Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Royal Devastation and a Case for Knowledge

I am writing this in response to a news item brought to my attention by a wonderful blog: Crossroads Arabia. It is one of the many ways the internet connects me to Saudi these days.

Also, please let it be known that I am really talking about a certain group of Muslims, not all of them, and certainly not all Saudi people. Every large area has many group, and within each group there is individuality and diversity. I am sure you know that already.

Recently, Arab News reported that archaeologists have found a Pharaonic inscription near Tayma.

What an amazing find! It is evidence of a trade route, of communication between peoples thousands of years ago. This route goes all the way to Jordan (according to the article). It's a fascinating discovery that gives Saudi history a different in its richness, a deserving complexity.

Crossroads Arabia makes a very good point though, and mentions a term: "The Age of Ignorance". This is a term that makes the human and the art historian in me shudder with rage.

When I was in Saudi, I let myself waste away (but then decided to write it off). I bathed in solitude, as many of you know. On the other hand, my sister took advantage of her time there to go and do much, much cooler things. This is for reasons of personality and opportunity, and I am very proud of her. One of the things she did was visit a museum in Riyadh, I don't remember which one, although I think it might have been the National Museum of Riyadh. She reported back to me about what she had seen, and one of the things she told me was that the museum had a certain...tone about pre-Islamic Arabia.

The very term "Age of Ignorance" is one I have heard many times in my life. People in my own family has used it, and many members of the Muslim community of different ages and walks of life talk about it casually in their discussions of religion. It marks an attitude that I could never wrap my head around, or even respect. This is because it is founded on the belief that before Islam, people were just...doing it all wrong. Nothing good could come from the "Age of Ignorance"! God brought to us the prophet Muhammad and he made us do it right, so all we need to know is that before Muhammad, people sucked. That's it.

As someone who has devoted years of her life to studying culture, the evolution of mankind, architecture, and many other things that involve the human race over the course of years upon years, I am insulted by this attitude. I cannot relate to it, and have therefore gained prejudices against people who show the merest sign of having it.

Islam is the religion of knowledge and I am proud of being brought up in a religious circle that preaches everything but blind faith. Since I was little, I was told several things that support the spiritual and mental benefit to gaining knowledge: read the Qur'an, become proficient in Arabic fuss'ha (or however you might want to spell it) so that you can understand it without a translation one day, read the parables/hadith of the Prophet and understand which ones are more reliable (if any of them are), have religious discourse, and take nothing at face value, for God has given you the capability to learn.

I feel like this "Age of Ignorance" attitude is contradictory to this wonderful, reasonable attitude that doesn't even need Islam at its core to appreciate. There are many things to study about all histories, including pre-Islamic history, and much that we can gain from remembrance and analysis. Many Muslims know that, and to them I am preaching to the (probably nasheed) choir, but others don't care about anything but their own little bubble.

This goes for just about anybody of any religious or non-religious upbringing. What kind of a life are you living if you do not appreciate the work of the men and women and others who came before you? What kind of justice are you committing to them, if any at all?

The reason art history was the major I chose in my undergraduate study is because I got to study history through the lens of expression and perception. I got to learn through the philosophies of those who came before me and those who are still working today. It would be a great shame if we ignored the ideas of others and pretended we are so much better than they are. I am proud of the discoveries of Muslim scholars, I am interested in the knowledge or wisdom that the Prophet might bring, and I am also equally interested in the Pharaohs that have made their mark on Arabia.

I have no right to make decisions for Saudi Arabia or for its people, but I have to admit and address the worry that I feel personally about a lack of interest or appreciation for a whole history. There is a block in my mind against Muslims, not just Saudis now (because my knowledge about the "Age of Ignorance" came from Mauritians and Americans) that is caused by my mind's confusion. Why would you not take pride in a rich past? Who would brush away the accomplishments of their ancestors? And why not try to learn from the ancestors of others who are not your own?

The people who would ignore the past are the ones belonging to Ignorance. The people of pre-Islam were, according to Islam, on the wrong path spiritually, but the mental capabilities were nothing to scoff at. There are non-Muslims who find no need to think about anything but their own present as well, and they are doing just as badly. Humanity has done great things, and horrible things, and we are the ones losing out if we become ignorant.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Write the Poem for Yourself, not Me

During my first year of undergraduate study in Upstate New York, I did an internship in between semesters at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. It was there that I met and learned about Lawrence Weiner.

Just in case you didn't feel like sifting through the Wikipedia article, he has written the following important statements about his artworks:

1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built.

As you can probably see here, especially in the last statement, an artwork does not need to be made - it is, literally, the thought that counts. For those who are informed somewhat about art and art history, Weiner is basically stating the tenets of conceptual art. It is the art that is in the mind, it is the idea, not the physical representation.

Joseph Kosuth. One and Three Chairs. 1965
One and Three Chairs, Joseph Kosuth (1965)

Joseph Kosuth is one of the big examples, one of the guys you will always see in an art history textbook - and with good reason! He displays exactly what conceptual art is all about. Here, we have three ways of representing the same object - a chair. We have the chair itself, the photograph of the chair, and then the definition of the word "chair" right next to the both of them. What does it mean? Well, basing myself purely on what I learnt during my undergrad years, it basically means that all of these three things, these three "chairs" we see here are all just standing in for the idea behind what we see visually in front of us.

Although there are different ways of showing it, all three of these things are chairs. The shared meaning is what is the most important in conceptual art; that shared meaning becomes a raw one. The raw is what really counts.

Okay, everyone, it's time for me to finally explain why I am giving you an art history lesson here. Today, I wrote a poem. I used to love to write poetry as a kid, and even won a few little school prizes for what I wrote. This was way back when I was about 8 years old, by the way. When I hit my teen years, when I should have been writing poetry about my dark, depressing, emo life, I just...stopped. I didn't really want to write anymore.

Recently, I have been yearning to write in so many different ways besides my academic writing, so I decided to use a pencil and paper to write some poems. I wrote whatever came to mind. What became more interesting to me, however, was the feeling and meaning behind the poem. I remembered that back when I was studying English literature at school in Mauritius, I always wondered if the poets were looking down at all students, getting pissed off that we got the meaning of the poem all wrong. When I was more frustrated, I'd shake my metaphorical fist at Keating, Eliot, Lawrence, et al and say "Why didn't you also write an explanation for your poems? Isn't that the point anyway?!"

My teenage self is the person who missed the point, to a degree. Some people see the importance of the representation. Today, based on my little frustrated self and on my love and appreciation of conceptual art, I want to give to you...the meaning.

As I said earlier, I wrote a poem. I am going to give you the meaning. If you want, you can write the poem! What is more important is that everyone gets what the poem is about. 

The meaning is in the form of a list, but the poem is not
1. It mentions where I was born
2. It is about how far away I am from that place
3. It talks about a controlled life I do not wish to lead
4. It talks about "quiet desperation" - but not literally in those words
5. It talks about a desire to belong, even though the belonging comes at a price
6. The heavy price is that I can never be free to think my own thoughts ever again

And that, my friends, is all I am going to give you today.