In this age of increasing materialism, the arts are often considered to be an afterthought for many, perhaps reflecting Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as one "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." What is also undeniable is art’s immeasurable value, as it reflects what is important to a culture at a particular time, defining its eventual legacy. Art can be viewed as writing history through creative expression, rather than factual documentation.
Culture is connected to “cultivate,” which the dictionary tells us includes “the artistic and intellectual side of development.” Cultures pride themselves on their traditions and accomplishments, and the hallmarks of civilisations past include not only their military and economic triumphs, but also their legacies in the realm of architecture, painting, literature, and other creative endeavors.
''Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts — the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art,” said John Ruskin, a leading English art critic of the Victorian era.
Every great civilisation has left a legacy of their art that fills museums around the world. With the passage of time, it is often through examining their art that we unravel the mysteries of the past. The Iliad was poetry to Homer, written some 700 years BCE, but today it is a treasure-trove of history and mythology, offering us valuable insights into the discourse of the time, and how people thought and lived.
The oldest art is thought to be the cave paintings in Sulawesi, Indonesia, made about 35,000 years ago. What they tell us is that these almost-Neanderthal societies recorded in art form what they saw in their environment. So art has been with us since the advent of modern humans and the need to use creative forms of expression has not diminished over the millennia.
The Andalucian poet-philosopher Ibn Hazm wrote that “Beauty is something that has in language no other name (than the one) that designates it, but is unanimously perceived by the souls when they see it... It seems like something that lies within the soul of the contemplated object and is found by the soul of whoever contemplates it.”
Artists are often also invaluable social commentators. Picasso’s Guernica, for example, illustrates the horror of war and humanity’s propensity for self-destruction. It contains both a political message and also a challenge to the viewer to confront immoralities. Reflecting the cathartic impact of his art on himself, Picasso has said, "Art washes from the soul the dust of everyday life.”
Addressing the value of music, the Sufi poet Ruzbahan Baqli of Shiraz, acknowledged and celebrated the use of music, as in the sama tradition of some Sufi groups. He wrote: “May God increase the best of joys for you in listening to spiritual music” and “spiritual music is the key to the treasure of Divine Verities.”
Much debate has ensued over what can be defined as ‘Islamic art.’ Seyyed Hossein Nasr has differentiated between the sacred art of Islam and traditional art. He writes: “Islamic art, like any other sacred art, is not simply the materials used but what a particular religious collectivity has done with the material in question.” And even if not expressly sacred in nature, that art frequently draws its inspiration from the religion itself.
We see this in the form of inscriptions of Qur’anic verses on buildings, coins, textiles, and other objects. Similarly, many paintings have been inspired by religious texts, poems, and stories originating in the Muslim world.
In the same vein, while architecture attempts at ordering space, sacred architecture is an attempt to use the space and harmonise one’s sensory traits in a particular direction: towards the Creator. The Taj Mahal and the Suleymaniye Mosque were built for the mundane and the sacred respectively, but both had eternity in mind and share a common artistic vision and history.
On numerous occasions, Mawlana Hazar Imam has spoken of the importance of art. In the foreword of Spirit and Life, published in 2007, he stated that "The arts have always had a special significance for my family. More than a thousand years ago my ancestors, the Fatimid Imams, encouraged patronage of the arts and fostered the creation of collections of outstanding works of arts and libraries of rare and significant manuscripts...I believe that these works all contribute to an understanding of some of the aesthetic values which underpin Muslim arts and the humanistic traditions of Islam."
The significance of art to society is evident, and in an effort to re-invigorate interest in the arts and to promote, share, and preserve Islamic art, Mawlana Hazar Imam has established the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the Aga Khan Music Initiative, and the Aga Khan Museum, illustrating his commitment to creative expression.
By the same token, the Jubilee Arts programme fits in with the rich cultural heritage of the Ismaili community, harking back to Fatimid times. The initiative will act as a legacy programme of the Diamond Jubilee and aims to provide an inspiration to Ismaili artists from around the world to showcase and further develop their talents both during and beyond the Diamond Jubilee year.
The Jamat will gather in Lisbon in a few days to view entries from 20 countries, in a united display of the global Jamat's creative diversity. We will be able to view the talent on display and recall the words of poet John Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.”