Saturday, April 21, 2018

Art and Symbolism: Why do People say They don’t Understand Art?

In the last essay in this series (Ref. Some Thoughts about Art Viewers) I had mentioned the historical circumstances in which art viewers are formed especially in the context of block buster shows. While discussing the viewer-behavior I had suggested that it was the mysterious and private symbolism that kept the viewers away. Formation of a viewer happens when the symbolism used in a work of art in display is understood through intellectual as well as emotional deliberations within the given context. This could happen through the help of an explanatory note attached to the work of art, understanding the general context of the exhibition, the artist who has made the works and the common curatorial thread in which the works are curated or even with the help of a simple title. When such curatorial devices fail and the visual language looks absolutely esoteric and alien due to the opaqueness of symbolism, naturally the viewers turn away from a work of art. It was in this context that I thought that there should be some explanations of symbolisms that the modern-contemporary artists use in their works of art. There are stereotypical symbolisms which help a viewer understand the work very easily and perhaps derive meanings directly, which I say an absolute give away that could absolutely destroy the charm of a work of art making it too commonplace devoid of any aesthetical challenges. Then I spoke of a ‘desirable symbolism’ by which I meant a kind of symbolism that poses certain challenges to viewer and forces him to solve it or understand it through active contemplation. Certain amount of awareness of the cultural context is a prerequisite to be such a viewer. 
During the modern times, which could be roughly be said between the 1870-1960s (till date in the case of India) art all over the world had a responsibility to create its own viewers from amongst the general public. There was a time when people enjoyed what religion and courts enjoyed as art. There were strict demarcations between what the populous vulgus (general people) could enjoy and what the higher ups could. Therefore whatever appeared as art before the people in the public domain was meant for direct communication which in a way reassured socio-political and religious control and impacted an invisible moral training of the people. The religious establishments within their esoterically private circles enjoyed a different kind of art which was deliberately kept away from the public. It was the same case with royal courts which used to reserve different kinds of art collected from the land and elsewhere for extremely private enjoyment. Establishment of democratic values, collapse of royal courts, rise of a new rich class from the former feudal classes with the onset of industrialization, arrival of printing press, invention of photography and so on opened up the former esoteric art vaults and a the new middle class started aspiring to reach the level of the former aristocratic classes. This emulation of upper classes by the lower classes was the first historical occasion where the birth of a modern art viewer occurred. He went alone and took his family along at times to the places where ‘art’ was exhibited. And it is quite natural that they had to take great pains to understand the meaning of the symbols that each artist had used in the creation of a work of art. However, the proliferation of printing press made this education easier as it could mediate this understanding between art and the new viewer.  

When art was specially created for the enjoyment of the public, the symbolism that the patrons wanted the artists to create and also in the independent commissions what artists followed was mostly based on religious literature which could easily build narrative bridges between the visual symbolism and the viewers. This art for the public was primarily based on a common context in which the artists and viewers belonged to the same symbolic order. Artists of higher caliber while making the apparent easier to communicate incorporated their private esoteric symbolism within the works in order to make the works more mysterious and demanded more scholarly interventions for unraveling the mysteries. Common people as viewers enjoyed both these apparent and mysterious symbolisms depending on the social circulation of the concerned information and knowledge. But when the patronage changed and art became an independent activity, this common context was broken and the artist became the sole negotiator of his own symbolism to which he gave entry points to the viewers. However, the rupture of this common context was not drastic and it took many years for the artists to move away from the mythological and religious connotations and secularize them completely in order to suit to the changing modern times. By the time we reach the latter half of the 19thcentury we see the modern artists completely breaking away from the former traditions of art making and ushering art creation into a new realm of private symbolism.

In fact the symbolism created by the modern artists was not too difficult to understand; they culled their subjects from their surroundings and painted what their eyes perceived, their intellect directed and their emotions demanded. This was a new context of art creation where artists were the sole proprietors of their works; there were no external agencies to tell them about the final product. What happened to the viewers in this particular historical phase was rather interesting. They had already been conditioned by the ‘ways of seeing’; if it is art it has to be seen in this light, that was the motto till then. But here was a new breed of artists and they were presenting some works of art absolutely different from their seeing habits. Art critics and writers started writing about them based on aesthetics, science, experiments and subject matter. Some of the critics even named the works after certain ‘isms’. So there was a new context altogether in which a new viewer was to be created. And throughout the 20thcentury we could say viewers were led by critical mediations and at each juncture a new viewing habit was formed. I could cite the establishment of Cubism by 1907 and in ten years we have Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ that scandalized the art scene. Immediately after that we have Abstract Movement, Expressionism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Social Realism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Hyper-Realism, Native Art Movement,  Pop Art Movement, Conceptual Art, Narrative Movement, Feminist Art Practice, Art of Impermanence, Performance Art, Video Art, Sound Art and what not. The story continues even today. 
How do we expect a viewer adjust to all these changes? How can a viewer find himself in a comfortable position with these changing ‘isms’ or schools of thoughts and practice? And how do we expect a viewer to understand the symbolism involved in each school of art and in each individual artist? The questions are too many. However, if we look at the historical experience of the viewer/s we could say that they have been comfortably moving from one ism to another without much trouble. But that happens only to an initiated society where museum/gallery going is a general practice and is not seen as an exotic thing to do. The people who call themselves educated or cultured go to museums or galleries the way they attend theatre, dance and musical performances, speeches, debates, shop for books, read books, read literary criticism, movie reviews and so on. A viewer is formed out of these practices. Hence, when a work of art is presented before him, he receives it from within that context of general understanding because a visual work of art though it has a different language of communication is not far away from the cultural discourses in currency in that given point of time. When one is within that currency of ideas, it becomes easier for him to understand a work of art which otherwise appears him as an experimental jumble which is too difficult to understand. Somehow it has become a preconceived notion that the symbolism that the artists use in their works is too private to decipher. If we understand the context that I have given just now, the symbolism is never a difficult thing. To read a book, to watch a movie, to listen to a piece of music, one needs focus and contemplation. The same is required for viewing a work of art. Today, unfortunately it is said that a viewer stands before a work of art just for five to six seconds. But we read a page taking more than a minute. If we stay before a work of art for around a minute (and more than that) perhaps we would understand the symbolism/s better. One has to try. 

Now let me come to the stereotypical symbolism that everyone enjoys to certain extent because it helps them to ‘understand’ the work of art without trouble. This stereotypical symbolism in art comes from previous understanding or familiarity with the image/symbol and the symbolic values attached to it. For example, everyone is familiar with the image of a crucified Jesus Christ. Artists all over the world even during the modern times have used this image not only in visual art but also in movies, theatre, literature and dance and so on. The image of a crucified Jesus Christ is not a portrait of Jesus Christ that evokes piety or horror in us. It evokes a different set of values ranging from religiosity to peace, justice, liberty, fraternity, equality and love. Hence, a revolutionary, a democrat, a Republican, a left wing extremist and a right wing extremist all would use the same image to evoke the same values in different contexts. It becomes easier for the viewer to discern the context and understand the set of values attached to the symbol of crucified Jesus. But the danger is this that over a period of time, crucified Jesus Christ becomes a symbol in itself that connotes nothing but a crucified Jesus Christ. The over condensation of values in one image blunts and numbs it and makes a mere image which could be a stand in image for the said values without meaning much about it. A viewer loves this symbol because he feels that he understand the painting. The same is the case with the theme of ‘mother and child’, ‘dove the symbol of peace’ and ‘Buddha the peacemaker’. These universally identified symbols are over used and have lost their connotative capacities. Still people love them because they say that they understand the work of art. What they understand is the shallow image. It happens because the artist also intends only that much. He takes a short cut to make his art appealing to the people. Over communication is as good as no communication as people are tend to forget such overtly familiar symbols as they forget commonplace objects like a desk or switch. 

It should not be said that people forget familiar symbols that easily. There are times when people remember the work of art forever even if they have only common place symbols. It happens when the artist has used his special skills in making the works super realistic. Works of art with photographic precision are always a thing of wonder for even an initiated art viewer. Even if a very expressive work is kept side by side with a work done in super realistic style, people would prefer to throng before the super realistic work because they ‘understand’ it on the one hand and on the other they appreciate the ‘skill’ of the artist to create something as realistic as they see with their own eyes. They actually forget the fact that the ways of seeing a thing as their ‘eyes see’ is relatively a new thing which has a maximum a history of five centuries. To be more precise I would say that such a way of seeing has only two hundred years of history; since the invention of photography. Photography brought the three dimensional space into a two dimensional plane through a mechanical process. Even before that the Renaissance artists had achieved this ability. With this advent of illusionism (a thing called vanishing point within a picture as if rays were emanating from a middle point which give a depth to the surface) that fooled the eyes a new way of looking at the things around us was created. Photography accentuated it. Without our conscious knowledge our ways of seeing was altered. That is why when an artist uses his skills to create illusion people watch it with wonder and amazement as if such achievement of illusionism is the only thing in art. This was not the case in the pre-photography or pre-Renaissance times. None thought that the artists were making disproportionate figures and images in the picture because the meaning was conveyed through prescribed terms and the images were easily understood the way in which they were portrayed and illusionism was not a term of reference at all. 

It has proved beyond doubt that the stereotypical symbolism is not the way to create a new viewer. Stereotypical symbolism, in most of the cases destroys the viewer base in any country. But unfortunately, go to any village or town fair, you would see works of art with stereotypical symbolism being sold and bought like hot cakes for cheap prices. Here in this context I would like to bring the Kalighat paintings that used to be sold like hot cakes in late 19thcentury and early 20thcentury. Kalighat painters had a total grip on the social circumstances in which they lived. So they chose to paint the subject matters that were familiar to the temple visiting public in a hybrid style which was neither the court style nor the local folk style. It was a meeting point of the classical and the vernacular (margi and desi) and people lapped it up without questioning the lack of realism in them. The realism in them was of a different kind and people who viewed/bought those works understood this context very well. The Kalighat artists could separate the religious and secular in different compartments and even make social satires and critique by selectively bringing them together or resorting to the creation of new symbolisms. The famous image of a cat holding a fish or a lobster is such a derivative symbolism which became a famous cultural symbol as far as the Kalighat painting was concerned. The Kalighat painters could conceive the avarice of the Brahmin priests and their greed for worldly wealth and their indulgence in vices in the form of a cat eating a lobster as if it was a very innocent act. People slowly understood it and it became a symbol as potent and communicative as the symbol of crucified Jesus Christ. 

Now let me detail a little bit about the desirable symbolism in to which a new viewer has to be initiated. What is a desirable symbolism and do the artists need to consciously create a set of such symbolism so that the viewers understand his works? This has been the norm in any time because each artist who strives for a sort of creative originality indulges in the creation of a very private style which could be derivative but strongly different from the root styles from which it is derived. It could be discerned based on the choice of colors, brush strokes and the ways in which an image is articulated. But private symbolism is not that. Each artist has an individual existence as well as a collective existence. That means he is a part of a continuum and at the same time a point of rupture. It happens in his creative career alternatively or simultaneously. His historical continuum helps him to be anchored in his narratives however radical it seems and the rupture helps him to create some exceptionally new symbol that could function as container or the present and past. It is not necessary that an artist always contain past in his present works. A work of art could be present in all its connotations but in my view a work of art stands on its own only when it has invisible connections with its locale, its history, its visual habits and the common contexts. How to shoot his new ways of articulating in this common context or rather how to create this common context itself is challenge for him. For this an artist always uses roads taken widely and less trodden paths. Hence, in the desirable symbolism we see references familiar to the viewer or the references that could be made familiar to the viewers. Either the viewer is asked to learn about the private references or the viewer is at once given those tracks to reach the references. A desirable symbolism at once creates a work of art and its viewer, but what most of us fail to understand is the latter part; we fail to recognize a work of art’s ability to create a viewer through the creation of a desirable symbolism.

The desirable symbolism is as varied as the number of artists who employ it. There is no formula to get to a desirable symbolism. There are no concoctions so that one could prepare a desirable symbolism. It is the creation of a visual knowledge system based on the available knowledge systems in which both the artists and the viewers are common share holders. At times, as viewers we do not understand that we have a stake in it. And the happiest moment in the life of a viewer is the moment of recognition of that particular stake/share. That is why we say a modern viewer is an intelligent viewer. He has to be much ahead of the artist or at least a fellow traveler. Most of the viewers even refuse to recognize this familiar desirable symbolism thinking that they do not ‘understand it’. If you want to watch a movie you have to sit in front of a screen. If you want to read a book you have to look at its pages and read. Similarly if you want to understand a work of art and the symbolism involved in you have to look at it for a minute and try to connect the dots. It is an intellectual activity. But it is often said that art is to be understood by the common man. In fact the common man is the most intelligent man. A common man comes to see a work of art is an uncommon man. A common man who goes to listen to a music concert is an uncommon man. A common man who picks up a book with a desire to read it is an uncommon man. He makes a pact with the object of desire at that moment. It is a marriage. Once you enter in it, you are bound to make efforts to understand it. I am not saying that each and everyone on the face of the earth should understand art. But at least those who go to watch movies, listen to music concert and read books could go for art exhibition. Even a regular newspaper reader could go and understand the desirable symbolism in the work of art. Whenever artists have deliberately tried to make esoteric symbolism in order to make art itself an exotic practice, they have failed miserably in connecting with the people. People, as intelligent as ever have neglected them. But this has made a huge gap in the continuity of the chain of viewers. Today, an average citizen is an informed citizen. He could understand the symbolism in a work of art upon contemplation. What we need today is the patience to look at a work of art with the desirable symbolism.  

(Images for illustrative purpose only taken from the Internet)

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