Artists: Notes on Art Making

In a period of transition from the old to the new the emphasis in our country is essentially on technology and science. At no earlier period in our History have the changes we have faced been so immense, nor have they affected to a like extant our ways of thinking and living. Preoccupied with this transformation there are many people who think that is unnecessary today, or at any rate something that we can consider when we are an advanced and prosperous nation. This view regards art as if it were an extraneous ornament and not an integral part of life. Paradoxically art is always with us and does not die; it is that mysterious something in expression that reassures man and enriches his life even in the moments of his worst distress and despair. But this does not mean that the artist or art prospers by neglect. On the contrary it is the support of the community as a whole, the ideas and environment of each age together with patronage that nourish art.

Today the manifestations of change and the complexity of our world lead us to think that our age lacks unity. The many cries of “back to tradition” shows that we are uncertain of our identity. The untrue standard of looking for what is “Indian” or national shows that we are looking for something with a label rather than a sincere expression of the present. The artist is patriot not by donning a special costume but simply by being true to himself. He is most genuine when he is free from affectation. Perhaps the many kinds of art that co-exist in our land lead us to think that our age lacks style, but when half a century has passed we see more clearly the pattern of development, the characteristic passions, the problems, the aspirations which have animated our times and their natural reflection in the arts. When we look at our heritage and History it seems that nothing remains to us of the past except its cultural gifts. Its poetry, its music, its architecture have lived and will live beyond the stories of wars and kings. Society whether primitive or advanced gives birth to art from some immemorial need and the artist is the instrument of this expression.

The situation for the artist today is different from that which existed at any other time in India. Indeed society itself is changed from one where the emphasis was on the group or the community to one where the emphasis was on the group or the community to one where the emphasis is on the individual. In historical times when Indian society was ordered on the basis of religious or of aristocratic classes and imperial kingdoms, the artist as an individual worker had not only a position of security but ample opportunity for work with honour. The temple builder, the image maker, the decorator, the court painter, poet, musician, did not aim at not covet luxury. Their lives were an example of dedication to art, they had the opportunity of work and found their joy in it. Today the artist as a worker stands alone and unabsorbed into any social context. In a world dominated by the values of trade he lives precariously and confused; there does not seem to be any need for him or his art.

The activities of an artist like those of the poet or other creative workers require a very special combination of security and freedom. At the present time regular work, commercial or academic, does not permit much freedom. Its categories are those made for non-creative workers and therefore its criteria and wages are such that it permits neither the time nor the inspiration necessary for creative work. The artist today is chronically unemployed or so thoroughly employed doing mechanical jobs that in course of time he ceases to be creative. In the former category fall the free lance painters who eke out a haphazard and precarious livelihood. Their work is generally open to competition, and suffers from compromise with the weak taste of the patron. While under the latter are included all art and drawing masters and salaried commercial painters whose daily work gives them no time for independent creativity.

The artist however is not aware of these conditions. He is not usually not a person who hopes for high profits, but he does hope for other things. He hopes that his work will be appreciated and understood. He hopes to be able to make a contribution to the arts which are permanent. And he also hopes that he and his children might enjoy the normal comforts and opportunities of life. All these aspirations of the artist are not difficult of attainment and might come true if his work is of a high order, if there is a public ready to understand it and if there is enthusiastic patronage. Painters however are not all masters, they include the good, mediocre and the merely enthusiastic. Their relationship to society is an unhappy one for public appreciation is comparatively rare and patronage rarer still.

In India, today, the understanding of painting and sculpture rather lags behind that of the other arts such as music and literature. The gulf between contemporary work and the man in the street is abysmal. There is, however, a small coterie of genuine art lovers and a much larger group drawn from the middle class who have very limited ideas of art but are interested. This situation cannot improve unless larger numbers of people take the trouble to visit exhibitions and learn to understand and enjoy art, to read art literature and study the arts of the various parts of the world. In other countries the appreciation of art is much more widespread and in the counties of the Far East, art is part of good living and good taste as important as good manners.

Among other things it is most important to cultivate a love of art in the young. Art education in our country has to be drastically changed. Children who are asked to draw cups and saucers, fruits and bottles put before them can never have any idea of the range of art or conceive of it as work, involving self-expression and imagination. Indeed the malaise of mistaking likeness for art has penetrated even the art schools where most examiners in the Fine Arts prefer academic work to any composition showing originality or initiative. Nothing could be more devastating for the art student than the destruction of his imagination. And in the long run this tendency leads to widespread misunderstanding of the meaning of art.

Art has not time in the world’s history been merely imitative; indeed the periods of its excessive naturalism have also been the periods of its decadence. Today we think in terms of basic and universal values such as space and time, tension and movement, colour and sensibility. If art were onloy based on realism where should we include Chinese and Mexican painting, the whole of Indian art, Negro sculpture, the Byzantine, Etruscan or Egyptian contribution, to mention only a few of the great sources of contemporary inspiration.

In the 20th century the museums are probably the greatest patrons ofart.Theseareeitherfinanced by the State or are independent. In foreign countries the independent museums and galleries are numerous, many of them are based on private collections where the buyer has been a person not only of the taste but of courage and vision. India is in need not only of patrons of art but also of critics, judges and dealers of taste and discretion. Such judges and critics on whose specialist advice the public depends should have not only a long experience of art but also a forward looking vision, integrity and above all an open mind. They should be able to recognise the true from the spurious in absolutely new and original works since such works are not judged by any conventional criteria but on their own terms. In India a portion of the public either from a misguided patriotism or sentimentality, cling to the “traditional” in art. Tradition is not mere repetition and we are the makers of it; the youngest children of the family are not disowned because they are unique. We speak in the language of today in the idioms of today and cannot continue merely to copy the past. The past dwells within us but we speak for the present and of the present and the seeds of the future arise from here. There are also some thinkers who are of the opinion that art is subject to the laws of demand and supply. This only appears to be so and perhaps is so where the customer is interested in applied art, ceramics, textiles, metal ware, and other categories of specialised artistic production. But high art by its very nature is not for the ‘customer’ who gets a duplicate of what he has seen but for the patron -- because each work is unique and original and is not repeated. It is characteristic that a work of art from a painter or sculptor of talent is often commissioned from the patron ever having seen the work. This is because he is able to trust the artist, to assume that his work will not feel below a certain standard. The same system operates where a publisher commissions a writer of standing to write for him. On the other hand there are many artists whose creative work has been almost completely unrecognised in their lifetime. Van Gogh is a well known example of a master whose life was passionately dedicated to art and whose insanity and tragic death were certainly a blot on society. He did not paint for any demand but from an immense urge to expression. The lonely lives of modern painters are directly related to the change in the status of the artist in society. The artist in modern times is free, free to fend for himself, not only in the material sense but also in a deeper spiritual sense. This new situation has given rise to independence and individualism. The individualism of contemporary art is a modern phenomena, its subject and content are peculiar to our age.

Some people are disconcerted by what is new in art. They are of the opinion that there should be exact rules by which they can tell art from what is non-art. They do not accept the fact that even within accepted masterpieces opinions keep changing throughout history. There is a continuous fluctuation in taste which discards old values and rediscovers neglected ones. Indeed the function of modern art is to create the new vision of our times, to teach us to enjoy new kinds of beauty. Just as we keep abreast of scientific inventions which are absorbed into the fabric of living, the enjoyment of new art also requires some effort and experience on the part of the spectator. Anything original and of outstanding quality is not understood immediately by the people at large. One cannot discuss here changes in the media of art -- its new vocabulary and the new realisation of the artist of his own role. Works of art gradually leaven public taste creating a climate where finally the masterpiece is seen as the best in its class. For the artist recognition of his work is, of course, the highest accolade.

The encouragement of the artist to a high standard is a moral duty both of society and of the individual. Talent is wasted when the conditions for its flowering are too adverse. Also we should remember that great art is not made by artists as individuals only but by artists as individuals only but by artists in society; hence a Kalidasa, a Shakespeare, a Tagore. The artists of today as much as the artists of yesterday constitute a country’s spiritual wealth, they win understanding for it and in every age re-interpret its imagination anew.

Today, when more than ever before the artist is alone, it is more than ever necessary to create an atmosphere which is favourable for his work, an attitude in society where he both belongs to it and still possesses the personal freedom to create and to be himself. This is the vital margin for him while in him should exist that dedication to a lofty idealism which should cause him to work unmindful of results and with singleness of purpose.

Published in Pushpanjali, Vol. 2, No 1, Dec 1965
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