Song of Surrender

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Art charade

An introspection

By Mythili Prakash

When one thinks of Art, one thinks of beauty, of experience, observation, transformation, discipline, and abandon. At least that is what we think we should think, when we think of “Art.” But has the word “Art” itself become mere lip service? Has it become a charade?

There are so many sides to this issue that I hardly know where to start. It almost feels like a “chicken or the egg” situation to me. Who is accountable for what has become, or what is becoming of “Art.”?

I’m reminded of a T.M. Krishna concert that I attended recently, in which he requested the audience to approach the concert as a musical experience rather than a cutcheri, a term that comes with a certain baggage and expectation.  He pushed barriers, some gently and some not, but all the while his request to us, the audience, made me aware of myself as a rasika, and reminded me of a dilemma that I frequently find myself in while in that seat. How much of me is usually in judgement? And for how much of a concert am I evaluating and re-evaluating the performance? Without even intending to, we compare the artist to other artists, or to his or her own concerts in the past, etc. How often are we actually there – present– in the moment, experiencing the concert not for what it could be or should be, but what it is. Do we gain anything by being in judgement? Or is it merely to make ourselves feel good, educated, intelligent, and make for interesting conversation after the concert? Do we see ourselves as consumers, and the concert as a commodity that must suit our expectations? If Art is truly about beauty, experience, observation, transformation, discipline, and abandon – don’t those things apply to the artist as well as the rasika?

Are we more interested in using Art and the experience of it, to inflate ourselves intellectually, or are we interested in using it as a vehicle for a deeper transformation? I am often reminded of J. Krishnamurti and an exercise that he encouraged of just observing a sunset, or any objective thing for that matter.

“Have you ever experimented with looking at an objective thing like a tree without any of the associations, any of the knowledge you have acquired about it, without any prejudice, any judgement, any words forming a screen between you and the tree and preventing you from seeing it as it actually is? Try it and see what actually takes place when you observe the tree with all your being, with the totality of your energy.” – J. Krishnamurti

Of course what he is talking about is a mindfulness, a deep investigation of the mind itself, which one may argue is a much weightier subject? But isn’t it actually the same subject? Isn’t “Art” inherently linked to the “totality of being” that he talks about? Isn’t “Art” inherently aimed at experiencing the “totality of being” that he talks about?

I feel we are losing that aim.  The arts scene, especially in India, sometimes feels like Hollywood. We, as a society, pride ourselves on having resurrected the status of “Art” from the times it was looked down upon and disrespected. It has its origin in worship, and even though it has moved from ritual to performance, we still proclaim it to be sacred. But look at the way it is talked about and perceived now. Besides the rampant politics, it is sensationalist and it is a “scene” where words like “diva” are thrown around. Constructive criticism is often replaced by sarcasm and even malice. Who is doing what? Who is performing where? Who is wearing what? Who is getting what award? Who is on their way “in” who is on their way “out”? Who pulls the most crowds?

What happens to “Art” in all this? Where is the reverence and sanctity? Is it possible to find beauty and silence in all this chatter? Is it possible to feel transformation for both the rasika and the artist, amongst all this noise?
 Til now, I’ve talked about the rasika.

What about the artist?

Why is the artist on stage? Is it a burning desire to create, express, and share something that emanates from one’s being? Or is it a burning desire to prove one’s artistic virtuosity, and to inhabit the “prestigious” slots? How often do we see artists who are lost in the “Art”? Are artists even encouraged to be lost in the “Art?” In an environment like ours, is it possible for artists to be lost in the “Art”?

Artists are frowned upon for “playing to the gallery,” but is that really in any way discouraged?

Sometimes I wonder, what are the purpose of reviews anymore? At some point last year, I stopped getting the newspaper. I lost interest in reading reviews. Why are opinions valued so much? Immediately after a performance, what is most important to the artist – how he/she felt about the experience? Or what everyone else thought?

Don’t get me wrong. Of course there MUST be desire for growth, improvement, discovery, learning, guidance; in fact, that forms the very basis of the artist’s journey. But to what extent is this journey shaped by what the public thinks? How much have artists become focused on being in the public eye? How important to artists is appearing on the concert stage? Obviously it is what makes it a career….a profession. But how many would still be practicing with the same intensity irrespective of performance? Is the focus on delivering a good performance, or on being alert and sensitive to savoring the experience regardless of practice or performance? Are the externals given larger priority than the internals? Does that tilt the balance more toward “entertainment” than “Art”? Does the public nature of performing arts feed this preoccupation with public opinion? Sometimes I wonder, when a painter paints, or a poet writes,  do they think about what images will sell and create accordingly? Or do they follow the impulses that come from their artistic centers?

When I occasionally voice these frustrations, the response that I get is usually something along the lines of : “But one has to first go through the ‘externals’ before getting to the ‘internals’. That comes later.” I understand the intention in this statement, but I think that it has things a bit mixed up. When I talk about “internals”, I in NO measure overlook discipline and training. I don’t separate that from freedom. So “external” and “internal” really has no correlation with “discipline” and “freedom.” My concern is completely with intention. If, from the beginning, the “Art” is taught and practiced with the intention of it as something sacred, as deeply personal, as a “Sadhana,” then chances are – it may continue that way. One would immediately argue -  it is! Ok, agreed-  in dance we begin and end classes with the namaskaram and prayers, bowing to the feet of the Gurus, etc. But then what? Is the rest of the process and environment in keeping with this reverence? Where does competition and ambition find its way into all this? Is it through parents? Peers? Teachers? Media? Audiences?

I find that our culture has subconsciously engrained in it, the concept of order, perhaps based on the traditional Hindu idea of “ashramas” in life: first being a “student,” then a “householder,” then a “hermit,” and finally an “ascetic.” The general consensus is that there is a certain age after which Self-introspection begins. Elders seem skeptical, almost worried about people on the other side of that age who are focused on Self-introspection. In the same vein, it seems generally accepted that younger artists should be concerned with virtuosity, and internalization comes later. But shouldn’t Self-introspection in life be encouraged from the start? When it comes to “Art” and training, shouldn’t the focus be encouraged inward from the start?

If it was, would the energies of the scene be altered? Would artists perform from a different center of focus? Would audiences receive from a different center of focus?

I often wonder what would happen if, for a period of time, all “editorial” media coverage of performance was suspended: newspaper reviews, online sites, blogs, etc.

And then what if audiences put the onus upon themselves to “experience” rather than “evaluate” each concert. What if audiences members behaved less like consumers, and more like rasikas, open to experiencing the concert?

With judgement relegated to the backseat, would the quality of performance change?

Would artists remember that this is a first a journey to be experienced, and then shared?

Would we have less entertainment and more “Art?”

Would we as individuals and a society be able to move away from the sensationalism that we have created around “Art” and more towards the totality of being that “Art” is intended to stir in us?

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