THE OPENING OF THE INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE "ECHOES OF INFINITY: EXPRESSIONS OF ISLAMIC SPIRITUALITY IN ART AND ARCHITECTURE", Shah Alam, 23 May 1997
We cannot overemphasize the importance of this conference. Organized at a time when the debate over culture within the global community is reaching new heights, it has become imperative for us to deepen our understanding of the Asian heritage in art and architecture, of which the Islamic represents one of its most powerful expressions. The strength of our economy has also given us the confidence and resources to promote and patronise new flowering of art and culture. This is important to restore equilibrium between the economic and cultural dimensions. However, this new creative impulse that we nurture should burst forth from a profound understanding of our own cultural heritage. Otherwise our art would not be able to reflect our identity as Asians and as Muslims. In no other place is this new movement of understanding more necessary than in our higher institutions of learning. We must also seek to cultivate mutafannin, multi-faceted students, equally conversant in the sciences and the arts and culture. In this regard, the works of Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr is particularly pertinent, especially Islamic Art and Spirituality, for its beauty in form and clarity in articulating the principles of Islamic art and its comparison with other traditions. The multicultural character of Malaysian society and the society of Southeast Asia would certainly require the students of Islamic art to be able to appreaciate and understand the spiritual universe that produce beautiful Quranic calligraphy and that of the Barabodur
For many decades, in most developing countries, art has occupied only a marginal position. Such a state of affairs is quite understandable, for societies having only recently gained their liberty from colonial rule must direct their energies into areas that require the most urgent attention: namely the creation and consolidation of a stable socio-political order to ensure peace and security for the life the people and their property; and the harnessing resources for economic development as a means to eradicate poverty, reduce suffering and to provide humane living conditions.
In addition, there also exist elements within the contemporary art world that have in no small measure contributed to the alienation of art from society. Contemporary art tends to become elitist and to set itself apart from the common people. In fact, the range of meanings that the word "art" used to denote has been obscured by the current disposition to use the word in an extremely restricted sense. Art is now most readily associated with beauty that is divorced from utility; although its connections with utility and knowledge were probably more intimate. The prevalent popular association reflects a tendency in the 19th century to annex the theory of art to aesthetics. This naturally led to the identification of art with one kind of art -- the so- called "fine arts". This restricted usage has become so customary that we ordinarily refer to a museum of art or to an exhibition of art in a manner which seems to assume that the word "art" is exclusively the name for something which can be hung on a wall or placed on a pedestal. Thus anthropologist Margaret Mead concluded that "the concept of the artist and related concept of fine arts are both special bad accidents of the local European tradition."
For art to return to its "normal" position in society, we perhaps need to revive the "normal" view of art, that is the view known and lived by Asian societies throughout the ages, and also in the West before it decided to sever itself from the past. A fundamental abnormality in the contemporary notion of art is its reduction to mere aesthetics, to cultivate feeling and sentiment, and art has its end primarily to produce pleasure to the senses and to evoke emotion. It has nothing to do with the usefulness of the art object.
One of the fundamental principles in art is enunciated by the fourteenth century Parisian Master Jean Mignot, Ars sine scientia nihil, Art without science is nothing. That is to say art, in the true sense of the word, is an integral part of the intellectual tradition, including philosophy, mathematics, metaphysics, cosmology, among others. Thus, for example, Islamic art must be an expression of the Islamic worldview and a contemplation of spiritual truths, rather than purely subjective expressions of the artist=s feelings or the production of works that have no useful purpose from a spiritual, moral or social view. The birth of the two cultures, acccording to C.P. Snow, that is the world of science and the world of humanities, is undoubtedly produced by the separation of art from knowledge; whereas in traditional societies, beauty is not divorced from utility -- an object is not beautiful if it is not useful. In such societies, art that is not rooted in knowledge is not only not art in the true sense, but is irrelevant to society.
If art has become elitist, it only severs itself from society. But not in the case of architecture. The moment man decides to come out of the virgin forest, he has to live in some forms of man-made structure. For architecture to maintain a harmany between man and nature it must order space according to the rhythms of nature. Unfortunately this is not the case today. After the First World War, a school of planning and architecture was born in Europe, with radical new approaches to architecture, planning and housing people, imbued with the spirit of the age, to make a fresh start and to create a "new man." Le Corbusier became the most vocal proponent of "modernism", advocating large, angular building shapes. He proposed housing hundreds, even thousands, of people under one flat roof. He called for the rule of the right angle and straight line; there was no room for nostalgia and for traditional, vernacular shapes. After all, this was the age of the machine and Le Corbusier believed houses were "machines for living in". He praised the fact that cities were an assault on nature, and cherished new construction technology; concrete, iron girders, and plate glass.
As cities are fast becoming humanity's premier habitat, the challenge of the future is to give people a sense of existential security, Cities must become socially, economically, and ecologically sustainable, fulfilling basic human needs for shelter, subsistence, and social cohesion. This will not be possible unless we find ways to regain harmony with nature and integrate our life into its rhythms. For this to work the active participation of people in shaping their urban environment is crucial. But the challenge today goes beyond this. We need to understand the impact of our urban lifestyles on the planet and our home. We must take the responsibility for creating urban lifestyles that are compatible with sustaining an intact biosphere and all its living species.