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Art, Morality and being a Khaleeji - Part 1

In my previous post, I mentioned how a student at the UDK boiled a goldfish as an act of Art, during one of my visits in 2011. This is not something new for European Art History, for example, when the artist Marco Evaristti debuted at the Trapholt museum in Kolding, Denmark, his work also consisted of goldfish swimming in ten electric blenders. He (not his art) required the museum visitors to choose between: hitting the ON button and killing the fish, or leaving the button alone as a way of granting pardon to the Goldfish. These types of artworks raise a deeper question about the standards we use to evaluate Art, and why Art is exempt from Morality?

Being a young painting student at the Bahrain Art Society during the 1990’s, I frequently overheard the philosophical conversations of my peers. One discussion that stayed in mind and shaped my worldview is that Art can be ‘Haram’, which means Art can be a tool that tempts people to Sin; a tool that diverts our gaze away from God. Art has the capacity to depict the human imagination as if it were something real and create false memories as if they were once lived. Early on, I understood that this is one of the reasons Art was condemned in Muslim Culture.

We can experience real feelings aroused from an imagined space, a space which is created by a human; an action that can control people separate from God. It seems out dated to use words like ‘temptation’ ‘sin’ and ‘God’ in a post pandemic globalized world, but this was my reality back then as a young woman. The Khaleej in Art has transformed since the 1990’s and our ideas regarding morality have become extremely intertwined with humanism, secularization, the new age and digital globalization. In other words, we have become “Progressive” and Khaleeji artists are no longer homogenous in their view of God, Islam or ethical values thus widening the philosophical question regarding Morality in Art, by Arab artists.

In the western tradition of philosophy there is a concept called ‘Catharsis’ it means that we can experience the purification or purgation of our emotions primarily through art. It also means that Art can not only challenge our beliefs and values but also act as a way for us to escape from them. Take, for example how stories about the Rape of women are deeply foundational to Roman mythology and the Roman civilization. These stories not only challenged the morality of society at the time, but also, mythology, though the epics can also arguably be escapist.

Unlike the West, in the GCC we have not (yet) witnessed a Khaleeji artist opposing morality in Art to critique Morality. As we have, for example, in the case of British artist Chris Ofilihis with his painting of The Holy Virgin Mary where he painted the Virgin as a black woman from his own excrement, or as mentioned above the pulverization of animals in electric blenders. But what we do notice, is that much of our leading artistic expression in the GCC is in the realm of grandiose Architecture. I personally believe that it is an extension of the Islamic artistic legacy, where important religious significance was given to architecture and calligraphy which, in our contemporary world is a remnant of the practice of societal beautification in a non-idolatrous approach. This is merely a personal opinion.

This topic has been deeply researched and studied in Western philosophy and a short blog will do this large diverse topic no justice. I want to clarify that I am not an expert in this field and I am also not a specialist in this subject but I am deeply interested in the role morality has to play in Art because as a Bahraini Khaleeji, I feel the importance and connection of this subject to my survival of both the religious transformations of my society, while being subjugated to bizarre moral standards within the European art canon. This experience drove me to research why I continually feel a sense of moral otherness in the Art Field.

I am also attracted to the philosophical debates on Aesthetics in Art and I intend on further writing about these topics in my next blog, and to bring up comparisons to my Khaleeji up bringing. But for now, thank you for reading and please enrich me by adding some questions to your comments. Your feedback will help me expand my research, learn more and motivate me to write more blogs.

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