Mourning our Art Illiteracy

Greater Kashmir

I think two things explain this: Woeful art illiteracy of the people in general and philosophy of art illiteracy in most of the artists

Our artist friends complain that they don’t receive proper recognition, and hardly anyone is interested in visiting art gallery recently opened in Srinagar.  Visitors, or masses, complain that the art works of contemporary artists don’t speak to them, or they fail to comprehend them.

Why this disconnect? I think two things explain this: Woeful art illiteracy of people in general and philosophy of art illiteracy in most of artists. People hardly know anything about art (we don’t teach art in schools, generally speaking) and can be classified with colour blind or beauty blind  group. Those artists who think art is a profession and art works need to be exhibited, or sold, or personality of artist be expressed or art needn’t imitate archetypes or communicate well to all who are interested are ignorant of First Principles art exemplifies. They fail to understand Plato’s (and tradition’s or Islam’s) rejection of  such ideas as art as expression of personality, aestheticism, naturalist art, distinction between fine and applied artists, art as mere ornament, and of taste as criterion for judging art. (Post)Modernist secular art theory or academy doesn’t wish to understand how art is “for the glory of God and angels and sanctification of man.”  I state a few points about traditional or Islamic art theory today.

 What AAP victory today brought forth is, among other things, ecstasy of democratization of power. I argue for the democratization of art, an idea that has been affirmed in traditions everywhere and may be stated in terms of the manifesto “Everyman is an artist.” Like politics, art shouldn’t be an elite business. Art is basically science of doing well a given task, thus perfecting or making lovable any given work. Art is what more familiar term ihsan suggests – doing everything in the best way it should be done. Plato, as AKC notes,  includes in artists “not only poets, painters, and musicians, but also archers, weavers,  embroiderers,  potters,  carpenters,  sculptors,  farmers,  doctors, hunters,  and  above  all  those  whose  art  is  government,  only  making  a distinction between creation and mere labor, art  and  artless  industry.”  But we have restricted the term for those who sell arts like painting or make strange art works that are not intelligible or beautiful as they don’t imitate eternal or divine model but appearances and seek more pleasure than perfection. Art is skillful making of all things, activities, not  just what we see in galleries. And in galleries what we see today is mostly the art that has no place in Ideal City of Plato or Augustine or Farabi. It is absurdity pretending to be called art work even if it is merely cerebral or psychological reaction of the “artist” that he or she has depicted. All arts are imitative and ideally imitate archetypes, divine perfection and require moral and intellectual virtues to contemplate. Art requires not assertion of will but its surrender before the Beauty. 

Art is not an absurd or occult game of abstractions or private symbols that “non-artists” don’t comprehend and even fellow “artists” keep guessing. Art is for everyone. Art is not for sale as art (a painting sells for crores and art has become a commodity instead of adding beauty to things or representing beauty in art works like paintings) but art objects are objects we require like utensils, clothes. Great art works recall God and celebrate or imitate Divine Beauty. They are ideally not signed as individual is not to be advertised or seen as producer of art work as individual. Artists are not separate professional class who make portraits to get money, who make paintings that are either ugly or too ambiguous or incomprehensible or obscene that fall short of moral, intellectual or spiritual perfection or betray sickness of the soul of the artist. We need art to live, to beautify our environment, to help contemplate God, to love, to celebrate. Art education should be for everyone. Even cavemen were great artists, better than most modern artists. The great film Aguntuk by philosophically inclined Satyaji Raye presents aspects of traditional view of art and meditates on the secret of perfection in cavemen’s paintings. 

There is so much confusion, so much misinformation, so much elitism, so much hollow halo around art that I think Coomaraswamy’s The Christian and Oriental, or True Philosophy of Art is a must read. Art is too easily reduced to ideology or made to serve interests of entertainment industry that we need to read Adorno and Horkheimer’s great critique of it in their famous work Dialectics of Enlightenment in the chapter  “Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Art in Islamic tradition has been the life work of Titus Burckhardt (Art of Islam: Language and Meaning). Nasr’s book Islamic Art and Spirituality is  also of help for general reader and professional Muslim artist who wants to be informed about deeper meaning and metaphysical principles of Islamic art.

Now that sermons don’t touch as they once did but crisis of values is deepening what do we do? Abhinavgupta long back suggested turning to art to get education in values and help in the ultimate journey of life – quest for transcendence. Mathew Arnold long back saw in art a substitute for religious instinct and many postmodern thinkers, following Nietzsche, have already been championing certain version of artistic or aesthetic route to get meaning back into our lives in an age when theologies aren’t so impactful or credible for some. Many may today dispute conventional proofs of existence

of God but none can the proof from beauty that art makes so dazzlingly available for us. Islamic metaphysic of beauty that defines God as Beauty can’t be questioned by anyone who has healthy instinct for beauty intact. Atheism may be defined as impoverished taste for beauty or jaundiced eye for beauty. 

What a great news it is that art lovers have finally got some space in the capital of the State to sit, to research, to deliberate, to dialogue on art, the language of the Self. God speaks to us through many languages, but none is more easily understandable  or pleasing than that of art. That explains central place of art in Islamic spirituality. Without artistic sense houses, clothes, gardens, articles for daily usage, all those things that crafts produce, can’t be made the way God or our theomorphic nature requires. In fact one can say all that is not made in conformity with artistic principles enunciated by traditions is cursed. Art is a question of our religion, our higher life of spirit. It is absolutely central to culture and identity. We need to see art as ritual for purification and discipline and thus support to contemplation leading to the vision of essences and delivery of man from samsara or his reconciliation to the ground of existence

Tail Piece

What artist community has seen opening of the Gallery One as a grand shrine of art lovers as they can refresh their souls by visiting it, others pass by as if it is of no account. Students for excursions or educational tours should preferably visit such spaces to acquaint themselves about their unknown dimension that gives us peep into the Heaven here and now. We are all artists in the sense defined by Greeks and other traditions as makers of objects who need beauty to live better lives but only few know this. Let us discover the artist in us. Let us learn what ails modern art industry and have dialogue with our artists, reorient the museum culture or art exhibition culture towards that end that characterized traditional cultures including the Kashmir of Shah-i-Hamdan –a sanctuary of crafts – and help them to retrieve our great heritage in art and carry it forward.