‘Blessings upon the Land of my Love
by Imran Qureshi, and "You who are my love and my life’s enemy too".
Site-specific installation, Emulsion and acrylic on brick, 2011.
Unctional Beauty and Handmade Political Art
Folk arts are usually secluded in the area of the “ornamental”; they are seldom seen as “political” or critical. By the same token, the artifacts of political expression are not seen as belonging to a tradition of art-making. However, despite institutional silence, there is a long standing, home-made tradition of making political art. Sometimes, these “gifts of resistance” refuse the commercial appropriation and remain autonomously critical. They are autonomously critical in the sense that their critical stance is not imposed by what an institution wants them to be critical about. A carpet, for instance, is not always a textile floor covering but a way of spending time usefully, politically and critically and yes, it is beautiful: a beauty we fear. Starting with “the aesthetic era”, the established aesthetic theories define beauty as an ability of some objects to arise in viewers a distinctive type of unmediated pleasure – aesthetic pleasure. This ability to arise pleasure in attendants is the only purpose of beauty in aesthetic era. Then, beauty is understood as a functionless entity which merely gives us aesthetic pleasure. But is this so? Political home-made pieces don’t strive to conform to a hegemonic or paradigmatic concept of beauty but to a pluralistic understanding of it. How does beauty look is less noteworthy in comparison with what beauty does and means. Political-critical-home-made art usually exhibits difficult beauties, queer beauties and obscure beauties, which nevertheless, do not seem to be pleasant at the first sight (and, even if they are pleasant at the first sight in some cases, this does not mean that they don’t perform a critical function at the same time). Therefore, even if folk arts tend to be secluded in the ornamental’s domain, it does not mean that “the ornament” cannot act as an indicator of social change or as a critical reminder. And even if they are not called “art”, this does not mean that these forms of creativity from outside the mainstream artworld cannot act critically and progressively.
Critical Ornament and Functional Beauty
Ornament repeats animalistic, vegetative or geometric patterns applied to an image surface. It is commonly held that ornament serves “to heighten an aesthetic effect, to structure, accentuate or enliven surfaces, to frame, to fill –or to dignify”. Sometimes, it does more than that but being too often associated with triviality, domesticity or “popular culture” fails to convince that beauty can be clever too. From the long history of its dismissal, it would be enough just to mention Adolf Loos’s invectives: “No ornament can any longer be made today by anyone who lives on our cultural level. It is different with the individuals and peoples who have not yet reached this level…I can tolerate the ornament of the Kaffir, The Persian, the Slovak peasant woman, my shoemaker’s ornaments, for they have no other way of attaining the high points of their existence. We have art, which has taken the place of ornament”.
As we know, ornaments became inextricably bound up in discussions about taste and beauty. Yet, ornament does not necessarily talk about symmetry and harmony to satisfy a cataleptic aesthetics of pleasure but can talk about conflicts and injustices too. It is increasingly being used as a means of criticism: “of suffocating female role models; of totalitarian political systems; of standardizing behavioral patterns, expectations and conventions”. Even mere decoration (“free beauty” in Kant’s terms) acquires a political function. Then, the beautiful, “inoffensive” ornament started to be increasingly used by political artists from the art world or from the margins as a means of criticism of the disturbed conditions of the world. To take just an example, the Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi’s floor painting for the 10th Sharjah Biennial (United Arab Emirates) is a mixture of beauty and critique. As the curator Sabine Vogel posits: “Blood –red color everywhere. The whole courtyard is a shambles. Splatters cover even the stairs and the walls. But then you notice the little, white floral ornament. They are fused with the color of blood; they emerge from this image of violence”.