June 30, 2019


Art is often seen as existing outside the state. In Europe, this concept emerged with the Impressionist Movement of the 19th century, which introduced the role of art for objective observation rather than as a visual expression of the religious, social or political values of a society.

In South Asia, art separated from the state when the post-1857 British occupiers of the Mughal court dismissed many artists on the court payroll. All the rulers of India patronised the arts, which reached a high point with the Mughals. Not only did they gather together the best artists, many acquired creative skills — from Akbar, who was taught drawing as a child by the miniature painter Khwaja Abdus Samad, to Aurangzeb who learnt calligraphy from Syed Ali Tabrizi. Women of the palace, courtiers and rulers of smaller kingdoms took a keen interest in architecture, garden design, crafts and designing clothing.

The artist was integral to all societies from the earliest recorded human settlements, in most tribal societies and in the many empires of the world. Islamic artisans produced exquisite architecture, art and crafts from Spain to India, over more than 10 centuries. It is only in modern times that the arts have been excluded from statecraft. Or so it seems.

In reality, the state establishes museums, protects cultural heritage, engages urban planners and architects, awards outstanding artists, musicians, poets and writers, develops laws to protect copyright and acknowledges the considerable contribution of arts and crafts to the national economy. The world trade of creative goods and services was 624 billion US dollars in 2011. Some nations do it more overtly, while others, like Pakistan, in a less considered way.

Funding for the arts, aimed at alleviating unemployment during the Great Depression, with Roosevelt’s New Deal and, later, the Works Progress Administration (WPA)commissioning public murals, music, theatre and creative writing acted as catalysts for social change. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Bell Laboratories engage well-known artists to promote national achievements in space exploration and new technologies.

The artist Thomas Moran helped create the first national park at Yellowstone in 1872. The National Endowment for the Arts was established in 1965, in the middle of the Vietnam War and at the height of the Cold War, to promote American culture and preserve its artistic traditions. American jazz musicians were sent abroad to counter Soviet propaganda.

European governments spend even more on social and cultural programmes, often amounting to half of the gross national product.

In Pakistan, despite the continued absence of a national cultural policy, Sadeqain was engaged to paint a mural at Tarbela Dam and in a number of public places. Arts councils were established in all the major cities and a Pakistan National Council for the Arts was also formed. The PIA Arts Academy promoted Pakistan culture internationally; a national art museum was approved in the ’70s and completed by Gen Musharraf. Even in Zia’s strict Islamic era, artists received national awards.

Although today there are no Louis XIVs or Napoleons, Akbars or Jehangirs commissioning their portraits, many statesmen privately paint or collect art. Churchill, Prince Charles, General Franco and even Hitler made fine paintings. There is a distinguished list of creative civil servants, some better-known for their art, such as Milton and Chaucer.

Pakistan’s civil service includes art and literary figures such as Haneef Ramay, Mustafa Zaidi, Parveen Shakir, Qudratullah Shahab , Majeed Amjad, N. M. Rashid, Kishwar Naheed, Omar Shahid Hamid, Syed Zamir Jafri and Brigadier Siddiq Salik, among others.

A government’s role is incomplete if it does not represent the collective identity of its people, reflected equally in its economic, political, spiritual and creative expression.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 30th, 2019