Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Art Does not Change the World but Moves the Mind

From the kitchen window I could see these bunches of berries, half pinkish red and half white hanging from high branches of the tree that grows over a fifteen feet tall boundary wall. Little humming birds hover around the bell like white flowers, butterflies flit all over, occasionally a monkey jumps over it never touching the berries that make my eyes widen with happiness each morning as I enter the kitchen. Children don’t find any devices around to climb over the wall and pluck the berries. Necessity has made them small inventors; they tie a little bottle or stone at the end of a kite string and throw it over the branches. The stone goes over the tree, covers the intended branch and comes down. Holding both the ends of the string, the kids pull it down, slowly but meticulously, plucking the sour berries (someone told me about its taste. If slice it and rub it with salt, chilli powder and a shot of lemon, it would taste heaven, they say) and make way before the gardener sees the unnaturally shaking tree, comes rushing and chases away the truant boys.

Looking at these berries I think of their purpose of being there. They are the making of a wondrous hand. The berries are here to carry the seed and perpetuate the species of that tree on the earth. But others find different purposes for it. Some berries are tasty; some are sour and some are even poisonous. Some cause various kinds of allergies; some are good to look at but are never to be consumed. Each has a purpose of perpetuating its species. Rest of their uses are found out by others, including birds and human beings. Depending on the quality of looks and taste, human beings judge the berries as edible, poisonous, decorative etc. The meaning of a berry is its berry-ness. When it is brought to another situation, suddenly it acquires metaphorical values; some meaning which is not intrinsic but added to it by associations. Apple is one of the innocent edible fruits in the market but even the staunch Christians would not think of the original sin when they buy a kilogram of it for themselves. None laughs at a woman who goes around biting into an apple. Yet, when the apple is painted on a canvas or displaced from the tree or fruit stall and placed it in a gallery or museum, suddenly the meaning changes; everyone suddenly sees the ‘history’ of apple both in mythology/ theology and aesthetics. People have found out the ways in which they could see purpose of anything and everything including an apple.

 (Subodh Gupta with his Absolut bottle)

When depicted in art objects and subjects come to have meaning and purposes though such connotations are not the intention of the artists. Like berries art that comes from the minds of the artists too does not have any particular purpose. If at all there is a purpose for art that is just the perpetuation of the artistic abilities of the artist himself/herself. Each work of art is an intention as well as a decision. The tree has an intention and decision in producing a bunch of berries. It does not see the birds as primary consumers. Perhaps, it may be seeing the birds as primary carriers so that the seeds could be delivered elsewhere. An artist is also like a tree; he/she has an intention and a decision. Any work of art produced therefore carries an artistic intention and a decision, both of which do not have anything to do with its further perpetuation in the minds of the people or in the market. The intention is often simple; that ‘I want to make a work of art’ or ‘I want to make something out of something’ or ‘I want to make something that makes me happy’. The decision part is also equally simple: ‘I want to do it in this way’ or ‘I am doing it in this way’ or ‘this is the way that I do it’ or ‘this is what I do with it’.

Real artists are those people who create works of art with pure intention and strong decision. When the intention is adulterated or the decision is weakened, the resultant work of art would have weaker genes to survive the times. This statement invites another discussion; one could say that all the artists have good intentions when they do art and all of them have stronger decisions too. I am nobody to question their intentions or decisions. But works of art are such things that once perceived or tasted with heightened sense of aesthetical understanding, their intentions and decisions are revealed to the trained eyes. This self revelatory aspect of a work of art often puts the artists into trouble; those who have done with impure intentions and weaker decisions are exposed sooner than later. As I said before, artistic intention is all about a self justification of making a work of art, decision is nothing but executing it the way one wants it to be. Each artist makes a self justification for doing a work of art and the way it is done automatically explains the artistic decision behind it.

(from Dutch Renaissance, Entombment)

This is a dangerous proposition. When we accept that each artist has an intention, we should also accept that whatever the artist intends is exposed in the given work of art; what seen is not just the representation or non-representation and style but it is also the mind of the artist. An artist who paints the glamour and glitter of an urban space is either celebrating it or critiquing it. He/she cannot say that urban space is a metaphor for the celebration of life. This could be a naive argument from the artist’s side, however that naivety itself is then an intention of the artist. And the way he has painted, sculpted, photographed, videoed and so on shows the decision of the artist vis-a-vis the medium, the perspective, the time and the positioning of him/herself within or without the work of art. That means, a work of art which is produced by an artist often gives away the artistic intention and decision. Art history says that most of the Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance artists hid a lot of secret meanings, scientific findings, agnostic scepticism and so on in their works without offending the patrons. One needs a deep understanding of the history, theology, sociology and political make up of the times to understand those works in the right perspective. However, what comes to fore is that those complicated works too revealed artistic intentions and decisions at some stage of historical analysis.

Compared to those days, today we live in much shallower times with short attention spans and peripheral understanding of things. Artists too have fallen to the follies of our times. Instant fame, name and riches have come to define artistic success in our contemporary times. Fame and fortune also could come via being different and creating complicated art deliberately. But surprisingly, if complexity is the hallmark of a particular work of art today, then we also understand that it is not the complexity of the minds of the artists but their intention to make the work of art complicated than lucid. It is an intention as well as a decision. I do not want to say that whether it is right or wrong. But I would say that it gives away the ways in which an artist tries to make his/her work complex and comprehensive. The decisions within those works are crystal clear. Only way to deflect artistic intentions and decisions is to attribute metaphorical values to these images and objects. But unfortunately we live in such times that everything is either a metaphor or a self revealing platitude. The metaphorical lack of our times has made the job of an art critic much tougher for only he could rely on his deeper or shallow understanding about the world and nature in order to dredge out meanings as well as befitting metaphors. The self revealing nature of the images is because of the over exposed ways of our lives these days. We even know the background score of our wrist watch. When we consume anything we know everything about it via advertisements. So the consumption is a sort of sharing the experience that one already has known virtually; consumption of it is a reaffirmation of the same experience in the real time. This renders the works of art and experiences/decisions revealed/expressed in there an underlining rather than an exciting first time experience.

 (work by Jan Van Kessel, 1659)

The question then is what could be the right kind of art that protects the intention and the decision of the artists? In my opinion contemporary art has been overtly depending upon the immediate incidents and experiences, memories, images, texts related to them. Over identification with/of the experiential quotes within the art or as art has reduced the artistic intention to some sort of cleverness of cajoling the viewer to a turn of surprise exposition/s. The decision is already visible because the styles that the artists have chosen are self revelatory and resonate with what the viewers have already seen around them. The political intentions and decisions of the artists are too palpable to be real or serious because they flit around the berries and flowers like butterflies, moving from one flower to other at a time but around a variety of flowers and berries over a period of time. So we see artists working on migration at one point of time and in the coming season we see them celebrating nationalism confined within the geographical boundaries. At times we see them working against the fascistic political ideologies and other times hailing militaristic moves as paramount gestures of patriotism. Such works of art are passing fancies, like the moths that come to die in the light of the truth and simplicity.

Can art do anything to change the society if that is the case? Art, being one of the ultimate expressions of human potential, it has the ability to create empathetic responses amongst the viewers/listeners. It comes as a natural a spontaneous thing for both the artist and the viewer. It is not necessary that we would like to go out and change the world the moment we see a work of art. A work of art does not ask us to change the world or society. It fundamentally asks one to change oneself. A good piece of music is the right intentions and decision of a musician so is a good work of art is that of a painter or sculptor or any other fine artist. It moves the viewer not to change the world but towards the innards of one’s own self. Today, a propagandist work of art could ‘inform’ people of political turns and twists in a country but it can never change the people who view it. Had it been so, India should have been without religious conflicts or without garbage everywhere for we see a lot of propaganda for keeping the society clean of religious conflict as well as littering. A work of art stands for the artist’s expression of the simple truths that he finds around him/her. A proper reading of it would reveal his/her intention and decision too. Once those are understood, people would marvel at the work of art and would move towards the sublime zone of existence. One need not necessarily be dealing with the social realities or political realities of the time directly. The secret is lies in the capturing of simple truths of life which are capable enough to turn potential metaphors and could reveal not only the artistic intentions and decisions but also many things more provided if one has the eyes to see simple truths and their abilities to expand and contain the times and beyond.  

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