Why we need better arts education in the Arab world

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“If the Arab world continues to under-value arts education, it risks falling even further behind developed countries in preparing students for the knowledge economy,” wrote Maysa Jalbout in her recent post titled ‘Arts education in the Arab world deserves more respect – and resources’.

Let’s build upon that. The question of the importance of the ‘arts’ has been investigated by Daniel Pink in his book A Whole New Mind where he argues that this era demands a whole new set of skills which our rational-biased societies—madly in love with disciplines such as law, medicine, business and engineering—have thus far looked at with disdain and haughtily labelled as a “waste of time”.

According to Pink’s research, however, “the MFA is the new MBA” and the future belongs to individuals with “high-concept, high-touch abilities” who bring together design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning. “These six senses,” he says, “increasingly will guide our lives and shape our world.”

In reality, the Middle East and North Africa has a long, illustrious history with the “six senses”. We see evidence of it to this day in Islamic art that covers not only sacred spaces and courtyards from Spain to China, but even objects of everyday life—such as pen boxes and utensils—which were decorated with beautiful calligraphy and ornaments so as to allow the beholder to “pierce through the veil of material existence”, to borrow a phrase from Seyyed Hossein Nasr. This personification of ‘things’ and the high-minded, spiritual relationship people had with both the sacred and the secular once defined the character of the region and the worldview of its custodians.

Pink admits: “These abilities have always comprised part of what it means to be human. But after a few generations in the Information Age, these muscles have atrophied. The challenge is to work them back into shape.” Here we are not simply talking about the technical skills required to make quick, “15 minutes of fame” art; Rick Williams and Julianne Newton write in Visual Communication: “To become an educated person in the 21st century requires not only verbal and mathematical proficiency but also the ability to interpret, critique, create, and use visual communication on sophisticated levels.”

Our intuitive skills—our ‘cultural’ muscles—are the ones that have atrophied, and no one has described our present situation better than Beeban Kidron, who laments, “Technical access has never been greater, cultural access never weaker.”

Arts education, not just in the Arab world, is often embarrassingly technical and uncreative. Sometimes it really feels like we are training technicians, not awakening artists. Williams and Newton write: “Limiting our educational processes and cultural expressions to rational, linear techniques creates a rational bias. In doing so, we deprive our culture and ourselves of holistic development of our intuitive intelligences and of our ability to transcend basic technique and to express ourselves with creative and aesthetic sophistication in drawing and in other problem-solving activities that require creative thinking.”

There is another problem. What we have today is form without meaning, appearances without understanding, and a lot of technical jargon but no substance. The artistic genius that once dynamically intertwined form and meaning is being replaced by an art “in which sensation, not story, is king”, as Kidron would put it.

Take as an example the arabesque, which “through its extension and repetition of forms interlaced with the void, removes from the eye the possibility of fixing itself in one place and from the mind the possibility of becoming imprisoned in any particular solidification and crystallization of matter,” writes Nasr in Islamic Art and Spirituality. Repeating arches and columns in mosques and courtyards symbolize the rhythms of life and punctuate the phases of the human journey, while courtyard fountains serve both as natural air-conditioners and, through the soft sound of flowing water, remind us of how our intellectual and spiritual journey should look like: always in gentle motion and self-renewing, always life-giving. Similar observations can be made about traditional music and poetry.

We all tend to attribute the successes of the so-called “Islamic Golden Age” to places like the House of Wisdom and to the great scientists who roamed the lands and transformed the world with their open-mindedness and inventions, and, without a doubt, they all played an essential role in “pushing the human race forward”. Once again, however, this shows our rational bias and underestimation of the ‘psychological’ role that art and architecture played in generating healthy, diverse, and deeply humanistic environments from which flowed most of the region’s famous discoveries and innovations.

While it’s essential that we stress arts education in general in order to refine our inner eye, cultivate our creativity, and develop intuitive skills, it’s equally essential that we teach the history, philosophy and inner meaning of our indigenous art (and of other art forms as well). This is a critical step in taking ownership of our cultures; without a profound and continual emphasis on meaning, without beautiful substance, we become prone to intellectual colonisation and blind imitation.

Next time we’ll discuss the ‘how’ of teaching in the arts.

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