Said Qutb on the Arts in America
by Daniel Burns, Translator
Published on Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Current Trends in Islamist Ideology vol. 9
The Egyptian Said Qutb was one of the leading intellectual lights of 20th Century Islamic radicalism when he was executed in 1966 for his involvement with the illegal Muslim Brotherhood. He is best known for his lengthy Quranic commentary In the Shade of the Qur’an and his book Milestones, in which he makes the case that allegedly Muslim regimes like that of Egypt should be understood as jahiliy (pagan) and therefore the proper target of military jihad.
Years before writing these radical works, Qutb spent two years studying in America (1948-1950). Upon his return to Egypt, he published the three-part article “The America That I Have Seen: In the Scale of Human Values” in the Egyptian journal Al-Risala (Vol. 19 ; no. 957, 959, 961; pp. 1245-7, 1301-6, 1357-1360). A translation of this article appears in the anthology America in an Arab Mirror (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), but that translation is missing a considerable block of text for no reason that I can see. Here I have translated the section of the article’s third part that contains that missing block. All but the first three and the last three paragraphs below are therefore appearing in English for the first time.
The article as a whole contains Qutb’s observations on American life and chiefly on how American citizens rank “in the scale of human values.” He judges Americans on a range of social and moral characteristics—including their sexual mores, their political history, and their attitudes towards religion, sports, art, and death—and generally finds them wanting. Most striking about the article is Qutb’s adherence to a standard of “human values” rather than specifically “Islamic values.” Qutb never elaborates this standard explicitly, but in general his theme seems to be that human beings should strive to attain high-minded, civilized, and spiritual values rather than bestial, primitive, and sensual ones. American society, in Qutb’s view, tends toward the latter.
Wherever possible, I have translated a single Arabic word with a single English word. Words in [square brackets] are my additions or clarifications. I have used Qutb’s punctuation as a guideline but have not been able to reproduce it fully in English; in particular, I have used parentheses, long dashes, sentence breaks, and other means to translate the versatile Arabic particle wa. I have however retained the author’s strange use of quotation marks and ellipses.
Said Qutb: On the Arts in America
The American is primitive in his artistic taste, both in what he enjoys as art and in his own artistic works.
“Jazz” music is his music of choice. This is that music that the Negroes invented to satisfy their primitive inclinations, as well as their desire to be noisy on the one hand and to excite bestial tendencies on the other. The American’s intoxication in “jazz” music does not reach its full completion until the music is accompanied by singing that is just as coarse and obnoxious as the music itself. Meanwhile, the noise of the instruments and the voices mounts, and it rings in the ears to an unbearable degree… The agitation of the multitude increases, and the voices of approval mount, and their palms ring out in vehement, continuous applause that all but deafens the ears.
But despite this, the American multitude attends the opera, listens to symphonies, crowds together for the “ballet,” and watches “classic” plays—so much so that you will hardly find an empty seat. It will happen sometimes that you do not find a place unless you reserve your seat days beforehand, and that at the high price of the fares for these performances.
This phenomenon misled me at first; I even rejoiced at it, down to the depths of my soul. For I had been feeling constantly “begrudging” at the fact that this people, which produces marvels in the world of industry and of science and of research, should have no store of the other human values. I had also been terribly afraid on behalf of humanity that its leadership will pass into the hands of this people that is altogether poor in those values.
Therefore I rejoiced when I saw this phenomenon. For the public that takes an interest in refined art is not to be despaired of no matter what its faults may be, and when this window on its feelings has been opened, there is great hope that many other rays may diffuse from it.
The importance of this phenomenon pushed me to investigate everything about it, in different surroundings and in numerous cities. But when I tracked the expressions on faces, and conversed with a great many of the men and women who visit these places (those I knew and those I did not know), all this revealed to me—with regret—how wide a chasm still separates the spirit of such humane art from the spirit of the Americans. Indeed, their feelings about it are even concealed in all but rare cases; they only look at the matter from a purely social angle. For the cultured American must of necessity see these sorts [of shows] and go to these places in case there should be a conversation about them in any group of people taking part in conversation together. For it is a matter of the greatest shame in America that anyone should fail to take part in the conversation—especially in the case of young women, since what is demanded of them is that they should always find subjects for conversation. So if young women visit these places, they add new subjects to the perpetual American subjects [of conversation], i.e., ball games, names of films and of actors and actresses, cases of divorce and marriage, markings and prices of cars…
This is the very spirit in which the crowds visit the art museums, passing rapidly through the halls and the exhibits in a way that does not suggest any enjoyment or love of these works [of art]. In just the same way they go (individually and in groups) to get a rapid view of natural spectacles. Passing by places and spectacles at the cars’ top speed, they collect conversational material and also comply with the natural American inclination toward collection and enumeration.
At the beginning of my stay in America, I would hear that one of them had visited X cities and countries and sights and spectacles and had gone X miles in his tourist journeys and knew X friends, so that I was astonished at this capacity for producing such things and wished that I were capable of any of it! Then I discovered afterward how all these marvels took place… One of them drives his car on a journey, alone or with his family or friends. He races it at top speed, taking it through cities and over distances, passing by sights and spectacles, while recording in his notebook the names and the mileage… Then he returns, and see! he has seen all of it, and he has the right to converse about it! As for friends, it is enough that one be invited to get-acquainted parties. There he encounters their faces for the first time, and the host acquaints him with the attendees one by one (men as well as women), and he asks whoever of them wish to do so to write down their names and addresses, and so they in turn do with him. After some time, his notebook is full of names and addresses. And see! he has a great number of friends (men and women), and perhaps he is even victorious in the competition undertaken in pursuit of this goal. How great, how strange are the competitions here!
Thus your knowledge and your culture are often measured by how much you have read and watched and heard. It is the same as the way that your material riches are calculated by the quantity and amount of the cash and real property that you own: without any distinctions!
And this is not the mentality of the multitudes only, but it is also very much the mentality of the thinkers and the researchers. For it had occurred to the thinkers in America that it was not right that their country should be the richest country in the world, and their people the greatest people on earth in terms of industrial civilization and scientific civilization, while they should have no artistic wealth like that of poorer peoples such as the Italians and the Germans.
They have money—and money works wonders—so it was only a matter of years before they had museums of drawing and sculpture more magnificent and larger than those other peoples’. These museums have accumulated for themselves works of art from everywhere and have filled up with the rare and the costly among these works, which they have not been stingy about buying with money. These are all foreign works save a few, since American works are primitive and plain to the point of being laughable next to those splendid worldly treasures.
Likewise, [it was only a matter of years before] they had some performing orchestras and some dance troupes of the “ballet,” most of which [demonstrate] expertise and proficiency. And most of the conductors of these orchestras and the directors of these troupes [demonstrate] genius and originality…and all of them save a few are foreigners.
Thus there emerged precise enumerations that indicate what America possesses in the way of great artistic riches, purchased by money. But there remained one little matter: Does the American soul have any share in these riches? Does she even have mere artistic enjoyment of this costly human inheritance!
It occurred to me to examine these points in the art museums just as I examined them at the opera houses and such.
I went for the tenth time to the museum of art in San Francisco and made one of the picture halls of French art the subject of my examination. I distributed my attention over all the pictures inside it, but I concentrated on one outstanding picture named “Fox in the Chicken House.” There are no words that could relate to the reader the beauty of this ingenious picture, in which the artist depicted several profound, complex feelings in a painting where there is no human face to make it easy for the artist to depict those feelings… A fox is in the chicken house, the sky is suffocatingly dark, and the fox has just attacked a chicken, a nesting mother, who appears in distress and exhausted in the claws of the wild beast baring his teeth; her little ones are terrified and the eggs remaining beneath her are scattered; her fellow hens meanwhile are scattered throughout the space of the painting, and the rooster—the man of the house—stands helpless, at a loss to find any salvation for his spouse in distress, although he is her guardian! As for the other hens, one is anxious and taken by surprise, another is despairing and disgusted that there should be all this atrocity in life, while a third is at a loss, asking: “How did this happen?” And the entire sky and the colors in this ingenious painting depict that which words cannot grasp.
I took a rest on one of the seats that the halls do provide with singular courtesy for those visitors who are tired of looking and of walking around to rest on, and I rested, inspecting the features and expressions [of faces] and listening to the remarks and comments.
Four full hours passed over me in my seat, during which 109 persons passed by me, singles and couples and groups, of whom the majority were among the [many] young women and young men who make appointments to spend some time in the museum’s garden and then in the museum itself, since it is proper for the social young woman to share in conversation and to find subjects for conversation.
On [the faces of] how many of these 109 did it appear that they were feeling anything of what they were seeing? Only one lingered for about two minutes in front of the picture I had selected, and he lingered in the whole hall for about five minutes…then he flew off.
I repeated the experiment in the other halls of the museum, and then repeated it in other museums in several cities. Again I arrived at the point where [I could say that], out of the great mass of visitors comprised in my enumerations, only a rare minority comprehended anything of these tremendous artistic riches that the dollar has gathered from all the places on earth; all that remained for the dollar to do was to create artistic sensation, but apparently that does not respond to the dollar’s charms!
The only art in which the Americans are proficient—although there are other [peoples] who still surpass them in it as far as artistry goes—is the art of the cinema. This is natural and logical given the phenomenon that makes the American unique: the height of industrial proficiency combined with primitiveness of artistic feelings. In the cinema this phenomenon is very much manifest.
By its nature, the cinematic art does not rise to the loftiest regions of the arts—music, drawing, sculpture, and poetry—nor for that matter to the [level of the] art of the theater, although in the cinema the possibilities for artistic craft and the possibilities of production are much greater. And in terms of originality, the art of production in the cinema has gotten only as far as the farthest point reached by the art of photography. Moreover, some distance remains between it and (for example) the art of the theater, just as some distance remains too between depiction by photography and depiction by a [painter’s] brush. In the latter is expressed genius of feelings; in the former, expertise of craft.
The cinema is the popular art of the multitudes, so it is the art in which one finds expertise, proficiency, magnification, and approximation. By its nature it relies more on expertise than on the artistic spirit… in it the American genius can exercise creativity… yet despite this, English, French, Russian, and German film all remain superior to American film, although they are inferior to it in craft and expertise.
In the great majority of American films, one sees manifestly primitive subjects and primitive excitement; this is true of police/crime films and cowboy films. As for high, skillful films, such as “Gone with the Wind,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Song of Bernadette,” and such, they are few in comparison with what America produces. Such American film as does reach Egypt or the Arab countries does not resemble this family, since the majority of it comes from among the superior, rare American films. And those people who visit the regions of the land in America are those who reach that tiny family of valuable films.
There is another art in which the Americans are skillful, because in it there is more of expertise in craft and production than there is of high, genuine art… It is the art of depicting natural spectacles in color as if [the depictions] were photographic, true and exact. This can be seen in the museums of land and water animals, since these animals or their embalmed bodies are displayed [there] in the likeness of their natural habitats, just as if they were real. The artist’s brush is skillful in depicting these habitats in cooperation with the spectacle’s artistic design; it reaches the point of creativity.
This translation of Qutb's article appeared in Volume 9 of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology published by Hudson Institute.
Keywords: Qutb, Muslim Brotherhood, American Arts, jahiliy
 I am grateful to the Ernest Fortin Memorial Foundation for a summer grant that allowed me to work on this translation, to Michael Montalbano for his relentless editing, and to Prof. Martha Bayles, Prof. Nasser Behnegar, Dr. Hillel Fradkin, Prof. Dennis Hale, Prof. James Nolan, and Zander Baron for reading drafts.
 The word consistently translated “multitude” (jamhour) appears a few times in this passage and has political connotations: it is the root of the Arabic word for “republic.” It means something like hoi polloi.
 Here and elsewhere Qutb uses two forms, a masculine and a feminine, where Arabic grammar only requires one (since the masculine is taken to include both sexes). Literally this passage says “a great many [m.] and a great many [f.] of those who visit these places.” Qutb seems to want to emphasize that both sexes are included, perhaps because he finds this immodest or perhaps because his audience would not otherwise know whether the social events being described were single-sex.
 The antecedents are hard to follow in this sentence, but the sense seems to me to require: “Such American film as does reach us in Egypt or the Arab countries does not resemble the (generally low-quality) family of American films as a whole, since the majority of what does reach us consists in those high-quality films that make up only a tiny minority of the whole family.”
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