Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol XXI, Vol 1, 1949-50, pp.
Art in the ancient human society was a social expression. It expressed, not the mood or the idiosyncrasy of an individual but rather the social consciousness of the community as a whole. Art was not a luxury, an exclusive commodity on sale to become the sole possession of the highest bidder, but the normal everyday detail of life. The artist was not an alien being, looked upon as a freak, living outside the pale common trend, employing a strange language and flaunting a mode of living in deliberate defiance of the normal accepted social code and pattern, as artists like doing these days. The artist of those days was a social fellow-being, for the entire community lived in close touch with the beauty which became woven into every social commodity, be it the humblest, the commonest article, the tiniest detail; each was elaborated with loving and aesthetic precision. In fact, every man or woman was an artist in his or her own way, and each created out of the joy of giving shape and form to dreams and inspirations. The woman’s deft fingers as she drew designs in white or coloured powder in her yard, the dishes she cooked, the flowers she strung, expressed the innate creative genius. Every craftsman was an artist; every cloth he wove, every image he chiselled, every piece of pottery he moulded, was a perfection of colour, harmony and rhythmic balance. A wealth of care and imagination went into the making of the most mundane and insignificant of articles, be it a churner, a rolling pin or a kitchen mat. Art meant loveliness of form, balance and proportion pervading every single detail. One lived, breathed and fed upon art, for art was an essential part of life, more, a necessity like bread and love and home. Moreover all the arts rubbed shoulders and formed a common fraternity. Their greatness lay in being the simple and loving expression of a common humanity and its life. Big works of art, such as public buildings, places of worship, ornamental objects for beautifying the city, were a community responsibility in the execution of which it participated and co-operated, making each its collective expression.
But life was simpler then. It revolved chiefly round small- community self-sufficiency economy, when needs were simpler, living harder, and the complexities of the present day economy had not yet come with their varied sophistications. The artist then held a fairly defined place in society for art was still regarded as a practical craft- something essential to the community needs and satisfied that urge, and not a leisure hour hobby of the rich who alone can sport it today as a privilege.
But competitive society altered all that. It isolated the artist throwing him upon himself, facing the public, not one of its service-men. Gradually, he found himself become a tradesman selling his works as wares to those who could afford to buy them. He connoted for the first time a private luxury article with no community or social importance, and more or less having to cater to the tastes of the patron or starve. This has naturally not only supressed the creative freedom of the artist but has also served to isolate him gradually from the people, which means also isolation from reality. The idiosyncrasies of cultural expressions the frustrated spirit of the artist resorts to, and which decadent society sometimes welcomes for its sheer novelty are a symptom of the hiatus between community life and its true expression. It is an art of despair, not life which society must take as a serious warning. The evidences of waste and frustration are as obvious in the cultural field today as in the material. Just as the quantity of material production is determined by the necessities of private profit and not by the volume of human needs, similarly the nature and strength of cultural production is equally determined by financial factors, whether in the matter of the human element or formal technique. Even where a higher standard may be attained, the character of culture is debased in a society run under the influence of monopoly interests. In such a society opportunities are limited to the few; which means that a large part of the society is prevented from giving its best to the society. As it has been said, the Promethean fire is being used to stoke of the furnaces of private profit. Intellectual workers in all fields should beware of this frustration of their powers, the falsification of values and the absence of unifying synthetic spirit. One can only quote the indictment of capitalism by the poet that “It has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the philosopher, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the scientist, into paid wage labourers.”
At no time was art so isolated and therefore shorn of its real vitality as in recent decades, especially after the advent of modern industrialisation. Gradually, the isolation spread. Paintings moved away public walls, statues from monuments and places of public worship to private mansions, to be retransformed into individual portraits and figures of private patrons, who now secured for exclusive use what was for centuries public property. Slowly and inevitably public buildings and monuments lost touch with art and became loud symbols of wealth. The new society had no taste and little community consciousness, for it symbolised individual success, the man who had won the race in commercial competition leaving the others behind, perhaps rudely pushing them back and even trampling on them. Competitive society has little time or mind for aesthetic pursuits. Today where art objects and their patronage have become a mark of wealth, usually experts are hired to deal with them. For such objects too are an investment and often represent wealth that escapes state taxes. It is rarely, and more by accident, that money goes hand in hand with love of beauty.
It was but natural that this degradation of art should lead to the banishment of the artist from the common fold, label his natural instinct as a strange freak that troubles the emotions of a few who henceforth would be best outside the high fence of “respectability”, to dwell on cagey fingers to be only tolerated, misunderstood, for ever suspect, despised, and, worst of all, mostly ignored. “The history of Art in the nineteenth century” writes Roger Fry,“ Is the history of a band of heroic Ishmaelites, with no secure place in the social system, with nothing to support them in the unequal struggle but the dim sense of a new idea, the idea of the freedom of art from all trammels and tyrannies.”
Art cannot live by the artist working for another for the sake of patronage. Art expression has to be allowed to find its own natural channels by the artist working under the pressure of his creative urge. It is only in this way that art can serve humanity, for then alonecan it fulfil its function. It is when such natural expression is thwarted that artists, to record their protest against a blind society and age, indulge in excesses, freakish clothes, daring unconventionality, and the like. They are but pitiful devices that artist weave in their solitude, when relegated to the outer margins of life.
Artists are after all only men and members of society, open to the influences of the society in which they live; and it is their ideas, feelings and attitude towards the problems of life which really go into the works they create. An artist does not cease to be a man and become a productive machine, functioning detached from the vortex of human affairs. Therefore all art expressions have to be considered in human and social terms. The artist inevitably projects into his creations his own personality with varying degrees of directness or indirectness, which is but the sum total of his attitude towards life itself. The subject of his treatment is no accident but an indication of his mental outlook and his emotional affinities, which are but his sociological expressions. Therefore to talk of art as an isolated factor entirely cut off from the other serious activities of life, is unreal. If art is as vital as we feel it is, then it is bound to be closely related to all those other factors which are important in our life.
We realise that every human being is a product of the society and its environment. The form and content of cultural expression of any given period can therefore be explained only in social terms, whether that expression be literary, musical or pictorial. In other words, the creative force takes shape with the clicking of two currents, the individual trends and the social. The dynamic is lent to the situation by the powerful impact of these two on one another.
The few artists who have refused to be isolated, and maintained their links with the people and their sensitiveness to reality, have not needed to resort to any of the evasions. For inevitably as the struggle of the social forces grows more dominant, those who slip behind the curtain of isolation instead of sharing in the most dynamic and important of functions- the social revolution society goes through from time to time- are bound to devise or resort to an escape of mechanism of some kind, which is but the subconscious urge in him to find a compensation for losing reality. One of the greatest services rendered by the Mexican revolution to the painters, was to break through the vicious circle of private patronage, to enable the artists to maintain their links with the community and not only with individuals who patronise.
Therefore art can only have meaning and influence where it is vitally linked to the normal currents of the social life of the period and is able to assume a clearly defined collective function. Otherwise it remains outside the social hum and web. The existing gap can only be bridged by restoring beauty to its central pivotal place, whereby it endows the common threads of daily existence and the mundane details of ordinary life with uniqueness and originality. One sees today attempts to bring art to the common man by indulging in loose phrases like “Proletarian Art”. This merely betrays a mind incapable of thought or action free from sectarian bias. For such symbolic slogans as “Proletarian Art” inject once more into a community- possession the sectarian virus and start just another process of poisoning instead of pumping out the existing sectarianism, and restoring to the entire community its precious lost legacy.
Just as social revolutionary change has to come out of the giant stirrings of the entre strata that have been made inane and dumb through centuries of suppression, so, too, its varied expressions must surge up from its moving breast. It is not to be imposed from above as a gift of benevolence or political act. It is not uncommon to find cultural expressions being exploited for sectarian and factional propaganda in the name of the people, while in reality toeing what is called the “party line”. It is not an attempt to rouse and organise the burning lava sizzling in the breasts of the vast masses, but just to bolster up a certain political group or partly through the negative process of undermining the existing bourgeois standards. The aim should be to create conditions for the masses to fashion their own instrument of expression. It has to be the manifestation of life, not of a political idea or part organ. For we must realise the fundamental fact that art is the appeal to the instinct of communion, the invisible unity of mankind. We recognise each other with a growing awareness of our oneness by the echoes beauty awakens in us. “Intuition is only a flame spurting forth at the point of contact of an infinity of previous analysis and of accumulated reasoning…………There is no hero of art who is not at the same time a hero of knowledge and of the human heart,” so says Elie Faure, the French poet and art critic. Art enables man to penetrate deeper than science. Within the heart of the artist are the earth, the vast spaces, all that lives and moves, even the tissues of the stone which to the naked eye seems inert. How much more truly and intensely he must feel the emotions, the passions, the joys, and hopes, the despairs and sorrows, of those made in his own image. The artist is not sufficient unto himself- if he believes that he is no artist. The very language an artist employs is universal. It overlaps all narrow boundaries and divisions. Art enables man to penetrate into the very core of existence, and pierce the social structure. Thus can man see himself as well as the entire social fabric he has woven, even as a woodland mirrored in a clear surface of water, when all the intricacies of foliage are disentangled and finely posed. He who wants to create cannot do so unless he feels within himself all the flow and pattern of the social life; is consumed by the flames raging in the hearts of all men, those who have passed beyond and those yet to draw their breath; is able to capture abstract ideals and raise them to the plane of laws which determine the everyday relationship of man to man. It is this quality alone which enables art to make of life a perfect whole. For each fragment of the work, because it is adapted to the entire whole, however humble in itself, extends as though in silent echoes and invisible strands, throughout the deepened breadth, to weave the complete pattern. Therefore a great work of art lives even in the least if its fragments.
Culture is an imaginative reflection of life, and since life is not static, adhering to realism in art does not mean photographic naturalism; for that would reflect the fundamental realities of life which do not come to the surface except through scientific penetration and historical perspective. A rubber-stamp realism coveys no impression of either the weight of the past or thepossibilities of the future which is already getting shaped in the vortex of present currents. A work of art is true in so far as it not only reflects faithfully the thoughts and feelings of the time but also survives the test of practical experience. For a theory or idea is true only in so far as it can be made meaningful in action.
If art is to give expression to each particular age, it must break loose from the frontiers pf a bygone age and shake off the limitations of the old imaginative and mental make-up. Life is a continuous flow. Its tempo is accelerated during the process of a revolution when changes are more rapid and radical. At such a time social necessity compels advance trends in culture and a loosening of the old roots, which creates a conflict between the old pattern and the new struggling to be born.
The protagonists of the old culture who fear changes, in a desperate attempt to maintain the status quo, declare themselves as the guardians of morality and civilisation to stave off the new oncoming tide, while the advocates of transformation cannot but defy the old standards and codes. For every stage of social change calls for a cultural form that expresses its own needs, as the old which a past age had created can no longer utilise the new forces or techniques or reflect the new ideals in its content. In this struggle, the defenders of the old culture resort to uncultured and even barbaric methods which they had themselves once despised and condemned. For, when a force ceases to be progressive it becomes repressive. It is the new society which alone can provide the artists scope for the fullest development in every department of culture and science. Today the synthesis of life is broken by disorganised society in which each branch of activity is isolated from the other, the philosopher from the scientist, the artist from the engineer and each and all from the massive web of a great pulsating indivisible life, in which each is a vital supporting factor adding to the balance, beauty and contours of the total. For instance, it is time even the mechanised machine ceased to be regarded merely in terms of rigid geometrical contours, a generator of murky air and smokes, static without passion, and came to be assimilated as easily and simply and as profoundly as the landscape below and the firmament above; mastered and made to live as heroically and movingly as the ancient tales of historical narratives. Machines have today become extensions of man’s limbs. They portray the power man has come to establish over the forces of nature, his conquests of the elements. This tussle is as old as man himself. This struggle is full of beauty, rhythm, music and colour. If man in his weakness has allowed the machine to master him, It is not the fault of the machine which is but a creature of man, to be made and destroyed by him. One may as well censure appetite itself, for it often overpowers man. The radio is only an amplification of man’s lungs, the telephone of his ears. To frown upon the aeroplane and sing of the creaking country-cart, is not even poetic justice. It is sheer conservative sectarianism. The plough was as outlandish an innovation once as the tractor is today. To ignore man’s inexhaustible genius for forging new implements is to ignore the very laws of social change, and no true artist can afford to do that. “ An artist produces more as a biological function”, says Rivera Diego, the great Mexican artist, “ just as a tree produces flowers and fruit nor mourns their loss each year, knowing that the next season it shall blossom and bear fruit again”. Art should express not merely what is but also what might be, not the diluted average but the concentrated aspiration, not the sheer discouraging defeats but much more the transforming possibilities. All aspects of art expression must embrace and portray vitally the ambitions, hopes and struggles of humanity, must universalise figures to make them symbols of vast vision and action; give them the broad human significance which must fully rouse and rally the communities interest. Art has to be like a free, large building, where men and women can congregate and feel their communal oneness, their large physical and social unity. It must be public in its function, and though integrated to a social structure, yet prepared for the most sweeping social changes.
Published in Roopa Lekha, Vol XXI, Vol 1, 1949-50, pp.