By Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan
A question that is being asked more so these days, by some voices in the art world, is: when did beauty ever solve a real problem?
Es Devlin’s 2018 artwork ‘Please Feed the Lions’ – an interactive installation of a fifth fluorescent orange lion, that appeared next to the original four statues, at London’s Trafalgar Square– unsurprisingly did not give any helpful advice, only random poems that were projected in LED lights from the lion’s mouth.
Though multidimensional, physical artworks boost wonder, their role in more difficult times have lately been in question.
I read similar comments last month, posted on an art webpage, comments which were later erased, before I even managed to reply (a welcome delay because my answer did require more revision).
As for the term beauty, the kind in question is the type that is applied physically and produced, not spoken or written.
There are the limited exclusive pieces and the mass-produced ones. There are numerous industries selling items and spreading visual material. Are all of these creative handlers, makers of beauty?
In 1867 the same Trafalgar Square lion statues were not always seen that way. One newspaper commented that the sculptures had ‘glaring defects’. Public art is especially drawn by social opinions and can draw on social opinions too.
Not all creative works are necessarily beautiful. The effectiveness of beauty on a social scale is the determiner of that.
With regards to the main question, yes beauty may not solve major problems and no it is not useless. Art and beauty are meant to avoid problems by expanding the outlooks of society to new levels of refinement.
Some art reflects life’s meanings, some entertains, and some art is useful in avoiding damage. Other than public art, numerous works of splendour have done just that.
During the Arab Umayyad dynasty, custom rings worn by the rulers were adorned with different phrases. Caliph Marwan bin Al Hakims’ ornate ring had the words ‘In Allah is my trust and my hope’. Another Caliph preferred the notice: ‘Be reminded of Allah, for you are oblivion’. These precautionary pieces were popular in Arab capitals in the past.
As time passed, we witness the evolution of artistic creations in the Arab world to those with less urgent messages. This is evident in the works commissioned by Al Burda festival, Abu Dhabi. Established in 2004 as an award, it was reintroduced in 2018 as a festival under the UAE’s Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development. The unique artistic and peaceful setting of Abu Dhabi broadened the feel-good event, to an event of shared truth and goodness. Karim Jabbari, one of the artists presented by Al Burda Festival, introduced various works including public graffiti and installations of light boxes with Kufic script.
Al Burda is poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), written by Al Busiri, a poet who lived during the Mamluk period in Egypt. The same verses also motivated works in the past. The 15th century Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay, incorporated similar verses into architecture works.
One physical testimony to that stands in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. A minbar – a pulpit for the Imam to stand and give his Friday sermons in a mosque – from the Caliph Qatibay’s grand mosque is on display. A poet acclaimed the Mamluk intricate workmanship, in fascination: “formed as if by bees crafting their hive, and the structure shaped freely as if it were mere wax.”
Sultan Qaitbay displayed items of beauty widely. In his time, ornamentation was the aspiration and society excelled, in all sectors.
The effect of artworks in all forms travelled far. Porcelain and gold textiles, gifts from Sultan Qaitbay were sent with delegations to rulers of the Golden Horde and even to Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. An Italian work of art in the Plazzo Vecchio depicts greatly the Grandeur of the Mamluk presents.
Gifting one of a kind items throughout history has been a representation of unique social refinement and also another effective way to avoid instability between communities.
At Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, one art installation offers a holistic impression. Suspended from the courtyard are three powerful rounded, metallic forms. An onlooker’s gift, when everything is under lock down, the art may still be seen and the sky is always unlocked. The museums’ director describes Tomas Saraceno’s work as a manifesto of hope.
The effectiveness of figures and forms, either publicly or individually, dispel vibes that move hearts and people towards the betterment of society.
In the book, Art in Islamic Thought, philosopher Abu Nasr Al Farabi, combines the useful and the beautiful. Provided that they both mean good; they are one and the same.
Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan is an Emirati artist and founder of Anasy Documentary Productions.