Ziauddin Sardar, a London-based scholar, critic, futurist, journalist and prolific writer is considered a pioneering thinker on contemporary Islam and has been described by the Independent newspaper as ‘Britain’s own polymath’. His intellectual output, published in some 45 books, ranges from the future of Islam to critiques of postmodernism, science policy, contemporary aspects of science in Muslim societies, colonialism, cultural relations, literary criticism, travel and autobiography.
He has worked as a science correspondent for Nature and New Scientist and in the early 1980s and was a television reporter for the London Weekend Television. He has made numerous television programmes, including Battle for Islam, a 90-minute documentary for BBC 2 and dispatches for Channel 4 on Pakistan. In 1999, he became the editor of Futures, the monthly journal of policy, planning and future studies. He co-edited Third Text, the critical journal of visual art and culture, from 1999 to 2008. In 2006 he was appointed a Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission of Britain. He received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of East London in 2005.
Recently speaking at a Fomma (Foundation for Museum of Modern Art) launch of Dr Salem Humaid’s book on the culture industry, at IVSSA, he answers these questions.
Is the centre of art shifting from the West, or are we in the East deluding ourselves?
The centre of art has always been where the market is found, major galleries and museums are situated and the art press is located. Artistic productions, along with its aesthetics, have to be sold, communicated, broadcast and popularised—and you need an elaborate setup to do all these things. Given that major markets as well as galleries and museums are located in the West, it is not surprising that the centre of art is also to be found there. So it is nothing more than a delusion to say that it is shifting towards the East.
While the centre of art remains firmly in the West, the East is now producing wonderful art both in quality and quantity than it has ever done before. Art is thriving in China, India and Southeast Asia; and, we know, that in Pakistan art is going through a revival. I do not have much regard for contemporary Chinese art—most of it is manufactured for western markets.
In India, the situation is different: the Indians are trying to create their own market and promote indigenous forms and practices. Even then a great deal of Indian art ends up in western galleries and markets. However, if art continues to thrive in the East, we may see not a shift but more of a balance.
However, I think we ought to be focusing elsewhere. Art is theoretically located in the West, in two ways; first, all art history is the history of western art. Pick up any text on the history of art and eastern art would be conspicuous by its almost total absence. We need to reclaim art history. We need to argue and prove that art in our societies has shaped the history of art as much as art in the West. That eastern aesthetics are also part of the heritage of the world, and an integral part of the world art history. Unless we challenge the Eurocentrism of art history we cannot relocate it from the West.
Second, most of the perceptions and assumptions that frame art, that is the very bedrock on which art is produced, is based on modernity. And modernity intrinsically frames eastern cultures as inferior, second to the great civilisation of the West. We need to challenge these assumptions, work beyond and outside this framework—both for our self-respect and for pluralising perceptions of art. I guess what I am saying is that we need to create our own modernity. After all, we are as modern as anyone else. Indeed, we are modern simply because we live in and have shaped modern times. So I think we need to reclaim art both in terms of history and modernity. This is as much an exercise in theory as in practice.
In your article Other cities other futures you state, “The artisan and artist are a false dichotomy, a categorisation formed by modernity that has no meaning for megalopolis”—how do artist and artisan bridge the divide and reconnect to produce meaningful art, in a country like Pakistan, today when craft is derided as a ‘low’ art form?
This is a very important and pertinent question. Craft is denigrated in the West and in modernity—but not, at least not historically, in the East. If you look, for example, the pieces that adorn the Islamic Gallery of British Museum or the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art in Victoria and Albert Museum, you will notice that all of this great Islamic art is the work of artisans and craftsmen. In Muslim cultures, there has never been a distinction between ‘craft’ as something that peasants do and ‘art’ as some sort of rarefied phenomenon. Moreover, in Muslim culture great art could often be utilised for everyday activities—and not simply hung on the wall. The distinction appeared in western societies when ‘the artist’ emerged as a special human being, over and above ordinary mortals.
There is a reason why art is placed on an exulted pedestal: it is a substitute for religion. For a society where secularism is all pervasive, art performs the same function as religion: it is both a theory and a source of salvation. Art inspires awe and wonder just as religion once did. That’s why artists are regarded as priests—who must be respected at all cost, even if they produce junk, and allowed to do whatever they wish. ‘It’s art’, therefore you accept it, almost as a dogma.
This again brings me to how modernity frames the world of tradition as inferior and irrelevant. Consider the importance of abstract work in Muslim societies—not just calligraphy but abstract art itself, which has been there since the beginning of Islam. But art history teaches us that minimal pure abstraction emerged, during the early 20th century, when Mondrian, Malevich and other pioneering abstractionists were self-consciously solving the ‘crisis of representation’! It is as though no one before the emergence of the great western artist had any idea of art without representation.
The false distinction between craft and art has now reached such absurd levels that talented and skilled craftsmen now work as slaves to artists. Most western artists do not have the technical skills required to produce great works and employ craftsmen to do their work for them. The view that artists personally use their hands as an expression of their genius to produce great works is now dangerously obsolete. Instead, artists limit themselves to conceiving their work but their art is often made by expert artisans and craftsmen. I find this rather obscene. Not to say dishonest and unjust.
I think such art has no meaning—not for us anyway, whatever it may mean in a western gallery. Pakistani artists should acquire all the skills of traditional craftsmanship they need—it will not only keep the traditional skills alive but also make their art more meaningful and relevant to their society. The notion that crafts are somewhat inferior should be consigned to the dustbin of western history.
Should the traditional Ustad/shahgird style of learning be updated as a parallel mode of education along with academic institutional education for art students?
Absolutely. This is the best way to learn a traditional skill, which are often very sophisticated and require a great deal of effort and erudition, to perpetuate traditional knowledge and techniques, and to combine the best of tradition with the best of modernity and hence locate it in a transmodern—that is over and above tradition and modernity—worldview.
How do you perceive the reinvention of the Mughal miniature—do you think appropriating indigenous art forms will enable us to produce contemporary art that defines our identity
I think reinvention of Mughal miniatures is one way of reclaiming our heritage for the modern world. Traditions remain as traditions by reinventing themselves—otherwise they become outmoded customs. We need to reinvent all our artistic traditions—not just Mughal miniatures. Identity draws sustenance from history and heritage. But dead and distance history, and isolated heritage locked up in museums, does little for identity. For a society to be comfortable with its identity it needs dynamic history and a living heritage.