The theme of today’s discussion raises the question of what kind of a philosophy connects art and life. But the word ‘Renaissance’ is prominently used: a word meaning ‘rebirth’ or ‘reawakening’, so it could be referring to the need for a new philosophy making new connections. But it also refers to a period in European history from the late 14th to early 17th century that is significant to us today, for it marks a shift, specifically in my own field of architecture, but also in many of the visual arts, from the world of the anonymous craftsman to that of the signature artist. This laid the foundations for today’s modernity where whatever we call art is marked by a specific authorship tied to the creativity of an individual or set of individuals, and what cannot be marked this way is segregated into craft. This separation was not so distinct before the Renaissance. So, in examining the theme of today’s evening in its entirety, I feel compelled to examine two aspects: (i) the relationship between art and life; and (ii) this shift from the anonymous craftsman to the signature artist.
A popular response to the first issue is that art in some way derives from life, either in imitating life, or reflecting it, or framing a view of it. I will respond to this question with a quotation, “Art is not a copy of the real world. One of the damn things is enough!” (the source of this quotation is unknown, but it is cited in Nelson Goodman’s book Languages of Art). As you can see from the quotation, I clearly believe that art does not imitate life. I will return to this question soon, but before doing that let me dwell briefly on the shift from craftsman to artist
As Richard Sennett points out, the shift involves a radical turn. The craftsman had an outward orientation to the community within which he/she was embedded. This local community was both customer to the craftsman, and colleague in tackling the existential and practical concerns of life. Expressive structure of the art form tended to remain within a traditional idiom shared by craftsman and patron. In contrast, the contemporary artist is characterised by an inward turn toward a reflective and creative self: a radical turn that has had two major impacts. First, the turn away from community offered an anonymity that was a gateway to unfettered creativity freed from the gaze of tradition. Individual innovation, that privileges extreme originality, displaced traditional idiom. The value of art is now seen as springing from the creative genius of the artist as an individual, embedding meaning in the intentions of the artist. This attitude reduces the observer of art to a relatively passive role, limited at the upper end to interpreting what the artist may have intended, and at the lower end merely liking the appearance of the work of art. And second, once the work of art represents a connection to an artistic individual rather than a tradition of life, the phenomenon of art becomes a set of individualised transactions rather than a communal quest. This has made the question of the significance of art to life a complex one. So rather than asking “What is the meaning of art?”, it may be more productive to first ask “What kind of a human need is art?”
We tend to assess needs in terms of Abraham Maslow’s famous pyramid arranging human needs in a hierarchy [Illustration 01]. At the base are primal physical needs, and as one satisfies those needs, one gravitates towards higher order needs, seeking the self-actualisation that lies at the upper tip of the pyramid. Art is typically placed somewhere in the upper half of this pyramid as an evolved need. It gets treated as a kind of luxury: after conquering base needs, if we have money left, we can indulge in art. Therefore, we tend to think of art as primarily located within rarefied spaces such as museums and galleries, and some of it finds its way into our homes once we can afford it. Till we reach that point of affluence, we must make do with inexpensive calendar prints or the equivalent, content with formulaic decoration rather than creative art.
But when we trace back to the pre-Renaissance world of traditional craft, a great deal of which is still found here in India, we find something very different. Far from art being a luxury, it is societies whose struggle for survival is most precarious — rural societies, tribal societies — who are most embedded in art. Why is it that amid such precarious struggle, even the most utilitarian object — a mud wall of a hut, a clay pot — must be transformed into art
I struggled with this question until I came across this statement from the British writer Jeanette Winterson, “The question ‘What is your book about?’ has always puzzled me. It is about itself and if I could condense it into other words I should not have taken such care to choose the words I did”. In her argument that the book only offers itself, she implies that the primary offering of a work of art is its own exactitude. Exactitude is important because everyday life is so chaotic and messy. We are continually bombarded by multiple things, and each thing keeps changing. In this shifting confusion, we do not know what should be the frame of reference.
Art, through its exactitude, resists this anarchic entropy of life. In art, we capture the universe in a precision of form that does not change, offering us a stable frame of reference by which we can measure who we are, where we are. Art resists rather than imitates life. The lead title of Winterson’s book from which I drew her quotation is “Art Objects”, and when you first read it you think she uses the word ‘objects’ as a noun, but as you read the book you realise she intends it as a verb.
Folk societies stayed embedded in art because they did not delegate understanding the universe to specialists such scientists. The only way they could personally understand the world they inhabited was to remake it through art. So it is not the intention of the artist as much as how the work of art lends itself to us as a means of measuring who and where we are. [a] wonderful piece of rangoli is a representation of the cosmos, granting to the person who draws it an appreciation of the universe that she inhabits; a personal and embodied understanding that is far from abstract. It is us, so-called ‘moderns’, who have lost this connection. If we wish to have a rangoli [Illustration omitted]... to enrich our home during a festival such as Diwali, most of us do not have the ability to draw it ourselves. We typically depend on our maidservant to draw it: a woman who we consider as uneducated when compared to ourselves. Perhaps, in some ways, her understanding of this world, especially her rootedness within it, is far more sophisticated and refined than our own.
When art is a means of taking a measure of ourselves and our world, it invades the most mundane and utilitarian objects. Art does not imitate life, it absorbs life, and thus becomes life. There is no dividing line between utility and contemplation. A coconut scraper, a vegetable grater [Illustration omitted], become crafted aesthetic objects that are alive. The fracture between utility and contemplation is an existential angst that characterises our modernity. And it is most powerfully reflected in the way we structure the education of our children. Look at kindergarten and primary school, where utility is less of a concern and emphasis is on the energy of learning, and we see drawing, making, art as primary modes of learning. Move on to high school where the emphasis has shifted to utility — the subjects to specialise in, the career choices to pursue — and art has faded into the background, an optional and affectionate indulgence for those who may wish to continue with it.
What does one do if one is caught in that no-man’s land between two worlds, living a life that is distanced from the world of traditional craft, yet unwilling to accept this contemporary fracture between utility and contemplation that treats art as a luxury? I sense the best strategy is to adopt the advice of Evelyn Waugh, when he said, “Don’t give your opinions about Art and the Purpose of Life. They are of little interest and, anyway, you can’t express them…… Stick to your story. It is not the most important subject in history but it is one about which you are uniquely qualified to speak.” I interpret Waugh’s advice as a suggestion to take a personal rather than abstract perspective, because when you tell your story, it is not to self-absorbedly project yourself, but to leverage the authenticity possible only in your own story to speak of something beyond yourself.
So, I will talk about the art in my own home: about paintings that impart colour to my home, but also remind me of where I live, and make me think about my relationship to that context. In some cases, I know who the artist is, and in some cases I either do not know or do not remember. But that makes no difference — it is the painting itself that engages me, and not the identity, intentions or capabilities of the artist. Once art has been released into the public domain by the artist, it leaves the voice of the artist behind, and speaks only in its own voice. The artist has used his or her talent to create an aura, and after that it is that aura that speaks, not the artist. These paintings are neither there for momentary glances at them, nor merely to add aesthetic value to my home. They are specific spaces of exactitude I step into — often for long moments of time. It is as though a conversation takes place, one that repeats often.
So I can look at this painting of musicians and think about the relationship I have with music [Illustration 02]. I see how the musicians are aligned, all facing the same direction: they are clearly performing for an audience. But that audience is not in the painting, so it is me as the observer of this painting who constitutes that audience. In a way, I am necessary to complete the painting. These musicians, are both young and old, clearly from a tradition of musical idiom and performance, that has captivated a community across generations. They embody a heritage that gives power to their music. I begin to wonder how I, as a person who is far distanced from such a heritage, have the right to constitute their audience. Do I demean their art by sitting in front of them?
Or I can look at this painting of a young girl with a rooster, and reflect on rural and small-town life [Illustration 03]. I wonder if the colours and warmth of the painting speak of the happiness of the young girl. Is her expression one of serenity, content within an ancient tradition. Or is it something else? Does the vibrant sensuality of her body — so striking in the painting — speak of a creative and energetic femininity that is repressed by the tradition within which she lives, and her expression is actually a resigned acceptance of the constraints that bind her, forcing her to make do with small gestures of individuality like the flower in her hair or the necklace around her neck.
The conversation with these two paintings sets my mind to thinking of the relationship between tradition and modernity: thoughts that would not have taken place if I had not invested the time to patiently just be in front of these paintings, allowing them to speak to me. And even today, I can sit in front of these paintings that have hung in my home for years, and learn something new from them.[Illustrations 04, 05]
The art in my house is not confined to paintings: many of the paintings live next to objects of art that come from cultures embedded in art, who do not see art as a luxury, reminding me of how we remake and comprehend the world through art. These objects of art are not just pieces that look good in our home. They are storehouses of remembrance. They live there as repositories of memory, reminding us of where we have been and the kind of gaze we directed at the new places we travelled to. And when those stories are intertwined with the beauty in the work, our lives get enriched in the process. [Illustration 06]
Some of these objects are remarkably beautiful. I can look at them and marvel every day, whether it is a Sumatran mask, a Javanese boat cum rooster, or a piece of Swedish glass work. I think about how blessed we are that such beauty has come into our lives. Often, the fact that this beauty has had to come from far away adds more power. To reach out to it, we have had to step out of our skin of familiarity, travel with fresh eyes unknown and unadorned, and then step back into our old skin again. to find that it is a new person who always steps back. In Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities”, Kublai Khan chides Marco Polo for continuing to speak about himself and his past after returning from travel to distant lands, and asks Polo whether he travels only with his head turned backward. Polo replies, “Arriving at each new city, the traveller finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.” This act of discovering distant beauty and inviting it back to our home is an act of discovering ourselves: a continued discovery that is necessary to avoid a degeneration into robotic lives anaesthetised by habit. [Illustrations 07, 08, 09]
But beyond memory or beauty, it is a sense of affection that builds with the work. With some of the art affection is instantaneous and the primary cause for the art coming into our home. But with all of them, it is an affection that builds over time. And because affection is the foundation, art that is produced or gifted by our children can comfortably sit in the same home alongside work by accomplished artists or craftsmen. They live together, not because they are aesthetically equal or harmonised, but because we have equal affection for them all. And when this affection becomes evident, aesthetic differences fade away, and all the art fuses together under an air of lived life. [Illustration 10]
And then the art starts returning this affection, and constructs a bond like a parent fondly bringing up and teaching a child. I can look at this Frank Lloyd Wright reproduction and it enlightens me on what I should admire. It tells to me about hierarchies of scale, about connections between modernity and tradition. [Illustration 11]
I try to unravel mysteries by deciphering the expressions on the faces of these women. I speculate on the thoughts and words that must be passing through them. What are they thinking or speaking about? Strength? Surrender? Loss? Restraint? Companionship? Creativity? Serenity? Every day a new possibility emerges, and I do not have time to describe the infinite worlds my mind travels in when I reflect on this. [Illustration 12]
I can lose myself in the mysticism of these trees. Unlike many of the other paintings that seem to reach out to you as though they are saying something, these do not. They just sit there quiet and enigmatic, offering nothing. One feels compelled to step forward to them, and further into them. They suggest places that lie beyond what one sees, hidden by a curve in the path or by mist. I begin to fantasise walking beyond these trees, imagining what I discover. But what I imagine or discover is not important. What is significant is that I feel compelled to make that journey. It was as though these drawings are saying to me, “There is a world out there beyond what you can see. Are you going to act as though it does not exist just because you cannot see it? Can you remain content within the limited perspective of your current position?” Through their unfathomable silence, these drawings challenge my complacency.
When I do not confront my complacency, I open the door to the devaluation of art. I render myself passive, denying responsibility for meaning in art by placing it firmly within the intentions and creativity of the artist as a personality, and my complacency flourishes. The consequent devaluation of art takes many forms, and I suggest three primary forms here:
1. A reduction to decorative aesthetic, with no other demand than it be pleasing to the eye.
2. A superficial media-fuelled celebration of the artist as an iconic and newsworthy individual, perhaps reliving Daniel Boorstin’s definition of the celebrity as “a person who is well-known for his well-knownness.”
3. A monetised asset, valued as investment or status symbol, as this image suggests.
We often blame art for the situation, saying it has moved toward esoteric abstraction, away from the easily readable figural representation that characterised pre-modern art, and therefore less accessible to us. We seek to justify this distance by asking, “What has happened to art?” While I would not claim that all abstract art is worthy of everyone’s consideration, I would not easily accept this excuse of blaming art. So, let me end by discussing this abstract painting with which my relationship has recently changed [Illustration 13]. It hung in my mother’s house for many years, so it has been familiar to me for some time. After my mother passed away last year, my wife and I inherited it. It needed some restoration work, so it could be hung on the wall of our home only a few weeks ago. Suddenly, and very recently, my relationship with it has moved to an intimate and daily level. This is the painting with which I have spent the most time since I received the invitation to speak here today. I find it compelling, and I have been spending time with it wondering why. What do I see in it? Embers? Footprints? The strata of the earth? Dawn, day, sunset and night? Hidden fires? Or maybe I do not need any figural interpretation, and it is a sheer presence that subtly shapes my awareness of darkness, light, and energy. There is no right answer. What matters is that every day yields a new possibility. And I know that what has happened over the last few weeks will continue over the next few years. This painting will hang in the same spot in my home. Yet every day it will become a different painting, and every day I will become a different person.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living, proposing philosophy as the means of examining your life. This view finds echoes in Indian philosophy, a prominent example being Adishankaracharya’s text “Vivekachudamani”, where ‘viveka’ or ‘discernment’ is posited as the ‘chudamani’, ‘the crest jewel’, a primary quality one must seek to uncover the significance of one’s own being. I would argue that the exactitude of art provides a means by which this philosophy of examining one’s life and acquiring discernment can become tangible, accessible and personal.
For this one must make the effort to engage with art, and not expect art to do all the work. To bring works of art into your home, into your life, is like inviting a good friend to come over. You will not sit there passively, demanding that your friend entertain you. You will not freeze the identity of your friend as forever tied to the event of his or her birth. Like friends, you must treat your works of art as worthy of the love and consideration achieved through long periods of engagement driven purely by delight in their company. Like friends, you must invest in time with your works of art: time characterised by focus, patience, warmth, affection, being non-judgmental, willingness to listen, openness to sharing. And, like friendship, the relationship evolves, strengthens, adding joy, depth and discovery to each day spent together.
Invest in that kind of relationship with art, and it will be amazing what will happen to your philosophy of life, for philosophy will become intimate rather than intellectual. But be passive and expect art to do all the work, and you will only see an art distanced from you, reduced to decoration, investment or status symbol. In that case, the question “What has happened to art?” becomes an easy cop out, an avoidance of what you should be examining. The authentic and honest question is “What has happened to us?”