The Ashmolean Museum in the UK is currently hosting an display of paintings from India and Pakistan titled: Old Traditions, New Visions: Art in India and Pakistan after 1947. It’s description reads: “After the political freedom gained in 1947, Indian and Pakistani artists faced a significant challenge to express the new nations’ distinctive character and visions. Artists sought new modes of expression, engaging with the modern European art movements but remaining oriented toward their own traditions.”

As one moves through the display, even with a very rudimentary knowledge of art history, the paintings evoke emotions. There is a recognition that these paintings are about pain, violence and celebration, that this display was something worth seeing. A painting by the Indian artist Sayed Hauder Raza is a breath taking aerial view of small town against a backdrop of sky and mountains that look French but in reds and blues that look vibrantly Indian.

But, looking at an exhibit of sub-continental art in a museum that 99 per cent of people whom this art is about cannot access, one must ask the question: Does art matter? What was its purpose here, to garner sympathy for a traumatic event, to showcase the region or to entertain? Was it appealing only to the Indian and Pakistani diaspora here? Should a country whose colonising practices led to a painful experience of independence be the home of great works of Indian and Pakistani art? Was that the purpose of the artists who painted these works? Would they be happy to be on display in this space and in this company of artists? Will these painting ever go back home, or will they be hidden in private collections as they were before this exhibit? Is India and Pakistan even “home” for them? Who is art for? Is it for the artist, the people the art is about or supposed to represent, or for the buyer who can pay for private access to art?   

There are no easy answers. However, just by how many questions art can produce means that it is doing its job of making one think, react and critique. 

In Pakistan the question of art’s use is extremely relevant. Does the art exhibition going on in a posh part of town really matter, when majority of the people in this country live in poverty? The question of the practical value of fine art has been open for a while, and sees itself echoed in discussions over literature as well. There has been a lot of critique of literature festivals, whenever they roll around, that they are venues for the elites to pat themselves on the back for producing literature and academic gobbledygook that only impacts well decorated drawing rooms.

Though this alienation of masses is a reality, only by letting these events happen can one criticise them and push them to be more open and more accessible. The answer is to have more, not less. More literature festivals, more art galleries, more museums, more schools, and more art and literature in schools. The prescription is not to bring down “high brow” art and literature but to pull up everyone to the place where they can see and be moved by art. Music, film, comics and cartoons do this every day. Big ideas can be made accessible, without losing their depth and their complexity. I refuse to believe that the common man would not be intrigued by a Sadequain painting, if he is given the access and some context to think about it. This context is missing in our schools, in how the popular media projects knowledge and how state and society have failed to generate a culture of protecting and preserving the arts. The same number of people that go to the zoo or the cinema on weekends can be brought into the museum and art gallery. If a child can name all the military dictators of the country, should he/she not be able to also name its major painters and writers? Yes, soldiers and guns that brought regimes down, but there are also artists and writers that have done the same. After the American Civil War, the cartoonist Thomas Nast brought down the William M. Tweet, the most notoriously corrupt bureaucrat in New York city at the time. Karl Marx was a journalists and academic and Václav Havel was a playwright.

Right here at home, activist Muniba Mazari’s vibrant paintings are fun to look at but also have political undertones. Pakistan is a society obsessed with politics, but art is permeated by politics by its context and subject matter. The artist is a social commentator as much as the talk-show host but with a more important message and a smaller audience. Art matters. Of course it does. It would matter more if it were more accessible to the masses.