It is often assumed, frequently by the artist himself, that dwelling in his subjective world and driving his inspiration more deeply from his unconscious than from the overt environment, he can be but little impressed by the politics of his time, leave alone reflect it in his work. There is some truth in this assumption, but is a partial one. For what is crucial is whether the artist is indifferent and oblivious or whether he transcends the given reality, the better to contemplate it from the vantage point of his imagination. We should consider the widespread assumption of the non-relation between art and politics by asking this simple question: can an artist indifferent to the political aspect of his society, also escape, altogether, the consequences of this politics? Does his obliviousness make him immune to an unwanted impingement of the political forces at work in his society?
That the corruptions of advanced capitalism contaminate and enfeeble the arts by commercialising the freest of human faculties, the power of imagination, is by now an intensely examined subject. The situation is the same kind of analysis about the condition of the arts in societies of the Third World. For, nations that find themselves standing at the cross-roads after a long spell of colonial rule tend to become petty-tyrannies, while adopting at the same time, the path of capitalism. Here exploitation is doubled, lies are doubled, hope is roused by slogans and double-crossed in the political game. Hence our question needs to be repeated with a certain urgency: can the artist in such societies remain indifferent, oblivious and unaffected?
Objective reality impinges on the artist first, and most forcibly, through the choice of his language of expression. It is a subjective and an aesthetic choice, and yet how much it brings with it in its wake - nothing short of the entire past in the way of history and tradition. For, no matter how free its form, one can always trace the sensibility and structure of a language (its rhythms, images, metaphors and syntax), to a particular cultural context. Even the ‘universalised’ language of modern abstract art brings with it a definite cultural orientation evolved in the West over the past two centuries. It brings with it an entire world-view and a set of metaphysical assumptions which have the backing of the European tradition. It is true that the modern western artist has borrowed freely from primitive and oriental cultures, and has in the process acquired new aspects and a whole series of substantial transformations. But borrowings have to fit into the psyche of the recipients in order to be valuable in western art, we should have to assign considerable significance to the structured psyche of the borrower; a psyche continually reinforced by the securely grounded economic and political structure of western culture.
In stating the culture-bound nature of language we automatically arrive the link-up: both language and culture have to be considered within specific political contexts if we are to understand anything about their creative possibilities. And if the example of the West shows how, upto a certain historical stage, there is a mutual strengthening of language and culture within an expanding economic-political structure (the imperialist expansion breeding nonetheless its own nemesis whereby the forces at progress produce, in the course of time, a fearful backlash), a colonised nation will prove the reverse. A state of subjugation tends to destroy creativity through debilitating the native language and culture, until the artist consciously breaks the vicious circle and emerges out of it - ideally with that peculiar quality of courage and grace that distinguishes the self-redeemed.
The colonial situation is a more or less closed universe. From the point of view of creativity it is a dim universe. We recall this dark past here because one has to realise that even while we dispel one darkness, another and yet another might overtake us. A darkness so contrived that the alternatives vanish one by one serves not only foreign rulers but domestic tyrants as well; and if in the hands of one our consciousness is fettered and therefore out creativity with the other it is the more thoroughly duped. Domestic tyranny can be more subtle and therefore more pervasive. It knows better how to use the cherished myths of the past, the symbols and metaphors and the sacred lore of the people, to its own advantage - which is the disadvantage of the “people” in question.
If the colonial situation demands that the artist exorcise the persecuting agents that infiltrate his consciousness, a post-colonial situation requires an operation no less drastic. Indeed, here (as the agents may wear familiar and benign masks) one’s consciousness will have to be cleared out the more thoroughly. Ignorance in such situations, whether it is simple, wanton or disdainful, can seriously diminish, if not destroy, the artist’s true identity. His own interest requires that the artist realise how political falsehood filters into the environment and pollutes it because in the sam3e process his language of expression also suffers distortion. Nor does this realisation require any extraordinary political acumen. An artist sensitive to his cultural roots and to his expressive material, the words and images, should be something of a political lie-detector. If an ideology that serves vested interests begins to strangulate language, the artist will have to strive harder to invest it with an aura so that the deceptions it serves may be brought to light. If not only the language but also the experience is distorted in the political power struggle, the reality, which sustains experience, will have to be re-examined in the consciousness of those who can intuit into its depths.
This should produce a symbology for the suppressed experience, which, if it is indeed drawn from the depths, will be more potent than before and perhaps more militant. Reality divested of freedom should invoke metaphors of transcendence, for it is in the moments of darkness that freedom suddenly takes on concrete and precipitate forms. And even if the metaphors be fantastic and utopian they can be relevant in one important sense: in showing the degree of shrinkage in our concept of reality, the diminishment of the historical perspective, and of the individual self.
Here the question of relevance comes up, something that ought to be tackled astutely; for it is not for the ruling powers and their ideologies to dictate what it or is not relevant in art. If the artist hopes for immediate communicability, his greater hope is an ultimate meaningfulness. Whereas in traditional societies these belong together, in modern societies they are often cleaved apart. So long as societies suffer a deep-set alienation, the artist may be obliged to postpone, subordinate or even abandon the first for the second purpose. In doing so hepaystheprice of becoming - or being forced to become - a redundant factor; and though redundancy makes him neither happy nor proud, it may sometimes be a test of his forbearance and his far-sightedness. At any rate, the demand for relevance in a corrupt present is a treacherous one. It can be a demand for an illegitimate allegiance and the artist will have to decide for himself whether his relevance will not lie precisely in the act, figuratively speaking of annihilating the present.
The artist’s imagery can be regarded as a screen of semblances where significance transfigurations of reality take place. If political normalcy - which in societies rent with contradictions is usually both artificial and precarious - comes to be shattered, this screen of fantastical images will sometimes begin to transmit new meanings. For, at times of crisis our perceptions tend to be sharper; we are more ready to decipher meanings by inference, and even the more ambiguous images take on vivid connotations. Indeed, we may find that the artist’s imagery manages to reveal ‘truths’, too easily camouflaged by a display of ‘facts’.
There is, of course, no guarantee that the artist will not come into the fold of such falsehoods which becloud his society. But it is at least as likely that intense acts of intuitive introspection, even when conducted without a definite political orientation, will lend the artists some light of understanding regarding the politics of his society. In proportion as the self is intelligently contemplated, the choices in regard to the outside world should be intelligent, and as the best intelligence in regard to one’s self demands sincerity, there is at least a likelihood that the equation with the outside world will have a similar virtue.
It the quest of the artist is to transcend the determined data of the self and society and thereby to overcome the given in favour of potential reality, the transcendence must be both at the existential and social levels. At the least this quest requires imaginative courage. If the artist is not the one to actually revolutionise society, he can make this most valuable contribution: to lend his imagination, with its special breed of courage, to the revolutionary forces. Nor is it impossible that this gift inspires combat against forces of oppression; forces that exploit the trust of a society and narrow the ground of individual existence. For political heroism requires imaginative courage as well; only it must harness it to a conscientious, historical objective.
Even if we do not belong to the lofty order of heroes, we need at least so much imagination as to be able to expose, in a flash, the convulsed as also the ‘normal’ face of a misguided society. We need to emulate the artist in so far as he, in his moment of greatness, unmasks reality the better to see its true, its infinite potential.
Reprinted from Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XII no 11, March 12, 1977.