Artists: Notes on Art Making

An artist should aim to be as full a human being as possible for him, in the faith that his best work will affect society in ways undreamt of by the theorists.

There are, or should be, two sets of inter-related experiences in the career of an artist. One is of life and the other of art. Certain tendencies in our time emphasise only the latter. Art, they say, is the product of art and has nothing much to do with life. In contrast, some theorists whose main concern is often society rather than art, demand that it serves society’s interests.

Between those two modes of thinking about the role and function of art is a third which insists on its “autonomy.” That is not quite the same idea is implied in the old, condemned phrase “art for art’s sake” but is suspected of being akin to it.

Autonomy suggests integrity and resistance to external, non-artistic forces. Art of art’s sake evokes images of Bohemian irresponsibility and sensual self-indulgence. Autonomy need not mean concern for aesthetic values only, whereas the other concept points to a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure for which no price is too high, because it produces “beauty.”

In my conversations with artists in India over the last twenty-five years or so I have rarely felt that these and other concepts had been clarified, and accepted or rejected. I have rarely felt that even a degree of coherence had been attained in the argument. Was it entirely my fault that I found myself getting nowhere in most discussions about the Indian art scene? The artists I am referring to, incidentally, were and are among the best we have, serious and productive.

In their exhibition catalogues, in publicity hand-outs, and in interviews for the media, these artists have freely expressed their views. Even if you leave out the sentimentality, rhetoric, naïve self-glorification and clichés about how form or colour or texture is “explored,” some points are made which ought to help the viewer understand the artist. When I consider those points I understand the artist less than I did seeing his work.

To make matters worse, we have reviewers who praise or blame without precision without describing the data. I have read occasionally reviews from which I did not guess that one artist painted landscapes and another abstractions. The critic’s ecstatic paragraphs referred only to the “striking colour contrasts,” the “variety of textures” and the interaction of the expressive forms.”

I once wrote a parody of such art criticism: “Mr. Joshi S. P. (or Mr. H.P.R.S. Gupta) explores textures lyrically in a vast range of colourful dots and dashes through which he plumbs the depths (or heights) of his comprehensive vision and incomprehensible sensibility, absorbing in the agony and the ecstasy of his colourful lyricism and the lyrical forms of our ancient heritage in designs as well as of modern and post-modern abstract art in all its mysterious inner music.”

To be serious again, returning to the theme of my opening statement, the growth of the artist has to be in life as much as in art. It cannot be only a question of new combinations confined to colour, line, texture, form, with their purely aesthetic effects. There has to be in most kinds of art an emotional centrality and a cerebral base, not only the manipulation of technical devices. What aims does the technique serve? That, surely, is not a question that can be evaded.

Similarly, there should be a growth in the use of the techniques themselves. They cannot be regarded as learnt in the art school and mastered once for all a few years later. In range and depth, techniques can develop endlessly. They can’t if the artist treats them as “tools” because in that capacity they express only the conscious mind or the right hand side.

When, from sources beyond his mental thinking, colour or line receive unexpected impulses, they do so much more than what he intended. If art does not surprise the artist as he creates it means he is working to a formula. This may be an abstract or a realistic one, a conventional or a modern, but it is still a formula. So the artist becomes a victim of it. Whatever the technique, it functions mechanically and therefore fails to extend his potential.

An artist who does not change and grow, eventually cannot even remain at the level of his achievement. He degenerates, produces work inferior to his earlier and finally the earliest. At this stage a therapeutic strategy is needed, and the only one is a fresh look at the environment. It is not art that should be studied at such times but life.

The introspective, self-analytical artist will also work on his ideas. He may want to discuss them with other artist as well as with those involved in the general activities of art. if they can’t help him directly they may still provide a kind of negative impetus. The artist as thinker is the artist in search of new ways to do his old jobs. If he rejects that role and seeks inspiration only in art, he will pick up a fashion, old or new, he will go back or forward without any important change in his ideas, perceptions, personality and values.

Confronted with the challenges of ideologies that demand a social-political role for artists, some of them defensively announce that they do not want to change society. They say they are interested only in painting landscapes or portraying the human figure or creating abstract patterns that do not “represent” anything. This is a mistake because it accepts the idea that there is some fixed method, and only one, of changing, society through art.

In reality, the artist should never be on the defensive in relation to any theorists of art. He should not confine himself to creating beauty or expressing his erotic impulses, or responding through forms and colours to Nature. He should aim to be as full a human being as possible for him, in the faith that his best work will affect society in ways undreamt of by the theorists.

Published in The Times of India, Sunday, December 26, 1982. Page 11
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