Wednesday, 15 March 2017

How deeply should we look at Art

A few months have passed between my last Salon and this one, and I have shed an inner tear or two every time Facebook has reminded me of it. 

So when Rashmi came down, I decided it was time to bring back the lost glory, and the best way I know of doing that is to dust out the most abstract and unresolvable subject there is, older than the Universe yet more topical than this morning’s sunrise, the eternal question of how deeply should one look at Art.

The question came to me quite organically actually and like most questions do, via social media. I came across a poem, it was about women and their eccentricities, you know, how these anguished men write - oh woman, who shall know thee, but not sing song about thine complexity. Now I don’t doubt the poet’s intent, the expression of one’s feelings in any form even remotely resembling Art is about as sacred to me as anything can ever be, and no doubt, he too, was oblivious to all but the tugs of his own heart and its lifeblood pouring into his pen; but I obviously could not let it be.
It set me thinking about how down the centuries, with said pen being mostly wielded by men, such portraits, guileless in their individual selves, but perhaps lethal in collectivity, have deemed women as changeable mercurial creatures, unpredictable illogical beautiful, ever the muse never the artist. And this very strong feeling towards a hapless poem and its creator triggered this question, first in my mind, to eventually become the metaphorical avalanche that kicked off this prodigal episode and the question, of whether Art was a thing of beauty, an individual’s fancy, or a powerful tool.

The guests were eminent as usual. My dear friends Amrita and Ak (Akankshaa) were the regulars on my couch, as was my reluctant husband, Ankit (who puts on big airs of being dragged into these affairs but is almost always the first to jump in greedily once the games begin); Kanika M, the final wicket in my Unilever universe, made a dignified debut, as did Rashmi, whose presence was the raison d’etre of this one, being not only my friend but more pertinently a career conversationalist. Then there were Priya and Neel, my sister and newly minted brother-in-law, another pair of debutants, who like they do everything else, did this long-distance too, skyping in from two different locations.
As you can see I drew this group from near and nearer, and though I am no Karan Johar, I do have my nepotism flag flying high. The saving grace and coup d’etat of the evening was the lovely Heta, of ‘Doodlistic’ fame, the lone artist in the pack, trying to make a living through expression.

Now while it was my intention to spend most of the time on understanding what makes Art tick for each of us, the discussion inevitably teetered towards freedom of expression.
There is no shortage of tributaries along this particular vein; the one that got maximum air time was the offense & defense of Maqbool Fida Husain, and his unholy goddess portraits. As usual the artist’s freedom was the kernel around which the fire raged, but we did refreshingly touch upon the artist’s responsibility as well and took the discussion into unchartered territory by according unprecedented respect to the freedom of expression of those consuming the Art. Did the vox of the populi not count? Were they to express their feelings through anger, why was that not acceptable? Of course, a line has to be drawn and anger when turns to violence is neither a legitimate nor a legal expression, but doesn’t the anger itself have value? I personally don’t know how we might draw a distinction between anger against the Art and baying for the artist’s blood or even asking for his work to be shut down, but the discussion sure opened up some questions.

We did draw a distinction between different kinds of Art, namely Commercial & Individual; the point being that Commercial Art by virtue of being made for external validation, probably carried the burden of responsibility a bit more definitively. Case in point, movies that in the guise of recreating history, end up creating theatrical distortions of it, Dangal being somewhat of a recent example, for some parts. I especially feel a little shocked that the makers of the movie got away with their untrue portrayal of the real life coach, and I marvel at the irony of Art in this case being the perpetrator of harm, the big moneyed villain of the story, in confrontation with the rights of a relatively unknown individual.

There were a few points made on the role of Art down the centuries, as chief outrage-creator in every era, and as such gently pushing humanity forward. Be it the earliest paintings of Michelangelo where he painted nude figures for the first time in a divine setting (The Last Judgement), or the one by Manet (Olympia) that shows a woman boldly owning her own nudity, gazing controversially into the audience’s eyes, both were giant controversies in their time, but possibly brought in refreshing sensibilities, helped society relax a bit, loosen its Victorian (anachronism alert) clench.

We did speak about viewing Art as separate from its message, indeed seeing it for the possibilities it presented rather than what it said of its creator’s social, political, economic or religious stance. Heta was unsurprisingly at the forefront of this school of thought, almost heartbroken at our collective’s propensity to dissect and anatomize. And here thankfully, we finally spoke a bit about non-controversial Art, among which works the evergreen productions of nature found many a fan. Do we not admire a sunset without getting upset about what the Milky Way is trying to say, experience a child-like joy at the sight of a rainbow in the sky, however irksome some of us might find its symbolic appropriations on earth?

Over the course of the conversation, I found myself having traversed the arc from bitterness to understanding of the many ridiculous forms that public outrage takes nowadays. A man, offended by one kind of Art, might find himself unequal to the job of protestation via an equal and opposite kind of Art, hence words must do; uncouth and unpolished though most of them may be, they are as equal in being a form of expression as Manet’s Olympia or Rushdie’s Verses.

As to the original question, of how deeply should we look at Art, well, I do certainly think it’s difficult to separate the container from its contents, the word from its meaning, the dance from its expression and the painter’s strokes from the thought that compels his hands to feverish motion. But that’s just me, and that’s just now. Happy to report that no collective conclusions were reached via this Salon.

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