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Why MENASA Art Matters Part I - Value of Art to Society

Why MENASA Art Matters Part I - Value of Art to Society

Tara Emad Aldughaither

Why MENASA Art Matters

Part I - Value of Art to Society 


There is no question around the value and historic depth of artistic production coming from what is now known as MENASA (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia). Craftsmen, and women, from these regions have pioneered in the making of the most intricate and beautiful textile, ceramics, miniature paintings, decorative patterns and calligraphic expressions to date. By no means a fully comprehended task, ancient and traditional forms of art from around the Muslim and Asian world have been studied, exhibited and exchanged by private collectors, orientalists, art historians, anthropologists, commercial gallerists and curators from all over. 


For a person who views themselves as being “outside of the art world”, you might wonder how any of this is important, especially with the critical conditions of politics and economy in the region. There are in fact important reasons why artistic trends and developments in the market and society matter. Let us briefly look at why art, whether contemporary or not, is important to society. 


In the words of Naguib Mahfouz, one of the most important contemporary Arab novelists, “Art is the language of the entire human personality.”


In the 21st century, new technologies allowed more masses access to information about the rest of the world. This changed a lot in terms of our understanding of other arts and other cultures. When different parts of the globe are more aware of one another, this changes perspectives and knowledge as well as interest levels. Even museum practitioners and culture academics begins to reposition the knowledge that has been acquired from the past to make it more accurate. While media mostly sensationalised the idea of "the other", the art and culture fields constantly attempt to break those boundaries.  



In general terms, art is the product of an imagination which is communicated by the tools of a given environment. This is what makes it the most tangible form of expression and the most intimate window to peer through when discovering other people and their cultures – including discovering one’s own. 


The eminent art historian Karl Schnaase has expressively written “it is true that the keen eye of the beholder will also penetrate into the nature of a nation when examining its political life or its scientific achievement, but the most subtle and most characteristic features of a people’s soul can only be recognized in its artistic creations.” 


Consider a society with no artistic production, what would distinguish a culture if it weren’t their language, clothes, paintings, sculptures, photography, theatre and poetry? Further, how would we go on to build a more globally peaceful world if we do not understand the intricate human nuances which unite us? 


Consider how the most prominent signs of war throughout history have been site ruins and looted artefacts, and how one of the largest of its plunders are paintings and sculptures. 


At the same time, consider a period in history when artistic production was lacking or concealed. How would future generations be more informed of their past? Without looking at the creative consequences of human experience and motivation, the entire study of history would have been greatly disrupted. 


A prominent example which supports this is the lack of artistic history in the Arabian Peninsula after the advent of Islam. While the rest of the Islamic world developed their art with the influence of their own cultures, the people of the Arabian Peninsula in particular had very little resources or motivation to make visual works of art – focusing rather on poetry and discourse. This is one big reason why historians, archaeologists and sociologists sometimes face a dense block when trying to understand the history of Arabia. 


In other words, the lack of visual and material culture (arts) makes it easy to misunderstand/orientalise/mythologies histories and thus misrepresent societal images. The lack of art also allows people to misinterpret their own identity, leaving them instead to rely on nationalistic and political or even religious frames on which to define themselves. 


In fact, art is hugely religious in its nature, as it touches the core of human emotion and soul. This speaks volumes about oppression and the nature of extremist values. It also explains the acts of destruction which terrorist groups have committed against monuments and buildings in many examples throughout history, ISIS’s destruction of Assyrian statues in Iraq being one of the most recent. 


The lack of space for artistic production leaves a community mute, unable to communicate their creative self and unable to connect with the essential need for documenting and studying human experience as it tries to comprehend its place in the universe. For this reason, art is just as important as science.