provided support for the thesis of art as fifth Veda. His metaphysics secures for artistic experience a privileged place that nearly identifies it with religious experience. Although he states clearly that Samadhis and other ecstatic experiences given to mystics or saints are a class apart and artists are not entitled to great fruits of such adventures of spirit he notes that for the laity the quickest means to transcendence is art. If we can teach art we are teaching values to people. So all this hinges to right understanding of what constitutes art. What we need is traditional literary or art critics who sift the chaff of modern culture industry from the grain of genuine art conducive to higher ends of man. We can revisit the heritage of Abhinavgupta as an art critic and we can take the help of Coomaraswamy and Schuon in this matter who have stated traditional theory of art in most strong and lucid terms. Beauty, as the attractive power of perfection is more noetic than aesthetic notion and satisfies that longing to know the reality or God, that eternal urge that moves all men.
Art is not for exhibition. Art is “for the glory of God and angels and sanctification of man.” Art brings God in the world. Artist copies the model in heaven. Music is the proof of Heaven promised by religions and witnessed by mystics and contemplated by artists.
Great Art requires escape from personality as Heidegger and Eliot emphasized and all values are actualized by a soul capable of transcending passion and ego. As Heidegger argued, art lets truth in the things manifest.  It is the poet that shows the path of fugitive gods or the track of the holy in an age that deems transcendence to be otherwise inaccessible. Thought art can’t supplant religion but it does complement it. It has been one of the languages of worship. It points beyond itself to the Most Holy. In an age that deems itself post death of God age or post theological, art is still able to communicate something from the Beyond. Art can help revert the postmodern man to theomorphic being he is.
We need to note tragic divorce between art and life in our lives, works and work environment if we are to be saved and find meaning through beauty in our lives.

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