If there is one synonym for Golden Age that riles me, that synonym is the Age of Beautiful Art. A compulsive cliché of the Egyptian media, it gets the most bilious banality prize by far. Its generality and meaninglessness are matched only by those lax and lazy faces’ capacity for repeating it. But its most stomach-turning effects lie deeper.
The Age of Beautiful Art purports to describe a historical period. Between 1940-something and 1960-something in Cairo, Oriental dance and Quranic recitation — theatre, cinema, music and art, too — reached quantitative and qualitative apices they were never to surpass.
But the Age of Beautiful Art refers to a mythical point of origin. That point not only produces art. It produces art that by its atemporal definition proves superior to anything the present can offer.
Never mind the fact that Italians, Levantines and Jews largely made the Egyptian film industry. Or that the relaxed, multifaith mores of cosmopolitanism enabled woman dancers to become icons of power rather than sex symbols… It is always implied if not stated that the Age of Beautiful Art produces entertainment that is also morally wholesome and nationally pure.
Because — like Atlantis, like the caliphate — the Age of Beautiful Art isn’t actually a time or a place. It’s a state of mind: a lost paradise, a utopia or Shangri-La. It is evidence of both our fall from grace and our need to climb back up like good soldiers.
In this sense the Age of Beautiful Art is not a price-raising retro or vintage label so much as an Arab nationalist call to arms. If only we could return to the past, the pure and essential past whence we have come, heaven would be at hand. But didn’t Arab nationalism in reality spell the end of Beautiful Art?
Initially, of course, not even the emergence of a war-addled republic could interrupt the multi-ethnic showbiz factory Egypt had become for the Arabic-speaking world. But while the republic did emerge between 1952 and 1956, the scene was set for that factory’s closure. A centralised economy. A society divested of its minorities. War. And a debilitating nationalist paranoia paving the way for hard-core religiosity…
As it turns out those lax and lazy faces waxing nostalgic about the Age of Beautiful Art aren’t talking about the past at all. That is the paradox. By reiterating the slimy suggestion that art could only be beautiful in a forever superior past, all they are actually saying is that the present is hopelessly ugly. And the future dark, forever inferior. They will never have a clue what they’re doing. But they are fuelling the exact same fantasy that drives militants to blow up police stations in Sinai.