Are we really as cultured as we claim to be?
By now you’ve likely watched the video clip of British street artist Banksy trolling a congregation of snooty art connoisseurs in the best way possible -- by shredding a canvas print of one of his iconic murals as soon as the gavel was brought down upon the end of its bidding.
While it’s still unclear whether the act of creative vandalism was genuine, or whether it was an elaborate stunt that Banksy had coordinated with the curators of the exhibition, any such inquiries become secondary, since, at the end of the day, the message is still the same: Art requires disruption.
Being born and brought up in a nation that all but encourages mediocrity of the mind, those of us who have carved for ourselves a niche in the field of creativity and the arts have experienced, first hand, the undercurrent of hypocrisy that runs within our society.
We pretend to be one of the most cultured societies on planet Earth, where the canvas and sheet music come together to weave a vibrant heritage of artistry; all the while railroading our children and grand-children into becoming doctors and engineers (and, since about a decade and a half ago, BBA graduates) in seeking a future full of third-world wealth, and distending pot bellies.
The cognitive dissonance is strong enough to be called performance art in itself. But I digress.
Our definitions of what constitute “art” and “culture” are still firmly rooted in past glories, which isn’t really surprising, given the unhealthy relationship that Bangladeshis have with the past in general. But conservatism and art make for strange bedfellows. Where the former requires playing it safe and not attempting to fix what isn’t broken, the latter requires an inexorable, violent march forward.
Clinging on to tired old images of alpona and other unnecessarily ornate designs bathed in red, white, and yellow, along with the same old twangy song and dance of the ektara and ye olde bauls (as enjoyable and pleasing as they may be to the senses) makes us as cultured and artistic as a brick wall -- and the sooner we reconcile with this fact, the better.
In the last few years, Dhaka has witnessed the emergence of a wave of young artists breaking away from tradition. Holding independent exhibitions at unorthodox venues, creating platforms for other like-minded artists to jump on and showcase their creativity. While the initial excitement of being given the opportunity to appreciate art that did not conform to our society’s narrow views was quite overwhelming, it was sad to witness the scene die a slow, painful death.
I realize that I stand to alienate and/or anger a significant portion of my acquaintances (and even a few close friends) in stating this, but plastering beautiful sketches and paintings to coffee cups, coasters, and other knick-knacks being sold at significant mark-ups is not art.
It’s a curio shop. And a pretty uninteresting one at that.
Of course, the fault lies squarely in the aforementioned hypocrisy. While the thirst to pursue a career in the arts is indeed strong in these young boys and girls, the reality of being able to make enough money to support a broken family system eventually caught up to them. As it does with everyone else.
To define what is and what isn’t art is a fool’s errand, or the “cultural elite” as they are better known. However, art and social progress are inextricably tied together, requiring the same amount of blood, sweat, tears, toil, hunger, and pain to dedicate one’s life to.
And to live a life in pain is, perhaps, the ultimate form of art.
Rubaiyat Kabir is an Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. He can be followed on Twitter @moreanik.