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2 December 2019

Why art is indispensable to progress

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Amid climate change, refugee crises, and armed conflicts, a Georgetown University in Qatar historian emphasizes the enduring need to support the arts – a need that QF is instrumental in meeting.

“When we look at history, art has always been a part of the broader equation of progress in any civilization,” says Professor Mohammed Reza Pirbhai, Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University in Qatar, a Qatar Foundation partner university.

“Whether it is the Mughal period in India, or the Italian Renaissance, you hardly come across a period of time that promoted only the sciences. This is because, throughout history, society has realized that human development occurs where creativity and innovation coexist – that art balances science. There was no rigid compartmentalization as you see today. And the result can be seen in museums and galleries across the world.”

Dr. Pirbhai sees this realization shining through today in the Seeroo fi al Ardh, an art installation by painter and artist Maqbool Fida Husain that will be soon be unveiled in Qatar Foundation’s Education City. The project, which took almost a decade to complete, will do more than present a kinetic interpretation of Arab civilization and culture to the public. It will also create an opportunity to reflect on, and discuss the relevance of, art patronage amid today’s geopolitical and cultural context.

The Seero fi al Ardh installation will soon be unveiled at Qatar Foundation’s Education City.

The historian believes that debates challenging the need to promote art in an era of, for example, climate change and conflict, hold little ground in the face of historical evidence.

“Both the affluent Italian patrons and the Mughal rulers had to deal with their share of unrest, instability, epidemics and battles,” he explains. “Those factors didn’t stop them from realizing that the emotional gratification and inspiration that art provided was necessary for both the psyche of a people and the mind of an individual.

“For them, the pride associated with promoting a great musician or owning a beautiful painting was no less than that they would get from a political achievement. It was as simple as that. Consequently, they proceeded to enrich their personal lives and the lives of those around them with the works of some of the finest artists and musicians of their times.”

Dr. Pirbhai points out how conversations on the relevance of art patronage often distract people from another crucial aspect – the question of whether public investment in art gives members of a society access to the kind of aesthetic inspiration that they prefer.

“People – especially in a dynamic and diverse community like Qatar – are bound to have varying tastes,” he explains. “They are not going to be satisfied with being fed a certain style or brand of art. So the discussion ought to have a wider scope.

What defines a specific period of history or civilization as worthy of study is not that it produced something spectacular in a single field, but rather across the board.

Professor Mohammed Reza Pirbhai

“Viewed from these vantage points, Qatar Foundation’s actions show that it respects the evidence that history has to offer. First, it has balanced the emotional and technical needs of a population. That’s why its medical and engineering universities in Education City are flanked by universities that teach art, media, communication and culture. That’s why we have art galleries and research labs in the same environment.

“Second, the fact that members of the public can view the works of international artists such as Husain, is a sign that Qatar Foundation is keen to provide Qatar’s diverse population with artwork that is relevant to different cultures.

Professor Mohammed Reza Pirbhai says the evidence of history illustrates the importance of promoting art.

“What defines a specific period of history or civilization as worthy of study is not that it produced something spectacular in a single field, but rather across the board. If we accept that truth, then we need to accept the place of art in our lives, and the relevance of art patronage.”

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