Artistry with Purpose
The contrast between modern day poetry and classical Arabic poetry is a striking one. Classical poetry always has a fixed metre or bahr, a certain number of syllables to each line and a rhythm that must be maintained for the poem to be considered truly good. There is a strict form through which the intended meaning must be channeled. (The same is true for classical English poetry and I am sure in other languages as well). Modern poetry stands in complete defiance of that: there is no thought to convention, and whatever words or combination of words best express the ideas or feelings of the author are put to the page.
The same disparity can be found in traditional Islamic art vs. modern. Traditionally, one finds symmetry and proportion, pattern and repetition, and almost a formalized ‘science’ to the art of making something beautiful. In contrast, in modern art the objective is not necessarily to produce something beautiful but often to convey a pointed message to the viewer, to shock and sensationalize, or simply just to fulfill that innate desire in the artist to produce, express and ‘create’.
I think that the loosening of the conventional boundaries of creative expression is amazing. You only have to read a poem by e.e. cummings to appreciate how powerful poetry can be when it goes beyond those limitations. However a negative trend we can also see is that artistic expression has become very ‘self’ focused. There is such an intense focus put on the artist, whereas traditionally art and poetry focused more on the experience given to the audience than on the one who produced it.
I remember a lecture I attended in my MSA days with a wonderful Muslim artist, whose specialty was ceramics and tiles, who explained this real philosophical difference in artistic expression. She said that traditionally in Islamic art the focus was on giving the viewer a spiritual experience… that in seeing the seemingly infinite repetition of a geometric pattern, for example, one remembers that all things inevitably lead back to Allah and His transcendence, unity, and indivisibility. It was never really about the ‘self’ of the artist, and that is why you will never see a signature or autograph on any work of traditional Islamic art. The artist’s desire for self-expression was sublimated by their desire to produce a profound spiritual experience for their audience.
As Muslims I think we need to come to a new place in our artistic expression, where we go beyond the bounds of convention (while of course respecting the limits that our faith establishes). That’s something that we can learn from the modern forms of poetry, art, etc. At the same time, I think we have to be very wary of this trend towards narcissism in whatever we produce. Instead of using the creative faculties we’ve been blessed with to attain a sense of accomplishment or fulfillment, we should consider them as a means of service to others, to help people reach a deeper level of awareness and consciousness about their purpose in life, the Divine and the self.
As I begin this new blog, I have to admit that I’ve been a bit scared about joining the ocean of blogs out there whose objective seems to not really center on benefiting people, but simply to be an outlet of expression. I feel that we’re living in a time of too much expression at times, too many opinions, and not enough real meaning, depth or feeling. We are swimming in an age of information where hearts are still rarely touched, and ilmun nafi’ – words of wisdom that benefit and enlighten – have to be dug out from the rough. I pray that the words that I write and the experiences I share are more than simple catharsis on my part, but like the complex geometric patterns of the artists of our history, somehow help draw our hearts heavenwards and help us remember the life beyond this worldly one.