Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Thoughts on why Indians can't read abstract art

This post might read out as a little – or much – on the naive side: it is more in the nature of an inner dialogue, yet unresolved, a side of an argument.


In India, if art has to connect to the masses, even the more prosperous bunch, one has to go the figurative way.  Most Indians don’t have the wherewithal to understand abstract art.



Differences in reading an abstract vs. a figurative art

To read an abstraction, one has to complete it. Firstly, by understanding its broader CONTEXT, the tradition and time it is made under and that which it addresses. Then, the EMPATHY to the artist’s specificity – his life, artistic journey embedded in his works, motifs, the issues that bothered him specifically.
Lastly, while CONTEXT and EMPATHY prepare the gangplank, the plunge is made only when we identify our own AFFINITY to the work; this is where the abstraction really gets defined into something MEANINGFUL within us. A figurative artwork contains its own meaning within itself. Nobody can mistake what a Velazquez or Spielberg stood for. One sees and enjoys it as an observer, with only that much participation as one might want to bring. But a Rothko and a Godard have to be ENTERED, to varying degrees, to be comprehended.

Why Indians cannot read abstraction

In India, it is a fact that our knowledge of our own traditions in art and ideas, and knowledge of our great artists’ lives, is sporadic and thin. Even the “best” of our primary education skip it entirely, and the mass-media – television, cinema, newsprints – seldom methodically address it. Most educated Indians have little structured knowledge of any of the artistic traditions, its dialectics through the ages and what are the questions its present artists are essaying to address. Those who do, either studied art in the very few good arts colleges and/or generally come from those few gharanas, artists and patrons, in whose closed cloisters these traditions have managed to eke out a survival despite the mass indifference. Hence, we lack in the structured knowledge that is needed to understand the CONTEXT of an abstraction and to EMPATHIZE with what the specific artist is trying to do.
That brings it to AFFINITY. One can, in principle, be moved by an abstract piece of work, even if one has no knowledge of the CONTEXT and that which can prepare them to EMPATHIZE with the specific artist’s mind. It happens – we see something that we don’t understand but are nevertheless moved by it. We do not yet understand what moves us. This is the moment when I have heard many artists tell the beginning of their journeys, especially those who never had the privilege of being born into a gharana. They heard, saw, read something, which clicked off something in the core of their being, and thus began their journey to see the end of it. They seek to understand themselves, that core, by seeking to understand that which touched it. For these traditions, like mythologies, contain within themselves the runes to our innermost being, that which makes us so curiously, so tragically, joyously, human. Polished, and preserved over generations. We never reach the end of it, because there is none, but the closer we get to it, the more we understand that inner self whose ignorance vexes us like a pebble in a shoe. A great artist, great human-being, told me once that he sought the music that swept him away because of the meditative aura of the artist he heard that first time, the peace he had found.
Here, it is important to realise that knowledge of CONTEXT and EMPATHY, increase the AFFINITY. Which is why these artists embarked on their journeys. We can perhaps feel an affinity with a silent strange face on a bus, but a deeper affinity is established the more we understand the broader and particular context of that face; the affinity when we see a remark trigger a reaction on a close friend’s face and almost know the why of it. One might see a Guernica and be moved by it, but one’s experience of it is no doubt bettered when one understand the various bull horse and lamp motifs that haunted Picasso through his life, and knows that garret where he painted it.
That brings us to that pebble in the shoe.
We Indians, and I know this is a very controversial statement, lack the proper INNER NARRATIVEs to understand modern abstraction. What is that inner narrative? – That dialogue within us that goes beyond the slatted contexts that bind us. Our propensity is to seek closure in the things around us, closures that reaffirm that we already know. That is why even the “deeper” literature and cinema that we prefer give the same answers to those questions that beset us. We seek answers communally, by consensus, that doesn’t really challenge the set ideas around us. I am sure that those pebbles would be there in more shoes than it appears, but they’re dismissed as betukay doubts, moral failures. They never become big enough to aggravate us further. It was this slowly aggravating INNER NARRATIVE, at odds with the COMMUNAL NARRATIVE, the pebble, that pushed the few artists who I know, who came from lower middle-class income families with no serious interest in any substantial art tradition.   
This absence of the INNER NARRATIVE is another question that I struggle with. Reading Indian history through diaries and namas and travellers’ chronicles, I suspect that it might be simply because we never had the political stability to give us the space to build those inner narratives. We were too busy surviving through the shifting boundaries and whims of one despot after another. Kipling believed that “that if we didn’t hold the land in six months it would be one big cock-pit of conflicting princelets.” And I suspect he was right in his time. I read about France, that cradle of modern ideas about the self, and one cannot but contrast its political unity across the last few centuries to our own. Our Hindu genius has been for survival, and that is why we have lasted where almost all else, except the Chinese, have fallen to one form of rigid Semitic simplicity or the other.
The India that we know really began to be forged beyond an abstraction in the early years of the last century. And that is the irony that balks me in this argument here: that while our own nationhood is possibly the biggest abstraction of an idea, abstraction within us finds such little toehold of space. But that might also explain why we want to break and simplify this grand abstraction to simpler more-closed narratives, a narrative that conforms to our own closed one.