Link With The Past

Design, whether in art, architecture or utilitarian products, is shaped by a variety of factors. These factors are related to politics, sociology, economics, culture, influences from the past, and levels of technology. Contrary to the materialistic view of design, cultural influences very often dominate climatic and geographical ones. Thus, in desert climates religious paintings may be shown in a tropical setting and the flat roof, often a leaking one, persists in many areas of heavy rainfall.

Throughout history civilizations have interacted with each other through trade, migration and conflict. The resulting exchange of ideas and technologies did not bring about radical changes in the political or cultural form and expression of interacting civilizations. The changes effected one or maybe two of the factors that shape artistic expression and these were assimilated in the parent culture over a period of time, Even where migration, conflict and conquest took place, the parent civilization assimilated the conquerors and their culture, except where it was physically wiped out as in the case of the European conquest of the new world and the Arab conquest of Iran. Here too the remnants of the old civilization have managed to creep in and modify certain aspects of the culture of the conquerors. In many cases this modification has been the result of the activity of intellectuals and as such has remained in the realm of academics, high culture and philosophic discourse, without becoming a part of popular or folk culture.

Throughout history (as opposed to pre-history) there have been two parallel systems of artistic and literary expression which have together shaped the world of design. They sometimes interacted and in some cases even complemented each other. One of these systems has been patron promoted and artist produced. The end product has been the work of great men. The other is the folk and/or vernacular tradition where the end product is produced by artisans and the client is the community. The first system is the product of a political economy of which surplus and ruling elite are an essential part. Often the source of inspiration of the ruling elite has been beyond the frontiers of its state and it is the vernacular or folk expression that has for the most part shaped the environment. The second system is the product of the manner in which a process of production is organised at its grassroots and its relation to the state and its institutions whether political or religious. Throughout history, the two systems have used similar materials and there has never been until recent times, a major difference in their levels of technological development.

The industrial revolution in Europe and its subsequent domination of the world brought about major changes in this age old pattern of history. First, a new political philosophy was born. This stated that political power should and would be in the hands of those who controlled the economy. This was an alien concept for most of the world where the powerful merchant classes never aspired to political power. Second, the industrial revolution introduced the concept of daily wages for all production related activity. The end product was thus priced in cash per hours spent on its production. This again was alien to most civilizations where artisans were paid in kind. And lastly, Europe’s physical domination of the world and its new technology of production converted most parts of the globe into markets for its produce and the colonies into sources of raw material and food. This in turn had severe repercussions on the colonies. For the first time in history all the factors that shape artistic expression, whether formal or vernacular and folk, underwent radical changes in a short span of time without the physical destruction of the older civilizations. The traditional process of assimilation and osmosis thus became an impossibility.

In Europe, the changes leading to the industrial revolution took place slowly over a period of three centuries and in the process legal and institutional changes evolved to accommodate the sociological and economic repercussions of the industrial revolution. In the colonies, no such changes took place. The collapse of the old state was accompanied by the imposition of a new political, legal and economic system which had no relationship to the sociology, history and local or regional economics of the conquered territories. Very often this change was accompanied by considerable trauma. For example, after 1857 in northern India, over 70 percent of the urban Muslim population had to change its profession and the language of administration and education suddenly became only English. What this meant to artistic and literary expression can well be imagined.

As a result of over 200 years of European colonialism and neo-imperialism, political institutions, economic systems, academic education arid the resulting social relations and cultural expression in the entire Third World are either purely European in nature or are a superficial reaction to First World domination challenging form but not substance. In addition, sophisticated industrial technology co-exists in almost all Third World countries side by side with the most primitive of artisanal traditions.

As in the past, the patrons of the formal sector are the state and the rich. The state is intrinsically linked to the global political economy controlled by the First World and its institutions. It equates progress and development with the material benefits of Western civilization and aspires to acquire them, whatever the cost. At the same time, it wishes to assert its historic identity. This schizophrenia has a major impact on its political art and architecture and to a lesser extent on commercial design. Symbols from the past are added to buildings built with modern technology and housing modern functions. In Pakistan for instance, “Islamic” domes and arches are used extensively and irrationally in official architecture. In a number of occasions they have been added as an afterthought to a number of buildings. Similarly, Quranic texts have been rendered into caligraphy which reflects the work of Picasso and other modern European artists. The search for an assimilation is on but has a long way to go as it has as yet not established its own vocabulary. In other non-European countries as well, a similar situation exists.

The elite in the Third World countries also aspire to the material benefits of European civilization. Over the last century they have increasingly become a part of European culture. The use of the English language has increased and continues to do so at the expense of national and regional languages which have become marginalized and are now seldom used for research and administrative purposes. In addition, the cultural values and social life-style of the elite are no longer very different from that of their First World counterparts. They read the same literature, in most cases dress in the same way, play the same sports, speak the same language, work in many cases in the same multi-national or international organisations, and study at the same or similar academic institutions. It is not surprising therefore that they build their houses in the current architectural styles of the West, patronize artists and artisans whose work is either a carbon copy of similar work in the West or is a hybrid of Western and local influences and teach out of text books written in the West. Yet there is a growing desire among this increasingly Westernizing elite to assert their own identity. However, given their subservience to the international economic order and its masters, this assertion can only be superficial in nature, at least for the time being. Indeed, ‘regionalism’ which is the most forceful assertion of local identity, was born as an “ism’ in the United States and Southern Europe and came to the Third World later.

Similarly, among the elite professionals and intellectuals there is also a search for establishing continuity”, of contemporising the past, and of re-discovering and re-using old and neglected technologies, materials and techniques. However, the world has and is changing rapidly. Increasingly the political culture of Third World countries is becoming a populist one as opposed to an elitist one, and this is a factor which the movement for contemporising the past has not yet taken into consideration. And it is this populist culture, expressed through its vernacular that determines a major and increasing portion of our built and social environment and everything else that goes with it.

Folk art, architecture and design in Third World countries are either dead or in an advanced state of decay. This is because the social-economy that was responsible for sustaining it is dead as well. In South Asia the caste system and an economy that made the village self-sufficient is no more. The hereditary artisanal tradition and autonomous village government that were its corner-stones cannot function in a cash economy. Articles of daily use and tools for agricultural production are now increasingly machine made, and that too in urban areas. The urban vernacular traditional has died a similar death. The relationship between it and its clients has been replaced by an inefficient and technically under-developed informal sector that makes ad-hoc use of whatever contemporary technology it can lay its hands on. This informal sector is the contemporary vernacular that expresses the political populism of Third World countries.

This populism has no political institution. It has no literature worth mentioning. It borrows images and symbols from a whole range of sources. These are from the past, from contemporary national and regional art and architecture of the elite and the state, from Western television, cinema and magazines and relates them to the social and material aspirations and tastes of its clients. This strange hybrid has infiltrated all traditional arts and skills. It has no definite parameters left. It has no common vocabulary and no rules. It has far too great a choice of elements, forms, colour and technology before it. It is aesthetically as anarchistic as the political and social reality that it represents. The modern carpets in Pakistan with planes and motor cars on them, the marriage halls with their colourful yet bizarre facades and decorations, the paintings behind oil tankers and the decorations on buses, are all a part of this populist vernacular.

The most powerful and evolved expression of populist vernacular today is in advertising, Indian and Pakistani cinema and product design for large scale manufacture of consumer items. In all these creations traditional forms, values and/or themes are reflected. The cinema for instance, borrows its theme and much of its form from Sanskrit drama. However, the finest expression of the cinema, advertising and product design are borrowed from the West and owe nothing to the past and this is important and the reasons for it need to be reflected upon.

The search for an identity by the elite and their political institutions may produce examples of fine architecture and schools of art and expression that establish links with the past. However, their influence on populist culture and its vernacular expression will not bring about any significant change in it, and hence the larger creative environment will continue to be dominated by ad-hocism and confusion. In addition, the elitist search for its roots and the establishment of a ‘continuity” cannot be universally accepted by a class that has rejected its values, history, language and tradition and adopted life-styles and values of another tradition which is alive and well and flourishing and dominates our world. As such the “isms” that have been, are being or will be developed in the West, sometimes with help and assistance from our professionals and academics working in First World institutions, will continue to dominate the world of formal design.

Our link with the past can only be established in a meaningful way by giving a vocabulary and institutions to our contemporary populist vernacular whose culture is being fuelled by the social repercussions of industrialization, urbanization, capitalist as opposed to feudal or subsistence agriculture, and the communication revolution as embodied in the VCR and satellite television. A pre-requisite to developing a vocabulary and parameters for the expression of this populist culture is an understanding of the forces and processes that are shaping it and identifying where interventions are needed and what their nature should or can be. It is only such an understanding that can lead to the development of relevant political and social institutions, and the contemporary expression of a historic process of change.

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