Art is not an accident; it does not happen by mistake. It is a deliberate, conscious act of creating an art object; it is a willed human endeavour. Art does not depend on a general acceptance of attractiveness. In fact, subjective notions of beauty are entirely secondary to the act of art creation.
Art probably began from humankind’s need to map or record life as a survival strategy. Much like animals, early humans also discovered that they could use their limbs and voices to interact with their surroundings and make markings and sounds. But soon these tools became something more than record books or sonic appeals. Somehow the human mind discovered within itself the capacity to extract essence from life and reimagine, recreate and curate that spirit in the form of shape, sound, colour and space. What was vital was that the nub of life was preserved in art creation. The real world around and the experiences felt within provided the inspiration. From the never-ending flurry of images, sounds and events, some individuals began distilling moments, movements, tonal combinations and shifts in light and space. What were they distilling: literal shapes, colour and sound? They were securing within art the emotionality of nature through the soliloquy of a creative meditation.
These processes, for want of a better word, had a deep impact on the emotional nature of humans. From this arose imagination and, from its overflow, the unbridled desire to create things that allowed us to be in touch with that spirit. Imagining possibilities from all that existed and beyond what they saw, heard and felt, they created objects of art. Playing with colours, space, shape, materials, tones and rhythms, humankind entered an entirely new area of emotional enquiry. Art was mystical, its conjuring evoked an untapped experience, almost a magic trick. I say ‘almost’ because the intention of this magic was not to trick someone into believing but to draw them into experiencing. At times, the impact of such art could become more powerful than the ‘original’ inspiration from the real world. Art does not copy life; it encapsulates the essence of life.
Art’s essential quality is its ability to detach us from the real and the tactile. This is not to say that reality disappears. It does not; instead, it becomes impersonal and detached from actual occurrence. This reality is dependent on the felt experience of life irrespective of the trigger’s origin. In the normal course, everything that we see, feel or touch is related to who we are. Art attempts to escape this trap. Art arises from the real but cannot remain associated with an event.
For example, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is a painting born out of a real historical event—the Nazi bombing of Guernica in northern Spain. But the painting is not a historical document. It is an insight into war, fear, killing, death, struggle and hate. It abstracts these emotions and is a visual commentary on life. Therefore, its experience goes far beyond that one wartime event and the characters involved in it. Picasso used the canvas to rip out of this dastardly act its intra-mural nucleus: our inhumaneness. When we receive the painting, we are placed within this realization. Moved by the idea, we forget our identities, are removed from our own comforts and placed in a virtual land where we become part of a non-specific emotional surge.
Art, therefore, has conscious intent and systems within its aesthetic structure which ensure its metareal impact. But what is this intent? Art hopes to give humanity a way of looking at life that transports us beyond the personal. For example, when we see someone close to us die, we experience great sorrow. But this sorrow is directly related to our proximity with the individual. The further the distance between the dead person and us, the less the extent of grief. There is a point when the death is so far removed, so distant, that it is only a vague name or number in our cerebral death registry. Therefore, when we seek sensitivity, it is almost impossible to embody its entirety because of our personal limitations. Art attempts to nudge us away from this self-centredness towards true humanism.
Imagine watching a play, a story that is entirely fictional, in which a death occurs. We are moved, may weep, even uncontrollably, and feel deeply for this dead character. The person who has died is not someone we know—is not even real—yet we are moved. I must stress that when we are truly ‘inside’ the theatrical happening, this heartfelt emotion is not influenced by past events in our lives. It is the play and the play alone that is affecting us. We are directly connected with this fictional death—the art object. So, it is possible to experience searing emotion even when we are entirely aware that the source is staged and unreal. We straddle the unrealness of the play and the realness of feeling at the same time. But there is no dichotomy because, in that experience, we are in touch with a selflessness within—one that we rarely acknowledge. This is the power of art. The artistic work has abstracted from death this emotion, and allowed us to bask in its glory. This is exactly what Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart does in ‘The Requiem’.
But, one may ask, there are so many different art forms and diverse mediums, do they all function within the same framework? They do not. There are art forms that are abstract and those that address human issues directly. Take political music for example. The lyrics are written in such a direct, forceful and compelling manner that every individual responds and acts. This hopefully translates into political change. But, I may be overlooking something here when I state that abstraction is non-existent in this kind of music. Perhaps, even in this directness, there is an unseen tinge of the abstract. In the melody, rhyme and rhythm, the song captivates, and not just with literal semantic meaning. It goes further, capturing our mind via its entire art body. The song’s shape is an abstract idea born from its sonic fabric. Therefore, even in the most literal political song, there exists an abstract layering. Political artists will construct songs in such a manner that the abstract never overshadows the message. This is very similar to what we witness in religious music, be it gospel or namasankirtan. This is where intent comes in. The intent of these art forms is political or religious transformation and that can never be lost sight of while creating this art.
Is the conceiving and creating of literature part of culture? Is intellectual exertion, at least in part, a cultural activity? Like a sculpture, literature is an experience of life; a book is a painting in words. We cannot read a book; we have to dive into its depths and rest in its splendour. Writing can be a marvellous self-distancing act. A thought within the crevasse of my mind is still ‘my thought’. But, the moment it is put down on paper or typed out on a computer screen, it becomes its own being, separate from the writer. In this unmediated separation, the writing becomes a work of art. This is when the relationship between words, expressions, phrases, story, inferences and emotionality of the book comes alive on every reading.
I am not going to discuss in detail every art form that humankind has created but I must say this: art stirs us emotionally in ways that everyday happenings do not. It captures us within its illusion through multiple, dissimilar methods and pushes us to experience without premeditation. Art is born from thoughtful and subtle observation, internalization which is structured into real form. Each art form is a deliberately planned system that uses all its aesthetic elements to draw us into unselfish emotional spaces, each one of which introduces us to our many non-identical selves.
My descriptions seem universal, going beyond cultural habituations. But we all know these explanations only work within each one’s own cultural sphere, defined by geography, history, language, dialect, colour, caste, gender, religion, sect, ethnicity, economy and mobility. So, is there truly anything universal about art when it is constricted by so many real-life parameters? I will come back to this later. At this point, I will say that there is no denying that the experience of art is limited by our cultural context. But our inability to enter other socio-cultural contexts cannot be used as an explanation for limiting art.
About the book:
In Reshaping Art, T. M. Krishna examines what art is and how we can harness its power to make ourselves and our communities open and sensitive. Well known for his attempts to break Karnatik music out of its high-caste confines, the author takes us through a journey of understanding what art means to different groups of people and the ways in which we all create and enjoy it. He then asks important questions about how art is made, performed and disseminated, and addresses crucial issues of caste, class and gender within society while exploring the contours of democracy, culture and learning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A vocalist in the Karnatik tradition, THODUR MADABUSI KRISHNA is known for his uncommon renditions and original interpretations of music. As a public intellectual, Krishna speaks and writes about issues affecting the human condition and about matters cultural. He is the driving force behind the Urur Olcott Kuppam Festival and the Svanubhava initiative, and has been part of inspiring collaborations such as the Chennai Poromboke Paadal with environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman.
He is the recipient of the Professor V. Aravindakshan Memorial Award (2017), the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration (2017) and the Ramon Magsaysay Award (2016). His path-breaking book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story won the 2014 Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Non-fiction.