Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Fairness of Art

Is Art fair?

The cherished ability to make money and have the textbook “good life” seems attainable even to the most deprived individual even if the chances of “getting there” are slimmer as you slide down to the BoP. People are driven. They’ll take great pains at disguising it as a path to some higher salvation and autonomy. They’ll grind out the hours and become unconditionally loyal to their ambitions. They’ll get to the top through their job or they’ll start a start-up and hope to get to the top. Whatever they do, they’ll want success with that irresistible cocktail of power and means.

The knack of experiencing the overbearing and uplifting enormity of an act of creation is, alas, much rarer. To see a stunning painting, one that captures the senses, one that seems to convey all that is inconspicuous to the conscious mind but is the true reason for adding authenticity to the description, is scarcely seen. You can go deeper. The layers beyond your conscious radar add an element of unfamiliarity, one that sprouts from the artist’s imagination, instantly and subtly inscribing a signature that pulls out the work from the clutter of imitation.

Is the ability to genuinely feel the above undemocratic?

One might argue that it is a provenance of the rich. Surely, the art connoisseurs and critics are generally no ordinary individuals. Their lives are those of privilege. Looking at them, one would not be exaggerating in feeling left out, in feeling that the taste of Art is artificial and lies outside the boundaries of experience of the majority.

And yet, we all go through moments of ecstasy; moments of unhindered, uninhibited joy; moments that transport us to a higher Truth and give us a transcendentally extraordinary realization.

It may be through a dusty old book, a book written originally by an author in a different tongue in a different time and place. The words attain the equivalence of a painter's brush as each stroke defines and conveys thoughts that seem so strangely familiar but would never be expressed with the same lightness of expression and depth of thought. It may be during a music concert when a strange radiance permeates one's thoughts and gives us a ridiculously short lived stay in paradise. At that moment, the lyrics blend together with the music to produce something that goes beyond ordinary expression.

There is, to be sure, a primeval understanding for the beautiful even in the most uncouth of individuals. It is a strange mystery to wonder what sharpens the mind - what tunes the senses to appreciate the beauty of Art. And, what do we gain from it?

Greater people have come and pondered over this matter, not least in the period of the Enlightenment. Let us call upon Jean Jacques Rousseau,

For all the rest of the day, wandering deep into the forest, I sought and I found the vision of those primitive times, the history of which I proudly traced. I demolished the petty lies of mankind; I dared to strip man’s nature naked, to follow the progress of time, and trace the things which have distorted it; and by comparing man as he has made himself with man as he is by nature I showed him in his pretended perfection the source of his true misery. Exalted by these sublime meditations, my soul soared toward the Diviniy; and from that height I looked down on my fellow men pursuing the blind path of their predjudices, of their errors, of their misfortunes and their crimes. Then I cried to them in a feeble voice that they could not hear, “Madmen who ceaselessly complain of Nature, learn that your misfortunes arise from yourselves!”
And he goes on to say,

“If nature has destined us to be healthy, I almost dare to affirm that the state of reflection is a state contrary to nature and that the man who meditates is a depraved animal” 
Rousseau's stand is interestingly contrarian to his own standing as an intellectual. In brief, what he says is that the very act of erudition pushes us into misery. It is an affliction or rather, an addiction. A person who has experienced the bliss of higher beauty or the comfort of knowledge will no longer feel content with basic material joy. This "state of reflection" is a curse, an irresistible power that forces normal primitive man to yearn for that which is beautiful, that which is fulfilling in a deeper sense. Talk about paranoia. And yet, if you ponder over it you would realize that there is more than an inkling of truth in his words.

For all of us are born with a fuzzy appreciation of the beautiful but it is the refined person who truly grasps the layered subtlety of Art. And a person need not be refined by the brute force of wealth. He may do so through a manic desire for learning, or the courage to discard the merely convenient.

A recent article in a popular newspaper quoted an agent of a mainstream novelist as saying that it was an elitist illusion to assume that "Victorian" literature and style was what counted as good writing. What people really want, he alleged, was a read that was more grounded and easy to parse through. That's true, in a way. A good writer is tiresome- he'll make you stop occasionally to let out gasps of amazement, she'll make you re-read entire sections for correct comprehension and also make you use that dictionary you've had decorated on the drawing room shelf. Those who make that effort, who can afford to pause and not check the ending page number of the story, will find themselves bequeathed by something more substantial and longer lasting than entertainment. They'll feel enriched and inspired. Not that I hate the Meluha trilogy (it's all real good fun).

I surrender to the chains of this addiction. I cannot hope for others to follow me- it is good that they don’t. What I know is that every time I read a piece of classical poetry, whenever I ponder over the intention behind an artist’s portrayal of a war or when I see a Roger Federer winner I am transported to a place of pure ecstasy, one that I want to come back to again and again, at the risk of losing touch with the unadulterated joy of normal success…

I believe I am in a position here to write many more pages on the value and fairness of Art. I don't think anyone will read more. If you've come this far, I appreciate it tremendously. Let's talk some time.


  1. Well perceived, I must say. And well written too - although you made me go for the dictionary a couple of times, almost.

    But the interview you quoted and your perception stand as logical converses. Why do you think it is tempting for an artist to become a 'sell-out'?

    If you produce exceptional beauty - which are understood by some and appreciated by a handful - no one will 'back' your work. And if people back your work, it probably means that you haven't painted beautifully enough.

  2. Good work. That's the second paradox I wanted to address in the post. There is a definite paradox in an artist's life.

    Does he go for the merely popular? In doing so, he will achieve near instant success (assuming he has a modicum of class in him). He will learn to constrain his tools to suit the common taste and he will push the envelope with caution.

    And then you have the alternative. If you really have that depth of class, you can choose to shun temptation and push for something far less ephemeral and far more memorable. It's a hard choice- the chances of failure are huge. But you're just as likely to fade away on the first path. The question then- is the present and near future that important for you to succeed in or do you wish to challenge Old Father Time and make a case for Immortality?

    The first paradox, of course, is the audience's paradox. And how far they are willing to go to experience the fatal trap of Beauty.