Forms of Things Unknown

While going over the work of undergraduate students in the UNR art department what struck me most was the non-insularity of the language of art as different from the culture specificity of other literary forms. The commonplace that art has a universal language is apparently most valid here. The language of painting is an invitation to a visual exploration into forms of things unknown!  Let me here make an attempt to make it more clear.

At the root of European modernism is the segregation of icon and idea and at the same time an attempt to fuse the two—that is the idea of the autotelic form. All art for the European modernists was a move towards purity of creation (Make it new, as Ezra Pound would put it). As the modernists saw it, the pre-modern or primitive art was a fusion of all senses—visual, tactile, aural-oral and even olfactory—and the later Renaissance was a moving away into the conceptual distance that discriminated and bisected the world and the will. The mind had come in the way of our sense of the world. And modernism was an attempt to resuscitate the idea of immediacy and involvement through a depersonalization of space and time. And problematically, it was intellectual and intuitive at the same time. (Picasso, Duchamp, Joyce)

To take a different approach is to follow the development of the Judaeo-Christian tradition with its prescriptions of “Thou shalt not worship…”Exodus 20, King James’ Version reads: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…

We see here the untying of a subtext which presumes that the pre- Abrahamic religious worship was one that identified the icon and idea and the Judaeo-Christian prescriptive norms call for a complete paradigm shift. The true faith was one that could be symbolic systematic and disciplined at the same time. Judaeo Christian belief called for faith in a ordered universe of belief and a theological view that was theo-centric (a powerful, male god at the center of universe)

Now modernist art practices do call for the creation of a separate felt experience, a totality of all senses and the creation of a different order of reality. Each work of art had a separate existence of its own. It was complete, organically unified in terms of its aesthetic experience, albeit its apparent fragmentation and dislocation in terms of its form and content. It was a disciplined one closer to the Judaeo-Christian theo-centric world-view (This is what the later postmodern challenged—more of that later)

Despite all this, there is a heavy presence of primitive art forms and practices in modernism, because modernism gave greater importance to hasten in the idea that the iconic form was organically complete in itself and could be approached from without as well as within its self. This is almost an aesthetico-religious notion and stands in marked difference from the Judaeo-Christian prescriptions. However, this is not a contradicting notion but only a difference in perception, as I shall attempt to argue.

In one of my lectures here in UNR, (Upanishads and Indian Art: Representations of Nature, 30th November 2006) I narrated a tale that goes like this: a friend was photographing in the hills of north India when he chanced up on a certain stone idol that a peasant was worshiping as siva lingam in his dilapidated hut. This un-graven, shapeless stone caught the attention of the photographer as an aesthetic object, and he requested for permission to take a photograph. The peasant readily consented. But after a few shots of the stone the photographer thought it would look nicer if there was more sunlight and very reluctantly asked the peasant if he might shift his idol of worship outside. The peasant had no objection and the photo session went on outside the hut. After making sure he had made several satisfactory photos the friend asked politely if he might shift the stone back to its original place inside the hut. The peasant’s reply was a shocking revelation to the photographer. He said: do take it if you want to, I can find another one!

The stone served its purpose as long as it was looked upon with veneration and religious reverence. A stone is a stone. It could also be a lingam. This is the aesthetico-religious transformation of the icon, pre-Christian and perhaps not specifically located or indigenous to the East alone. All sacred art is a reverence for the organic unity of icon and idea—it is not an attribute of the art object or a power that is invested in it per se in an order of immanence or transcendence—its is the aesthetico-spiritual order of perception and understanding (perhaps an understanding that goes beyond reason and logic, nevertheless an understanding!) This is the aesthetic enlightenment that the ancient Sanskrit aestheticians speak about– that union of rasa and bhava, experience and emotion.

The Judaeo-Christian prescriptive texts looked upon this sort of primitive worship as being pagan and therefore false and misleading—the whole point of a totality of aesthetic experience was missed thus in the dis/ordering of a different religious universe.  While for the pre-Christian, the world was not one but many, a multiverse, for the later Christian Europe and America it was a monolithic and linear universe that needed to be accounted for in terms of reason and logic. The modernists were attempting to find a different path towards a holistic multiverse—in terms of aesthetic experience—because, as they saw it, only as an aesthetic experience can the world be finally resolved!

The struggle of modern art was to reestablish the living connection with a world that appeared to be artless and fragmented, nevertheless in an unconnected whole. This could account for the invention of the modernist idea of art as autotelic—visible, tactile and audible all at once. This could be seen in modernist poetry and painting too.

Postmodernism challenged the very ideology of organic unity and linear narrative. In a globalised world carted along by market prices and capitalist ideologies the work of art is a misnomer—there could only be attempts to works of art! Every icon has lost its idea and stands isolated and dislocated. How could one speak of aesthetico- religious experience, when the aesthetic itself can only be seen as traces of a grand narrative, therefore failing to make any sense. The pretentious politics of modernist art practices was challenged and undermined as one serving only to conceal the pernicious project of modernity and neocolonialism.

At this point it will be interesting to go back to where I started: the painting class-room and the undergraduate students’ work.  There are visually pleasing as well as shocking images—there are infantile, naïve figurative drawings with cartoon-like expressions, some deliberate some uncertain—there are colors applied with gusto and love, sometimes simply for the very texture of the canvas, sometimes so skillfully and carefully—there are images reminiscent of German expressionists and American abstract-expressionists, there are echoes of Chagall, Klimt, Munch, Kandinsky, Pollock and Klee (perhaps the major source of inspiration for students in this department) In all one feels that there is still remains so much to explore—these works are ongoing instances of the search for the forms of things unknown. The craft and technique are not unique or even new. The drawing skills are yet be grasped firmly. But then the exploration of the inner universe is so evident in many works—notably in some outstanding canvasses that could very well have been mistaken for the touch of the expert artists. The language of art is definitely free from the experience of the here and now, it is liberated from the biological and the corporeal. Perhaps it would be interesting to see the dislocation of the painted image from the locale and the bioregional. While literary artists are attempting to resuscitate the bioregional ties with the land and terrain, and poetry and fiction turning towards the natural and the elemental — towards working out an aesthetics of the environment, painting most noticeably is liberating itself more and more from the here and now. Even in landscape painting, that is most definitely a post-renaissance genre evolving for the most in the narrative contexts of western art, there is a certain move towards the globally recognizable paradigms, rather than a succumbing to the restraining rhythms of a bioregional narrative.

The modernist attempts towards recovery of the autotelic image and icon, is being continuously taken up by the postmodernists: I do not see a disjunction between modernism and postmodernism in terms of their aesthetic.  Perhaps postmodernism is a continuation of modernism, in a more liberated sense. After all, the masks of modernism have been ripped apart and the ideology of the organic image challenged. These artists are working in a more liberated space of a freer multiverse, where resistance and subversion are not suppressed and where difference and multiplicity are recognized. While on the one hand eschatological visions of holocaust and the end of history are deliberated in a postindustrial ideological context (in the departments of literature and history), creativity and its aesthetic relish are still explored in the silent language of painting. The creative expressions of the undergraduate students of UNR painting department are unique instances of this ongoing process or recovery of an aesthetic-religious experience, free from the boundaries of established grand narratives at once modern and postmodern.

[This is an extract From Murali Sivaramkrishnan, Learning to Think Like Myself, New Delhi: Gnosis, 2010.]




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