Art busting art
In the middle-class eye popular art has always been suspect for what has often been claimed as its unsophisticated, unsavory content. Aside from the denigration aimed at it, the dilemma that besets the collective (class) consciousness while attempts are made to define what is popular in the context of the glorified high, is problematised by what is known as the taste hierarchy.
In any hierarchized community its protagonists develop a knack for targeting the elements (artistic or otherwise) they perceive to be of dubious origin and intention, without ever delving into the realm of understanding, especially an understanding of the condition that enables such art form.
So, from their point of view, the unknown but knowable colloquial art form – one that is categorically identified as the culturally defined other, are put aside solely due to its non-sacred breeding ground. For them it is a form from the lower periphery.
Urbanity and the aesthetics of pleasantness go hand in hand. Dig a little deeper and the layers of the unconscious (collective in origin) begin to unfold, and that is where the root of the problem lies. It is first off about the fear of contagion. And then we can safely zero in on the overrated value called taste, a sign that signify exclusivity and is burdened with an unhealthy amount of ontomoral loads, thereby enforcing the educated class in affecting a posture which may be defined as ontomoral stiffness.
What is popular has always been written out. High art also foregrounds its weaknesses vis-à-vis its other by blocking all factual data from entering the morally defined high ground.
What is high is considered patrimonial inheritance as rights, and also monistic in character, as it tends to negate all other forms of art. We come to recognize it through the avid worshipping of the god that arises (read arrives) from the continent we know as the West, satisfying, what Hommi K Bhabha calls, the coloniser’s narrative demands.
The idea of taste apparently also has a notional core, on which engrained are the sloppy bits, funny pieces and absurd chunks that sometimes stand out, and at time remain submerged; and that too to the discredit of the continuous effort in aesthetic sanitization, one which stems from a poor understanding of both what is defined as Ours and Theirs. But it is as a rule always safely packaged in the guise of art proper.
But do photographers have any choice but to take in, in some form or other, what lies beyond the pale of his/her decisively defined taste? Probably, they do. We have seen their likes occupying primetime slots in the media. But Abbas is an exception.
By Training the focus on what may be called hyperreality, he seeks to defuse the definitive pull of the taste bureaucracy, thereby annulling, even if to a measured degree, the polarity that propelled the two worlds – the apotheosized high and the presumed nether zone, or the popular front – into the directions of two opposite and irreconcilable limits.
For the hierarchical lot the only way to go is to expropriate the very humanity of the people from that ‘nether zone’ by trashing their mode of entertainment. Therefore, through the linguistic canon, they encounter the other, and words such as deshi (archaic and unrefined), and khet (rural and rustic), are regurgitated to reinforce the hierarchical mindset. The aesthetic foreclosure enforced is a plain exercise in power.
On the other hand, every image – made, unmade or remade by telling a tale or harping on taste or tastelessness– foregrounds its ontological status. So does the picture in question: Abbas’ conceptual deconstruction of Dhaka’s reality by manipulating the bananas and the Bangla movie poster. Together they frame a story by putting violence in the context of sexual pleasure only to spotlight the sorry end to all fanciful beginnings – a an inevitable consequence of the urban realities.
The relationship between the observer and the material to be observed is always a tacky one. The object never rules over the game of observation, but the observer does by way of employing some accepted norms and categories. This is how the words that are in use to designate or denigrate a certain art form occupy an important place in the repertoire of knowledge that fuel all educated opinions. And this is how the observer dominates the observed and also seeks ‘to erase a collective proper name’ – the ‘lower class’.
The normalization of relationship between the observer and the observed is possible only after the normalization at the level of the hierarchy that exerts its influence in positing the two against each other, leading to aesthetico-political reconciliation. And at this very site class is an important issue to reckon with.
Imprint of taste on moral values buttresses the class community and its arts. It seems that defense of taste is eternally linked to the knowledge that is premised on finding the bogeyman. Fear mongering is the biggest arsenal in the defense of ‘taste imperialism’. But is it not impossible to carry on like this in the time of fragmented, folly-ridden, bubble-enthused diversified economic and political environment to try and pull the status (read high) on others.
The shady space of taste has never been incontrovertible, though its advocates have no clue about it at all. The case rests on the psychology of negation and the imagined reality that stands to defend such act of negation.
Let us hear what Jean-Luc Nancy has to say: ‘Compassion is the meaning of the interrupted community, which is no longer communion but communication.’ Accordingly, in the age of communication, seeing the world through compassion is the ultimate fad, and saving the downtrodden from the mire is top on the card.
So where does Abbas’ photo stand, and what does it even explicate?
The continuous shaping, reshaping and even filtering and refiltering of reality through the invention as well as intervention of the media is the truth that the middle class is fearful of facing. This hyper state (one which is called hyperreality) is addressed to a degree in Abbas’ photograph. It is not agitprop, but a peculiar combination of organic, inorganic matters, aesthetic and anti-aesthetic elements and substances looked at from both arched and straight angles to tease out meaning from a phenomenon in the very same context he has first discovered it.
It is an image of a taste busting kind. And the fact that Abbas is an Iranian seems to lend a whole new dimension to it, as his eyes at first misleadingly seem locally trained. Whatever has spurred him to tackle this subject with such intensity, the end result certainly speaks of a profound engagement on his part.
Depart was unable to obtain the right to publish the above photo, hence the watermark of Magnum on the image.