Some artists see modern technology as their sworn enemy and a tool for the destruction and distortion of their work, while others believe that technology can be used to enhance the art form and should be used in calligraphy schools.
While many practitioners feel that the digitized form strips Arabic calligraphy of its soul they also acknowledge that without technology their art will remain one for a narrow circle of elites who have the necessary equipment and training to draw the script by hand.
There have been recent efforts to promote Arabic calligraphy beyond this selective group and make it a popular art that attracts the public through technology and social networking sites.
Hassan Aal Radwan, a calligrapher and a co-founder of the Arabic Calligraphy Association in Qatif, Saudi Arabia, said: “calligraphy derives from intellect, and this intellect is the talent of the artist who can produce the product.”
“I compare an artist to a bottomless well: It keeps producing water no matter how much we extract from it. This is simply because an artist is the source of production and creativity.” He indicated that some artists have benefited from modern tools in their calligraphy. Thus, a calligrapher can benefit from the printing and drawing facilities in some of his computerized designs, yet if a non-specialist is using the device, only photocopies would be reproduced.
However, he also concedes that the technology has raised the profile of the art itself: “I cannot say that the technology’s impact is all negative,” he says, “as some ready-made calligraphy programs and techniques made it known to the public that there is an art called Arabic calligraphy.”
As artists. calligraphers have also contributed to the development of the technology, though placing such tools in the hands of the untutored sometimes backfires, perhaps predictably.
“As specialists, we provide designers who use such techniques with the forms of scripts, but sometimes they use them incorrectly,” says Radwan. “The aim of the work of art is not to typically copy the phrase, but to let the viewers enjoy the aesthetic properties of a handmade work of art.”
Asked if the encroachment of technology made him worried for the future of his chosen art form, Radwan said: “On the contrary, Arabic calligraphy will soon get better. As an observer of the Arabic calligraphy for fifteen years, I can see a notable development in this sphere in spite of the faint popularity of this art, compared to other visual arts.”
He adds: “As calligraphers, we are trying to take this art beyond the boundaries of the elite minority, and are trying not to confine exhibitions to calligraphers, but to allow participants from the general public. Today, many calligraphers began to take their work to the public in cooperation with the concerned art bodies, whish is a wonderful development in itself.”
In contrast, engineer Sergag Allaf, a board member of Saudi Arabia’s calligraphy association, warns “We cannot deny the fact that the aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy has been distorted by technology. But what happened was that the soul has been robbed: The Arabic calligraphy has been stripped of its soul as a result of using machines.”
He is well-qualified to comment on the issue, holding jobs in both calligraphy and as a computer engineer, while studying for a Master’s degree on the application of new technology to the development of Arabic calligraphy.
“The more machine enters a field, the more the field will be stripped of its soul, which is natural,” he says. “The question to be raised here is ‘why did we reach this level?’” He claims the answer is the failure by both calligraphers and computer programmers to forge a compromise.
“For example, the Kufic is a wonderful handmade calligraphic form of Arabic script that suits computer fonts,” he explains. “This is because a characteristic of the Kufic is that it has fixed borders and angles, whereas other Arabic scripts like the Thuluth and the Diwani forms… require the skills of a human calligrapher, and a level of proficiency a machine cannot attain. So, a solution is possible if a compromise in handling technology is reached.”
He also agrees that new technology has helped spread the word about Arabic calligraphy, and helped new people get involved: “In the [calligraphy] association, we receive requests from different Saudi districts to hold courses. Sometimes we have difficulty reaching some districts. Yet, technology solved this problem through distance learning, and teaching Arabic calligraphy through the Internet has contributed greatly to publicizing such an art.”
As a further example, he points to the number of young Saudis who have taken up Arabic calligraphy, something he says is bound the broaden the horizons of the art form by infusing it with new blood and new ideas, and making it relevant to the youth of Saudi Arabia once again.