Artists: Notes on Art Making

There is a certain appropriateness in the issue, by the Lalit Kala Akademi, of a special souvenir number of our contemporary magazine to celebrate the occasion of the First Triennale of World Contemporary Art, sponsored by us in New Delhi during the spring of 1968.

I was asked to add a foreward to this special issue. But I feel that ‘forewards’ are often patronizing in their attitude, specially where art discussions are concerned. I prefer ‘afterwords’ to pictures. As this was difficult to fit into the journal, I am adding notes by way of random reflections on the theme behind the themes of the present number of Lalit Kala Contemporary.

What do I mean by the theme behind the themes?

If I may put it in terms of the gossip always indulged in after a visit to the galleries, the question is invariably asked about contemporary art: ‘Is it art or double talk?’

The few people who are initiated in the new ways of handling paint, or other materials, naturally feel angry about this kind of dismissal of both the genuine and the fake with broad contempt. They exclaim: ‘Phislistines’. And they shrug their shoulders and get on with their inventions.

Certainly, the polarity of the expert and the layman is complete. There has been a breakdown of communication between the artist and the general public.

This rift has been maturing for almost a century, ever since mechanical processes forced the most sensitive men to return to their own inner lives, sometimes as an escape mechanism and often to remain creative against the deadening, fatiguing and dehumanizing routine of the machine civilization. Oswald Spengler, the pre Second World War German philosopher of doom, had apprehended this phenomenon, when he said: ‘The posthumous spirit of Culture will confine itself more and more to very narrow circles: and there, remote from advertisement, it will work in ideas and forms so abstruse that only a handful of superfine intelligences will be capable of attaching meaning to them.’

Actually, it is the departure from the Renaissance three dimensional principle in art, the simplification, the distortion, even the destruction of the human figure, and the various degrees of abstraction, that began the schism between the artist and the so-called ‘man in the street’ in regard to the ‘meaning’ of works of art.

But, fortunately, there also came the manifestoes, the explanations and the interpretations. And though there are still vast misunderstandings, widening gulfs, distrust suspicion and hurt dignity on both sides, the mass media have helped to bridge the gulf with millions of books, prints and picture postcards. The much maligned ‘fauves’ (wild beasts) Matisse and his friends, and the greatest destroyer of traditional forms, Picasso and the ‘splashers’ of colour like Jackson Pollock, have come to be accepted as norms. The artist has, in fact, come, in the midst of the disruption caused by power-potentates, to be the hero of our time. Specially where he is not merely a fashionable commercialist pawn of the galleries, but a sincere searcher of his impulses, intuitions and visions.

Perhaps, one may say, that the kind of free expression of the nuances of the body-soul, which seems to be the pre-occupation of the contemporary artists of the world, offers a new kind of personal religion to the young, the ‘beatniks’, the ‘Hippies’ and the ‘Flower people’. As the orthodox religion, moralities and social systems fail to assuage the inner needs of the children of the age of technology, the only shared life may be through the individual apprehensions, in variegated forms, of the varied phenomena of human life.

I am an unashamed and notorious defender of the experimentalists and I venture to assert that I see emergent, in our century, a new unitary man.

This man is not a mere figure of speech. Nor is he a generalized personality. He is part of the creative intelligentsia of our time. He is the free thinker often called ‘mad Professor’ by the roughnecks. He is the scientist who did not want the atom bomb used for the destruction of the world but for increasing basic plenty. He is the writer who probes the depths of the human psyche for awareness. He is the architect who seeks to build better than nature. He is the artist who quests after the many ambiguities of Form, however unconventional a shape, in complete freedom, to absorb the suggestions of inner and outer space, to make them part of our insight. He is the enlightened public man of generous outlook who knows the broken world of science and the cracks in the social structures of the nations and is prepared to give the benefit of the doubt to the creators, the innovators, who seek to re-integrate man into the new view of the universe, where the 19th century mass will never be substantial anymore but will be seen as particles in movement. The unitary man is supra-national in politics and has mentally abolished the frontiers of the power-states, though he is rooted in his sense of locality and racial unconscious and is not a neutral, faceless universalist. He forces the very challenge of whether we shall have more or less technology. And he seeks to adjust himself to his environment, as far as he can, or rejects the environment where he cannot absorb it, or rejects - accepts parts of the environment , with a view to remoulding it in the interests of survival on the human plane.

Those who are impatient with the new arts, because they are impatient with the environment which these arts reflect one way and another, have probably never asked: what is the role of art in our machine civilization, as against its role in the previous pastoral and agrarian and handicraft cultures? Most, even literate people have not noticed that art is no longer ‘hand maiden’ of the great organized regions. Nor is it patronized by renaissance princes, prelates and aristocrats. The industrial civilization, for all its mistakes, has, indeed, released millions of people from feudal darkness to opportunities for participation in the growth of consciousness, at higher and more intense levels than in the past, because our age has brought an unprecedented increase of knowledge, inventiveness and released urges towards freedom in more and more people. In such an age there may not be the shared values of a common ancestral faith, but, in such a time of the persistent struggle for liberation, there will be a variety of ways of living, feeling and thinking, and men will express themselves, according to the bent of their individual talents, in diverse styles, modes, techniques, which may not be easily identifiable according to our previously accepted norms, but which will confirm our familiar feelings, so long as we see the expression internally, that is to say, from within the terms of the creator, and not from the outside, from the bias of our own deeply entrenched prejudices.

Thus it may be possible to judge the works of contemporary art asnotdevoid of any social significance, as not forms dictated by the canons of the Medieval Church or the Hindu Shilpa Shastras, but as the media for alliance, absorption and release of energies, for, or against, the present-day environment, of the urges of other men and other societies which want the state controls to wither away and allow the individual to grow to his own organic sense of freedom, with responsibility of himself and others. There are many people who see the danger, in the emergence of the unitary man of culture, and the consequent internationalization of the idioms of art, of a drab uniformity, of imitationism, and of the lack of any meaning whatever.

I am one of those optimists who do not see this danger. I know there will be much meretricious art -- Pop and Op and the trickery which dehumanizes creativeness. I know that, at the lowest pressure, the lesser talents are likely to imitate forms which they have not assimilated and recreated from within their own unique metabolism. But though there are only four genes altogether in the whole human race, there are many billions of faces, each unlike the other and the temperaments of even Siamese twins are likely to be different. I am not frightened, therefore of the coming of the unitary man, or of the universality of art, of ‘one world culture’, because I know that at his most integral, genius, like Shakespeare, Shelley or Tagore, makes his own whatever he borrows from other talents. And the acceptance of biological differentiation implies the vista of many many millions of human beings released from the present vast areas of backwardness, deadness, ignorance and lack of opportunity, to the areas of creativity, in myriads of forms, which may seek the affiliation of feelings, emotions and passions of other less sensitive people, in order to absorb themselves, into their own individual hunches, impulses and visions… No one who has grown up in a particular locale, drunk his own mother’s milk, and consciously-unconsciously assimilated the fruits of his own earth, can lose his identity, or sense of biology, or nationality, or the relevant part of his own earth, can lose his identity, or sense of biology, or nationality, or the relevant part of his own tradition, unless he or she is qualitatively less developed and can only copy. In fact, we shall have a good dictum for the separation of good art from bad, if we can differentiate the imitation from the integral. Of course, we must not make the mistake of seeing imitations where there is only the common use, by most artists of the world of the new available materials of the industrial civilization; oils, scrap, canvas, aluminium, plexiglass and plastic etc.

If it does not sound pompous or neo-Brahminical, may I dare to say that there will always be a difference between the two orders: the few unitary men, the artists and the vast number of good human beings who cannot appreciate modern forms. This difference lies in the fact that the former wish to breakthrough to understanding, complete or partial, to vision, total or incomplete, two hunches, whetehr deeply sensitive or in bits and pieces of intuition about the noumenon behind phenomenon, while the latter have not been given and have not acquired the education of the life of perceptions and apperceptions, or even the simple human subsistence level above which curiosity and the desire for beauty, nobility, and grace can have the opportunity to flourish.

And, in this context, the condemnation of the incommunicable artists being ‘antipeople’ is also based on ignorance. Marx could appreciate the catharsis of the complex Greek tragedy and admired Shakespeare and the rich prose of Balzac, for all the Elizabethan bard’s difficult blank verse and of Balzac’s royalism in politics. Similarly the artist, though born of the people, without opportunities, and therefore without much knowledge, is also the teacher of the people, in so far as he is talented enough to acquire depth of vision. Only humility, liberality, and an open mind in the public, can bring today the possession of the riches of the new art, replete with the daring of the highest calibre of people, who have often lived like saints in the pursuit of their intensities, in the relentless use of their skills, and in the absolutism of their sacrifice of material riches.

I will concede that the lack of education of the sensibility in the old colonialist societies, should compel a certain humility in the artist also. He must not only create great works, but try to interpret, explain and share his experiences. And his arrogance in reaching the highest order of apprehensions must submit itself to explanation to the cultures.

One of the principal things to be understood, both by the people and artists is that the pictorial and plastic arts of our age (in fact all arts) are different in their emphasis from the creative works of the previous ages.

This does not mean that the arts of our age are ‘progressive’ in the mechanical sense of the 19th century word. We have to understand that though there is ‘progress’ in the social life of man, in so far as revolutionary orders transform the old property relations into juster and more equitable orders, we cannot claim a parallel ‘progress’ or mechanical development in the life of the individual and therefore in his art. In fact, modern art has borrowed impulses from the fundamentalist, primitivist and naïve arts of the past.

Creative art is, apart from his impact on the human sensibility which absorbs colours, lines and forms through a subtle dialectic of the psyche, the means of heightening awareness at various levels through a process of intension-extension, by a continuous opening up of the pores of the body-soul, as it were. And it involves simultaneity of view of all civilisations, past and present, because man’s mind grows by intuitions and not in time.

For instance, much of our much modern architecture was projected by the sculptors, Malevich, Radchenko, Tatlin, Moholy Nagy and le Corbusier.

Of course, the artist of today is not self-consciously utilitarian in the obvious sense. Nor did he ever want to supply obvious ‘meaning’, even when he was called on in the past to illustrate poems, myths, stories and didactic truth. For he did not use words, he sued colours and tangible materials, and often suggested meaning through the disposition of balance, contrast and repetition of perceptible forms. And in the energy and for flow. And he expects the alliance of the onlooker not with the words of poetry but with the kind of ‘poetry with analogy’ in all art works.

Only in so far as the creative art of our time includes the beauty, grace and harmony of the old aesthetics, as also the beauty of the ugly moods, of sharp energies of suprematist viatlities, and pure geometry, we meet strange, somewhat sensational and often incomprehensible forms.

This has been inevitable after the old conceptofSubstance broke down and the Impressionist painters of Europe began to reflect the glow of objects in different lights, with daubs, sweeps and dots of paint. And when Cezanne sought to restore mass, he could only bring it back in forms which were triangular, squarish or cylindrical and which did not look like objects in a photograph. The Cubists, Picasso and Braque, forever transformed substances into new prismatic geometries of squares and rectangles, juxtaposed in dynamic relationships, often against a layer of mundane newspaper reality, and animated by an electric stroke of the brush.

Since then no serious painter has gone back to academic realism, and there have followed experiments in millions of imaginative flourishes, abstractions, and compositions in dissolved paints which resort to ambiguity as a means of communication as against overt meaning. As for the sculptors - they could not melt substance, but have tried to dematerialize it, bored holes in it, refined it, twisted and turned it in a thousand different ways, to release urges in the forms of the materials themselves, without emphasis on the recognizable, known and already absorbed qualities of the human figure.

This is, I fully realize, confusing for the uninitiated. But given the aim of pursuing new intuitions to their illogical ends, the abstractions had to be invented in the quest for delicate perception, of effusive feeling, of passion itself, of fantasy, dream, nightmare -- wherein is the residuum of the effect of our complex age, in our own deranged hearts and minds, where alone we must conquer inner space, to remain human at the highest levels…

I believe that this personalism, this search for absolutes, this quest for temperament, must stop when it can no longer speak in the language of ambivalent Form. At that stage the artist can renounce art and turn to Yoga in the manner of Mondrian. But all the diversities of all the geniuses which can give us new impressionisms, expressionisms, cubisms, constructivisms, illusionisms and suprematisms, are as yet inadequate to our urges for the ‘poetry by analogy’ which may help to make more total human beings, more unitary men and usher the age of creative humanism.

Therefore I, along with many others, welcome the new myriad works of art, of our age, which I would like to call products of the age of experimentalism.

Always, however, we would like to rescue the right to be as free in our appreciation and criticism as the artists are in the freedom of their expressions, their flow and their release.

And may I welcome, to our country, which believes in ‘live and let live’, all those talents of all those countries of the world, which have come to share in the festival of our First Triennale. May I throw petals of our favourite red rose on all the anxious, restless brows on which the weight of our age and its ill winds have descended too heavily… May I assure them, not only those who are only present here through their works, and many others who could not be represented, that, suffering as we do the torments of oppression, of cruelty and bestiality through the lack of human sensitiveness in many men of power, we preserve a lingering faith, without mystique, but as human beings, away from the greed and power in the healing capacities of creative art. May I also present to you the childlike, ardent desire of our people specially the innocent young, to see and receive and absorb your visions.

Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary, 1968
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