Appreciating Art is an Art in itself. Lopa Mukherjee educates me upon the same and in doing so, creates an opportunity to, in her own words, “break a siloed way of teaching and thinking”.
Is beauty subjective or objective?
Our experience often says, one man’s beauty is another man’s poison. And yet there are objects of art that everyone can say are beautiful. We all agree the Mona Lisa is beautiful, but some of us may wonder why M.F. Hussain’s Saraswati is called art at all. There is a personal sense of beauty that is informed by cultural and collective senses. Microcultures differ in their aesthetic sense and time also plays an important part. A long necked woman in South Africa is a prized bride for which she will add rings to her neck to elongate it. Whereas a Chinese woman may wonder if that’s worth the trouble. While at the same time she will bind her feet and suffer the discomfort of a tottering walk – again to be a prized bride. But only in the past. The modern Chinese woman would find it unjust and shameful.
Art is not in the eye alone, in the superficial aspects of the artwork. The colour red may evoke the image of abundance to one as a symbol of the apple, or disaster to another as blood. How the art is displayed has an important part to play, just as the Taj Mahal in a crowded street would not look as beautiful as in the centre of the Mughal gardens. A painting in a large exhibition hall lit from a special angle is a different work when pinned to a wall in someone’s crowded living room with the TV disgorging the news. Some people can relate best to a work of art when it speaks of an event, like the Guernica of Picasso. It is not a dismembered jungle of human and animal pieces, but a reminder of the Spanish Civil War, well worth the wall of the United Nations. Commercial art found in advertisements may have a message we do not like; which makes us subconsciously dismiss the finesse of the artwork. Political art can evoke the beebhatsa rasa, pushing us away with its raw emotions, and yet attracting us enough to call it art.
The definition of art then is rather loose. It does not have to stand the test of time. Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas are made over weeks and erased as soon as they are complete. Native American wooden totem poles are supposed to rot so that every generation gets a chance to erect its one totem pole. If ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’ for you as Shelley suggested, good for you. The person staring at it next to you, may scratch his head and wonder why the thing found its way in a museum. Tomorrow when your mood changes, you may also wonder like him. Sometimes when the artwork is so impenetrable that you are struck with hate at first sight, if it has a story we resonate with, we start accepting the work as art.
Is beauty the same as art?
If we consider art to be a creative act which has no end in itself, no functional purpose, in other words, it exists for its own sake, then beauty is not a necessary element of art. Is art that which increases joy in the doer and the viewer? The doer may produce a chaotic piece of work to throw the inner chaos out on paper. He is not concerned about how his viewers see his work. He has derived healing from it. As soon as he completed the work, his artwork ceased to exist for him. Now if someone can relate to it, perhaps feel healed, feel empathy for the artist, even call the artwork enjoyable, then it has lasted longer than its lifetime. How we relate to a work of art is influenced by too many factors to be able to categorise. Some of them are purely personal, such as, the painting reminds us of a sad memory. Some are socially driven, say, the artwork is by a renowned artist, his other works are expensive, everybody talks about him, we will be judged as fools if we did not praise it, so we begin to see beauty where none was intended. The emperor is wearing new clothes, and we are happily blended in a crowd of hypocrites.
Can art appreciation be taught?
As they say of many foods – it is an acquired taste. The more you see beauty, the finer your taste grows. And each of us starts at a different point. If you have never been exposed to classical music, your best choice could be the fast catchy numbers you hear so often blasting out of passing cars. But once you hear something that you rate as better music, the fast numbers may seem in poor taste. This means you have acquired a different benchmarking system. Instead of a chance meeting with a new genre of music, suppose you were in a buffet of music, you would sample them all. And then you would acquire a sophisticated palate. You would have expanded your scope of hearing. But instead of that random sampling, if you can imagine walking with a connoisseur who helps you appreciate music, where would you be? He shows you how to distinguish the subtle sounds, he tells you what he finds harmonious and why, what combination of keys create melody, how they evoke a certain mood. He teaches you the essence of ragas. He modulates your mind, he tunes your ears. With practice, you are able to catch an offbeat note in an orchestra. You notice your taste has changed, and if you think it is for the better, then your taste has become refined. You have just been taught to appreciate beauty in music.
Walking down the museum with an art teacher is an opportunity to look at the world through his eyes. He shows you lines your eye would not catch. He tells you the meaning of motifs you could not have pieced together yourself. The background knowledge he brings enhances the foreground you live in. You wish all cities would have museums, and all museums trained docents, and that there would be a systematic way to learn these things. This is where art appreciation as a subject of study comes in. From film studies to pottery, from history to literature – art appreciation integrates all subjects. A face isn’t perfect if it has perfect eyes, nose, chin and cheeks. It needs that something that makes it come alive, piecing it all together in a harmonious whole, and lending it a soul. This is the goal of art appreciation.
The aim of art appreciation
The ability to appreciate art is both nature and nurture and much more. Nature is our in-built preferences, our starting point. Nurture is what we are exposed to and taught to appreciate. But art needs more than these two factors. It is how we relate to it with our emotions, with our soul. Whereas our emotions and moods are diurnal or seasonal, our soul values are constant over years or decades. I am too old to be taught to appreciate modern art, say some people. What they are trying to say is that the aesthetics of their era have passed, and they are unable to unlearn the new, or unwilling to. Some of us are born in the modern age, but our sensibilities belong to a past era. And that is completely acceptable, for in the realm of art, there is only a grey scale, no rigid good or bad.
Art appreciation shows us many samples of art – from the past to the present, from static two-dimensional paintings to dynamic three dimensional performances. It teaches us to compare, discriminate, reject, so that we can surround ourselves with what we consider art. Art is needed to live. Otherwise our life will be disbalanced, disharmious, disintegrated. Art appreciation encourages us to try our hand at various art forms – if not to discover a dormant artist in us, to be able to admire artists the better. Art appreciation teaches us to appreciate life and make it richer and more refined.
Why do we need art?
Art teaches us to seek harmony in our living space, in our relationships, with the different voices within us. But above all art teaches us to know ourselves. Our true deeper self. When we see beauty in nature, and we compare it with the artworks created by humans, we are humbled by what we realise – that we live inside a work of art created by a supreme artist. Suddenly we are surrounded by the numinous. The wonder opens up closed doors in us – our inner eyes, inner ears, inner senses of touch, taste and smell and so many unnamed senses. There is an explosion of joy within, we feel liberated from our tiny human habitations. And when we return to human stature, our life’s scope has expanded. We are able to find beauty in many more things and people, in their feelings and in their dreams. Nature is resplendent. She has more colours and designs, more intelligence and compassion. When we can relate to something with our soul stuff we call it art. And when art touches our soul it transforms us. Art appreciation helps us take on this journey.
An aspect of emotional-sensual education, which is a branch of vital education, is to refine the senses. Our five senses are always actively absorbing everything they chance upon. As we ride along a road, our eyes are inadvertently reading the words we see on billboards. We can choose to avoid junk food, but our ears are taking on junk sounds – a car honking, swear words, a fight between two people. We have to smell the pollutants in our environment, and eat the pesticides in our foods. But where we can choose, let’s make educated and refined choices. Thanks to hard lessons in life, we learn to avoid poor taste. As adolescents we laughed at smutty jokes, at jokes attacking women and different races. The same jokes are anything but funny when we mature. Even if some of us have an easily tickled sense of humour, we would not laugh at racial slurs and sexual vulgarity. Let us not pretend that one man’s vulgarity is another’s decency, for we all have common sense. Vulgarity stares us in the face, even if all we have seen in our life is vulgarity. It is not just ugly, it is also mean. And something pure in us, even if hidden under layers of dust, rejects it. But we are not all aware of this, and our outer personality does not hear the inner voice.
A person who is aware of inner movements can tell when something is vulgar. It stimulates a lower vital movement, such as possessiveness, impure desire, meanness, false pride. Let us work with an example to distinguish between vulgarity and decency. Suppose many of us are mocking someone’s cowardice. Let us ask ourselves, “Are we doing it to shame the person into getting out of his fear? Are we feeling superior to him? Are we enjoying his plight?” The first is passably decent, although teaming up and mocking a person to teach him a lesson is not a kind method. The latter two come from lower movements of the emotional being, and no-one can hesitate to call them vulgar. When one is made aware of these inner movements, one can choose to reject them.
A safe way to learn these life lessons is through characters in a story. One comes across all sorts of characters in story books, and a good book shows us the realistic outcome of their deeds. Good literature is not just useful for a sound moral education, but also teaches emotional intelligence. We get a chance to play both aggressor and victim, and look at life from both perspectives. Especially important is to get the victim’s perspective, for often in life we slip into the aggressor’s role without wanting it, without even knowing it.
Learning to discriminate and reject the vulgar can be done using every kind of art form. With the easy availability of music and videos on the internet, one can practice weeding out vulgarity from one’s nature systematically. Let’s say we see a wild dance with skimpily clothed women and men making sexually explicit movements. We observe the part in us that is attracted towards this performance. Then we watch a classical dance accompanied by a gentle melody and words that speak of truth. Now we can compare the two movements within us, and know which pulls us down and which elevates our consciousness. But will that make us reject the wrong influence? If people rejected cheap thrills there would be no more films with these dance numbers in them. Or is it that because such films exist people continue to enjoy cheap thrills? The drug perpetuates the addiction, or does the addict create a drug market? A responsible film maker will not make a sleazy film. But if he wants to earn money he may cater to the lowest common denominator. As a compromise he could gradually reduce the degree of sleaziness. But this is no guarantee that people will forget about cheap thrills. One cannot teach a person who does not want to learn. One cannot change a person who does not want to change. But one can try. Some of these people when exposed to decent dance may eventually reject the sleazy number.
The same is true for all other art forms. The hope is that after a sufficient amount of exposure to refined literature, dance, films, humour, paintings, and other art forms, the individual will have made a shift in preferences. And what he chooses to engage with will colour his consciousness accordingly. At some point he will be able to engage with his soul. Sri Aurobindo’s essays of Indian art say that the creative genius of ancient India revealed the spirit and the spiritual urge directed the artistic hand: “the Indian artist has been taught by his philosophy and the spiritual discipline of his forefathers that the imagination is only a channel and an instrument of some source of knowledge and inspiration that is greater and higher; by meditation or by Yoga he seeks within himself that ultimate centre of knowledge where there is direct and utter vision of the thing that lies hidden in the forms of man, animal, tree, river, mountain.” (Sri Aurobindo, Early Cultural Writings, The revival of Indian Art, pp. 465)
Artists created what their souls prompted them to express, which is why ancient Indian sculpture and architecture, murals and dances are infused with divinity – since the soul movements cannot err, unlike the urges coming from different parts of the being. The tradition made sure there was no vulgarity, in creation or in enjoying the creation. Art appreciation can bring about a renaissance in society, for an educated audience with refined taste will reject the crude and vulgar. With no takers, there will be no makers.
Art appreciation is not complete without the taker attempting to be a maker. There is a creative genius in us all that is waiting to be encouraged. Once we discover the joy of producing, we let go of the habit of over-consuming. When a critical mass does it, we elevate our communal life a notch higher. And when that happens there is less crime and sorrow; more harmony and peace.
To refine one’s taste one has to pick the right artwork to engage with. This practice itself pushes us further to choose the right artworks, until we are incapable of appreciating the unrefined, and when we create art ourselves, we are drawing out the best from within us. I would like to end the essay on art appreciation with a sampling of good art, which this medium offers me. In other words, let me share some choice passages from literature that touch a deep chord within.
Examples from Literature
The first passage is from Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga, from a chapter called “The Release from the Ego” (pp. 363-364):
“This cannot be done without an uncompromising abolition of the ego-sense at its very basis and source. In the path of Knowledge one attempts this abolition, negatively by a denial of the reality of the ego, positively by a constant fixing of the thought upon the idea of the One and the Infinite in itself or the One and Infinite everywhere. This, if persistently done, changes in the end the mental outlook on oneself and the whole world and there is a kind of mental realisation; but afterwards by degrees or perhaps rapidly and imperatively and almost at the beginning the mental realisation deepens into spiritual experience — a realisation in the very substance of our being. More and more frequent conditions come of something indefinable and illimitable, a peace, a silence, a joy, a bliss beyond expression, a sense of absolute impersonal Power, a pure existence, a pure consciousness, an all-pervading Presence. The ego persists in itself or in its habitual movements, but the place of the one becomes more and more loosened, the others are broken, crushed, more and more rejected, becoming weak in their intensity, limp or mechanical in their action. In the end there is a constant giving up of the whole consciousness into the being of the Supreme. In the beginning when the restless confusion and obscuring impurity of our outward nature is active, when the mental, vital, physical ego-sense are still powerful, this new mental outlook, these experiences may be found difficult in the extreme: but once that triple egoism is discouraged or moribund and the instruments of the Spirit are set right and purified, in an entirely pure, silent, clarified, widened consciousness the purity, infinity, stillness of the One reflects itself like the sky in a limpid lake. A meeting or a taking in of the reflected Consciousness by that which reflects it becomes more and more pressing and possible; the bridging or abolition of the atmospheric gulf between that immutable ethereal impersonal vastness and this once mobile whirl or narrow stream of personal existence is no longer an arduous improbability and may be even a frequent experience, if not yet an entirely permanent state. For even before complete purification, if the strings of the egoistic heart and mind are already sufficiently frayed and loosened, the Jiva can by a sudden snapping of the main cords escape, ascending like a bird freed into the spaces or widening like a liberated flood into the One and Infinite. There is first a sudden sense of a cosmic consciousness, a casting of oneself into the universal; from that universality one can aspire more easily to the Transcendent. There is a pushing back and rending or a rushing down of the walls that imprisoned our conscious being; there is a loss of all sense of individuality and personality, of all placement in Space or Time or action and law of Nature; there is no longer an ego, a person definite and definable, but only consciousness, only existence, only peace or bliss; one becomes immortality, becomes eternity, becomes infinity. All that is left of the personal soul is a hymn of peace and freedom and bliss vibrating somewhere in the Eternal.”
The second passage is from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (Chapter 2). A description of nature turns into a sublime plunge into the depths of the soul.
“Slowly the golden memory of the dead sun fades from the hearts of the cold, sad clouds. Silent, like sorrowing children, the birds have ceased their song, and only the moorhen’s plaintive cry and the harsh croak of the corncrake stirs the awed hush around the couch of waters, where the dying day breathes out her last.
From the dim woods on either bank, Night’s ghostly army, the grey shadows, creep out with noiseless tread to chase away the lingering rear-guard of the light, and pass, with noiseless, unseen feet, above the waving river-grass, and through the sighing rushes; and Night, upon her sombre throne, folds her black wings above the darkening world, and, from her phantom palace, lit by the pale stars, reigns in stillness.
Then we run our little boat into some quiet nook, and the tent is pitched, and the frugal supper cooked and eaten. Then the big pipes are filled and lighted, and the pleasant chat goes round in musical undertone; while, in the pauses of our talk, the river, playing round the boat, prattles strange old tales and secrets, sings low the old child’s song that it has sung so many thousand years—will sing so many thousand years to come, before its voice grows harsh and old—a song that we, who have learnt to love its changing face, who have so often nestled on its yielding bosom, think, somehow, we understand, though we could not tell you in mere words the story that we listen to.
And we sit there, by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea—till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out—till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak—till we laugh, and, rising, knock the ashes from our burnt-out pipes, and say “Good-night,” and, lulled by the lapping water and the rustling trees, we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again—young and sweet as she used to be ere the centuries of fret and care had furrowed her fair face, ere her children’s sins and follies had made old her loving heart—sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast—ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands years ago.”
The third passage is the very last section from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities set during the French Revoution. The hero is sacrificing his life for another. He is queued up to be guillotined, and this is what he thinks:
“I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.”
The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. Twenty-Three.
They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.
One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe—a woman—had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her. If he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these:
“I see […] the Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.
“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.
“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.
“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Keeping Lopa’s research and reflections safe and stored on our network is a privilege. We are awestruck by her conscientiousness and sincerity towards this subject. May more minds like hers be born and be writing for Art!
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