Published in Lalit Kala, Contemporary 6, 1967, pp. 17-18
Art appreciation can be tackled from many angles but it is primarily a psychological problem, or attitude. Perhaps the best and most enlightening point of departure is a splendid sentence of that great philosopher, Benedetto Croce, who says: “Picture, poverty, and every work of art produce no effect save on souls prepared to receive them.” This “preparation of souls” or mind is, then, the work of anyone who wants to develop art appreciation.
One of the major difficulties in India, is that appreciation is not taught in any school I know of. An added problem is the obsession of the average educated Indian with literary matters, matters that obtrude so forcibly into what he conceives to be art that he cannot see the art from the subject. Year after year I have been fighting the obsession of the iconographist, the man interested in the subject-matter of art, the man who wishes to know first of all and last of all “what it represents’. Splendid men I knew, profoundly learned archaeologists and museum men, men who spent their entire life among works of art, remained convinced that they were “doing art history” when they had inquired and researched into the theme, the subject-matter, the contents of art, the iconography and the “religious meaning” of objects d’art. “A marvellous work”, I heard one of these pandits exclaim before an obviously tenth-rate work of art of a late period, simply because it was an iconographic rarity, very few representation of which have come to light.
As long as students of art remain convinced that the subject of art appreciation is identical with the subject of representation, no advance can be made at all in art appreciation. The first step to awaken a genuine passion for art is to turn away attention totally, entirely and completely from the subject-matter and concentrate on form.
It is, for this purpose essential to disabuse one’s mind wholly from all religious and “spiritual” contents; and to convince the spectator that it is totally completely, and fully irrelevant whether a sculpture represents, say, Siva or Vishnu or Krishna or the Buddha: any four of them may be in any style, any formal achievement and it is possible, that a sculpture of a very great Divinity results in a bad work of art. It is possible, to make a sculpture of a monstrous ogre or a repugnant theme into a superb work of art, or to carve the most lofty notion of a goddess - Durga, Devi or Parvati - into a poor work of sculpture. These matters have to be stated for I have found innumerable times that the very notion of a great god being a bad piece of sculpture is absolutely unacceptable to hundreds of good people. I once showed students two images of Ganesha, one a marvel of sensitive, ornamental and formal perfection, the other a miserable hackwork by an untutored and clumsy stone-cutter, but I had the greatest difficulty in convincing them that any image of the good god Ganesha could be called a bad work. After all, we have in thousands of places in this country sva-bhava images, “made by nature”, shapeless stones, perhaps with eyes painted on, worshipped as sacred and representing the Mother Goddess or Siva.
Once you convince a student of art to forget all about labels and subject-matter, and turn his attention to Form and Shape and Expression and Execution, you have won half the battle. It follows that the most practical and successful method of arousing this interest in artistic form and style is the juxtaposition of works with the same content or subject-matter, but in clearly different styles, made in different periods. And by pointing out the differences between one image and the other though representing the same theme, one can develop a sensitivity for artistic conception, art form, the creative urge that presses itself in these variations.
I suggest taking Buddha images, for instance, from the most archaic Gandhara and Mathura satrapies, confront them with characteristic work of the transition period, the period of discovery, say the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., and then lead on to the classic balance of the 4th and 5th century; it will then be possible to demonstrate how the classic attitude has been abandoned in the 6th and 7th centuries, until we get to the evolved, crowned, bejewelled, richly ornate forms of Pala and Sena art.
This example - it could have been any other “subject”, say vrikshakas, dryads or tree-nymphs - leads on to the absolute necessity of clarifying the vocabulary of anyone who wishes to help with art appreciation. The abysmal ignorance about basic terms and definitions of art - I am not talking of “art lingo” - in this country is one of the most saddening and discouraging facts confronting anyone who wants art to be appreciated. The term “classic” is used for anything old or beautiful, for example masses of scholars systematically so label the “Gupta temple of Deograh” when it is patently obvious to anyone with the most nodding acquaintance with art that every single piece of sculpture at Deogarh is mannerist, and indubitably past the Gupta or classic style.
The most basic requirement, then, of art appreciation is the awakening of the observant eye to see differences in style; for once the eye becomes sensitive to differences in style, art appreciation is well on the way. It is not great words, lofty sentiments and an obsession with noble subject-matter that will ever lead to an appreciation of art, whatever ethical, moral, philosophical or religious effect such studies may have on the mind. Art appreciation differs from all these basically in as much as it derives all its raison d’etre, its very life and value from a purely aesthetic contemplation of Form, and Form alone. Indeed, the importance of Form has become so absolute in these later days that we have achieved a total divorce between subject-matter and form, and we are now able to call abstract paintings art, in other words, forms beautiful and exciting by themselves without any contents.
But whilst this maybe the extreme and ultimate result of disregarding literary contents in a work of creative art, all art is charecterised and lives by Form. The tens of thousands of Buddha heads in all our museums and antique sites have all the same subject-matter, the Buddha, but differ vastly from each other precisely because their Forms are different. And if there is difference between one Christ Crucified and the other, it is only in Form that they differ, not in theme.
Art appreciation must, therefore, start and end with all attention diverted from subject-matter to Form; and true art appreciation is nothing but the discovery of how an artist in a certain age expressed his ideal of beauty, his vision of form.
I would, therefore, advice, in all humility, anyone who wishes to arouse this special aesthetic sense not to attempt alessonin art appreciation in front of a single picture or a single sculpture. Everything sends me to the conclusion that the best way to arouse this aesthetic sense is to confront the novice with several and various works, on the same theme, and draw his attention to the differences in style. Form, a term I used rather frequently in this brief outburst of my convictions, stands naturally for all the elements that make up form; it includes colour and design and composition, the use of space and finish, the exploitation of the artists’ material (how oil paint is laid on, how the burin is used in etching, how wood is carved, how stone is worked - all for the purpose of expressing a formal ideal) and all that makes a painting a particular painting or a sculpture a unique work and none other.
This may need, some explanation of craftsmanship and the sensible use of material; but ultimately and basically, it must mean a total turning away from literary matters, from the subject, from all spiritual and iconographic interpretation: matters that cloud and hamper art appreciation and stand between the spectator and the work of art like a curtain.
This, then, is the “preparation of the soul” that Professor Benedetto Croce spoke of.
Published in Lalit Kala, Contemporary 6, 1967, pp. 17-18