I’m no artist. I’m rather prosaic. But it is difficult to deny the strength of art as a means of self-expression, political resistance, therapy, or as a projection of social values. The blank canvass holds endless possibilities; from ink to paint, surreal to abstract, dusky or vibrant, art provides an unparalleled mode of expression. What is on the canvass is the heart, emotions and dreams of the artist, manifest in a symphony of dexterous strokes and shades. It is the individual projected on the canvass.
And thus art can never be separated from the individual. And the individual can never be separated from the society in which they live. Society irreversibly influences them, and in turn, they irreversibly influence society. So, we find the individual on the canvass, but since the individual is shaped by their society, we see part of society on the canvass. That means that if a retrospective is taken of a culture’s art, we see society’s canvass; a milieu of art bound together by a common thread of values, concerns and hopes.
I have coincidentally stumbled upon different pieces of modern art, including having once visited the Tate Modern. From my limited exposure, it seems that modern western art seems to be an expression of individualism and liberty, which is held in such high esteem in the West. This is evident in the considerable diversity found in contemporary art; it shows individuals expressing themselves entirely how they want to, in line with individualism. It also seems to be centred around people, either an individual or a group; this also seems to relate to the centrality of the human, as opposed to grander structures, or group identity.
Perhaps a comparison against Islamic art will be a better example. One of the most notable types of Islamic art is geometry; an intricate pattern containing stunning mathematical treasures. This alludes to the theme of structural harmony and balance in Islam. We find in Surah Baqarah, it the middle of the chapter, the verse in which God says; ‘And thus we have made you a middle nation’. Some chapters of the Quran also feature a ring like structure, with the themes at the start of the chapter corresponding to the themes at the end, then the second mentioned theme matches the second last theme, and so on. This structure also operates in a super-chapter way, with exegetes noting the similarity between the first chapter of the Quran, Surah Fatiha, and the final chapter, Surah Naas.
More broadly, the Quran contains vivid descriptions of natural phenomenon, citing them as part of God’s signs and dominion; the entire universe is a harmonious structure built around praising God. Thus the theme of structural balance and harmony found in Islamic scripture seems to be very much present in geometry. Another feature of Islamic art is to include one deliberate flaw, as a reminder of humanity’s imperfection, and God’s perfection. This is quite a clear example of art reflecting a societal value.
Thus far, we’ve grappled with sweeping and crude group identities, namely the West and Islam. I have no intention of reinforcing this dichotomy, because it implies some degree of mutual exclusivity, and seems to make a hard and fast divide between religion and culture, one that I believe does not clearly exist (a discussion for another day).
If we abandon this crude categorisation, and consider the mixing of cultures, fascinating possibilities emerge. What I mean by mixing of cultures are British born Muslims, both Caucasian and of other ethnicities. The postmodern world in which we live can no longer be so easily truncated; just recently, the first female Muslim minister spoke in Parliament. This means that individuals, particularly those of religious and ethnic minorities, have a previously unheard-of set of social pressures influencing them. For example, the British Muslim is influenced by; their faith; contemporary British sentiments; ethnic sentiments; international political events and happenings; post-colonial sentiments, inter alia. And consequently, each one of these finds it’s way onto the canvas. The canvas of a British Muslim contains a plethora of influences, which would differ from, for example, the canvas of a British Japanese Muslim-turned-Atheist-Vegan-Social-Justice-Warrior.
So in the crucible of culture that is contemporary Britain, the canvas becomes even more exciting than it already is; it projects a sundry of global influences, made possible only by the deep mixing of cultures. Art becomes a projection of society. The ambiguous white of a blank canvass is bombarded with the artist’s eloquence, which in turn is their heart and soul.