School of art & aesthetics
One of the gates of Frognerparken, Oslo.
In 1997, while working on an environmental planning project for Calcutta, a post-graduate student who was working as an assistant suddenly took off when I was talking about something, and had referred to art.. She said that was just pseudo-intellectual hogwash, modern art is not art at all. Just like Jung's moment of synchronicity with a scarab, right there next to me were envelopes of photos, taken by project assistants, and some by a visiting professional photographer from UK. I kept taking out one of each and compared them for the benefit of the group around me. The latter, while not being of great merit were nonetheless consistently tellingly different in each case, bringing out for instance the eye for light and shade. So I said, now you see, there is something called art, and it is different. She was shamed to silence, and later apologised to me for her imprudence and arrogance.. This blog is also a response to this hateful anti-intellectual and anti-art tendency in many "educated" people.
During that same planning project, I had shown a senior colleague, a govt engineer, a photo-essay in a journal, with pictures by documentary photographer Achinto and accompanying text selected by me. He looked at it. He pointed to a picture and asked how that image illustatrated the accompanying text. I looked blankly at him, in inner disbelief, and then tried to tell him smilingly and patiently that there was no one-is-to-one, uni-directional correspondence between image and text; image was something, text was something else, the image rich and pregnant in so many resonances, the text too possessing deep meaning; and for me there was a kind of link between the two and hence that composition. This artifice was an invitation to engage in that immersion and personal resonance. There may be completely other inferences and associations in the minds of other readers, or none. But this also gave me a direct, insight into the make-up of the person, and of wider social attitudes. All very dismaying and enervating.
Later that year, I developed a photo-text-speech-song presentation, "The Child in the City". This was an hour and a half long meditation on cities and childhood, drawing upon diverse references. There too, the link between image and narrative was only an imagined one. But it worked, with audiences across India and also abroad. Recently, while reading about the exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of phtographer Robert Frank's The Americans at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, I learnt: "...also ground-breaking was the way he tightly sequenced his photographs in The Americans, linking them thematically, conceptually, formally and linguistically to present a haunting picture of mid-century America." That was similar to what I had done, purely intuitively, in "The Child in the City". I savoured a sense of gladness about some merit in my madness.
Some five years ago, I had gone to see a painting exhibition. Just before that I had picked up a younger associate, a factory engineer, who was visiting Calcutta, to go for dinner with a common friend. We had met in front of the art gallery and I asked him to excuse me and give me a few minutes to quickly take a look at the exhibition. Before he went and waited outside the display area, he too did a quick tour of the exhibition. He looked at a particular painting, stood there a while and stared at it, and then came to me and asked me how that painting was its title. I can't recall what I said to him, I think I said something to the effect that art appreciation was about a personal relationship with the art-work, where one talks to the other, where both respond to one another.
I call this un-comprehending, assumed mechanical notion of art the "this is an ass" school of art and aesthetics. Meaning - people will look at a painting and the title and ask how does this mean that? Or ask, what does this painting mean, or say? I say, why ask me, you figure it out, if you want. It is assumed art means that there should be a picture of a gaping ass, and a title saying "this is an ass", and that will keep teveryone happy and the world going round and round.
But it is also quite insidious. A couple of months ago, at a public event in Bangalore, a minister in the state of Karnataka in the course of his speech said, “modern art has become a medium for pseudo intellectuals to insult ancient Indian culture.” Thankfully a group of artists from Karnataka raised their voices in protest against the comment. “Mr Gowda, you have no right to speak about modern art, you know nothing about it. We object to your remarks,” said M S Murthy, an artist and director of ‘Bhoomi - the centre for artists’ in Bangalore. He was joined by other local artists. When the group of artists continued to object to the remarks, the minister asked the police to throw them out. The artists were then forced out and some sections of the crowd too left the venue, saying, “we are with the artists, there is no need to be fascists.”
You can see, hear and feel all kinds of things and resonances in a painting, if you are are sensitive and discerning and imaginative, like a child. You can make yourself open to a state where you are immersed in the image, nothing else matters, it becomes a powerful means of awareness and consciousness.
Something like that happened to me during an exhibition in December 1997, part of the Calcutta Metropolitan Festival of Art organised by artists from the state of West Bengal to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of India's independence. I had been involved in conceptualising and organising that festival, at a time when an outpouring of sensitivity, to music, song, mythology, poetry, fine art, performative art and culture was taking place inside me. The "Bengal school of art" and subsequent Modern painters were brought to the public, meticulously and lovingly curated by a senior painter. Perhaps the first time when I was stunningly stirred by art was at the New York Met, where, sadly, I had something like 30 minutes or less to have a quick look during a short visit to that amazing city. But I think the exhibitions at the art festival were when for the first time in my life, images caught hold of me, shook me and a powerful relationship was made with a painting, and meanings, profound wisdom were sensed and a rich train of thought-feeling-imagination flowed. You are a transformed person after that, and see art and artists in a completely different light. The reality, however, is that the domain of art, and the much of the community of "artists" may themselves be very far away from that "different light" in which art and artists were seen following the inner experience of art and aesthetics, value and meaning.
In the spring of 2002, I happened to be in Oslo. My host suggested I visit the Vigeland sculpture park (Frognerparken), and so I went there one morning, taking a bus. I did not know anything about what was there, and before and after entry, I saw a whole collection of statues and sculpture. It can feel quite overwhelming, but I was in no hurry, I had as much time as I wanted. I began looking at and taking in each item, beginning at the beginning and working my way through the arrangement. Something started happening to me, I became immersed in another world where the display was telling an ancient, grave tale... A coach brought in a large group of visitors, from India as it turned out. Must be one of those ten-cities in ten-days tours of Europe offered by tour operators, I thought. I observed a couple, they spoke Bengali. Cameras were out, click click all around. They were gone in 15 minutes. Astonishment! Here was I, exulting in timeless immersion, and there they were, coming from the same place, India, Calcutta, that supposedly artistic land, and how different our individual experiences were in the Vigeland park. I spent almost half a day there, finally I was all alone in the place. It had been an awesome personal trip. I had felt that the sculpture park had been waiting for my arrival, I was a key, which unlocked the secret of the display put together by Vigeland! I sat and soaked myself in that mood and feeling. A lovely gentle breeze played, a tree rained tiny red leaves. I wept, in joy, incredulity and humility. How privileged the people of Oslo were, to have this treasure in their city. I did learn from talking to people there that the park was seen as a witness to the life of the city, and its various seasons, in each of which the park assumed a different appearance. Oslo's gift is also a gift to the whole of humanity, and Oslo is its custodian.
Over the years, just like I have been seized and shaken by specific compositions of music, or songs by particular singers, or dance performances and choreography, or films, so have I had intensive personal experiences, around particular art-works or exhibitions or sites or places. Artists, like Abanindranath Tagore, Gagendranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, Somnath Hore, Zainul Abedin, Murillo, Arthur Tress, Rodin, Henry Moore, Kandinsky... Places, like Tawang, Panihati, Belur, Elephanta, Golcunda, Sarnath, Calcutta's Victoria Memorial, Thodupuzha, Nizamuddin, Gomteswara, Guruvayur, Sanchi ... Neighbourhoods in Calcutta, like in Chetla, Wellington, Alimuddin Street, Bow Barracks, north Calcutta... Cities, like Jerusalem and Nablus... Topographies, like the course of the Adi Ganga in Calcutta, the Sundarbans, the path of the river Ganga, Palestine... Countries, like Japan...
One is made larger, enriched and uplifted by art, which is the key to life. It is therefore the supreme duty of governments to ensure that its people have access to the best of art and works and feats of human imagination and highness. Art education, through schooling, is a must. That is nourishment. It is vital for cities to have public museums of art. Thus will refined citizens be made.