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The soft image | Art & Culture

When we were being accused by everybody of promoting extremism, the phrase ‘soft image’ was coined to counter that perception.

In simple terms, this ‘soft image’ meant an activity that was not extreme or did not, as its ingredient, engage in violence. It was assumed that if a society was more involved in cultural activity, then it was not supposed to be espousing extremism or harbouring violence.

The ‘soft image’ was dependent or aligned to culture, which was seen as something opposite to violence. Music, dance, poetry, literature and painting were necessarily seen to be contrary to violence and extremism. It was assumed that if one was reading or writing poetry, then one was not violent or that the act of writing poetry or creating a piece of music in itself was a counter-narrative to extremism.

Picking up the gun was seen to be different from picking up the brush and the two were seen to be paradoxical to one another: if one was indulging in violence, then one could not be writing poetry or making a film.

One fails to understand how the two were seen to be mutually exclusive. The poet or the filmmaker is not necessarily an enemy of violence or of harbouring extremist views. As stated earlier, the two are not mutually exclusive: the one ruling out the other.

Being an artiste does not mean cancel out extremism. There have been artists and artistes who expressed themselves in espousing an extremist agenda, rather than being pacifists or choosing a path that is democratic or based on a peaceful exchange of ideas to arrive at a consensus.

Actually, art can be and is very effectively used as a tool to promote extremism and violence as a means of achieving one’s ends. The history of the arts is full of instances where the artistes have chosen their expression to promote the political agenda of extremism or of rousing sentiments against an enemy, political or religious.

Our society, too, is not bereft of such instances. It all rings true when state policy uses various art forms to demonise the enemy – these could be outside the territorial frontiers or inside it. It is not necessary that art should speak of love and pacifism alone and not about achieving the desired ends by whatever means.

All wars, which have been between nations or countries or empires, are based on hatred and drumming up of a one dimensional propaganda that demonises the other. The purpose is to make war a just enterprise. The grounds for war are ploughed by those who whip up the emotions to a stage where violence becomes inevitable. This egging on is mostly carried out by painters, poets, musicians, filmmakers and television presenters.

Actually, all epics are, at one level, the promotion of heroism seen through the victories achieved in war. Be it the Iliad, the Odyssey or the Mahabharata, the heroes are only worthy of their name and conduct as they face the ultimate test of putting their lives on the line. Human history has been characterised by the greetings and facilitation of their vanquishing heroes as they returned while conquering territory or enslaving the people, not their own. Even if they die, their death is a cause for celebration.

It is sometimes wrongly assumed that all art is anti-war or does not promote violence as a means to achieving the desired ends. It can be so in some situations but it is not the whole truth. When India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, many were totally dismayed by the turn of events. It was less than two decades since the sub-continent had been divided, the two countries emerging independent and hopeful about their future based on their preferred identities. The bloodletting in 1947 was seen a one-time tragedy. It was assumed that the worst lay in the past as the two countries heralded the decolonisation phase after the World War II. Many wanted the two countries to live in peace and many who had migrated associated with local landmarks, neighbourhoods, towns and cities being mentioned as theatres of a destructive war.

So, there was dismay and many artistes and poets refused to join the frenzied yelling of calling out the enemy and felt more for the suffering humanity on both sides of the border.

Shakir Ali painted the moon that he said lit the darkness on both sides of the political divide and Faiz yearned for a pacifist vision that saw the divisions between the two societies erased. The two were, like many others, questioned, demonised and pilloried for it.

It is said that no great work of art appeared or was created by the British while they battled the Nazis. The greatest painters and musicians and poets wrote more about the misery of war than its glorification in itself. Even here, the most evocative number in music was by Noor Jehan: Aey putar hataan tai nai wikday, a mother’s lament on the wasteful destruction of war.

Most artistic expression is pacifist in nature and decries the recourse to violence in resolving the issues, but not all is. Actually, it is all a matter of interpretation as art should yield to more levels of understanding than the logical compulsion of a slogan. Various levels of interpretation can save it from the straightforward intent of propaganda.

Propaganda cannot be separated from the arts and if so then it is only a matter of its profundity. Otherwise, in its externals the two are the same – a poet speaking of love and a painter of war use artistic means to carry the message forward and perhaps that is why it is more effective than mere statements. There is a cogent case for creating a distinction between art and artistic means.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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