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You Think You Know What Art Is?

Muntakim Haque writes on the role and perception of Art based on the lectures at Bengal Institute by Nisar Hossain, Monirul Islam, Wakilur Rahman and Sajjad Sharif

School of Athens, Painted by Rafael, 18th CenturySchool of Athens, Painted by Rafael, 18th Century

Whenever the question of what art is crosses one’s mind, it will invariably be swarmed with conflicting if not contradictory answers. If one were to look at the ancient Greeks’ take on art, it would be very easy to relate. From Plato’s attribute of art as imitation, and therefore inferior to the real thing, to Aristotle’s point of view that we all learn through imitations and the more we try to imitate, the more we learn about the things we are trying to imitate, our views on art and its purpose show no sign of the debate calming down.

Shureshwari Shora, Image Courtesy: Nisar Hossain

Art is not always attached to names, it is not always groundbreaking, and not always even unique. In his lectures at Bengal Institute, Nisar Hossain, Dean of the Department of Arts of the University of Dhaka, invokes through the works of vernacular, utilitarian artworks of rural Bengal from a few centuries ago some very fundamental questions: Why were these artworks marginalised and why are they now revered? How do ordinary practices influence art? If the identity of the artists are unknown, as is the case for these artworks, what truly is the meaning of these items? How can these be classified as art if their purpose and the intent behind them are not explicitly explained by the creators, and can only be deduced through second-hand evidence? Nineteenth century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy would most likely disagree to these items being called art as he believed, “An artist creates as a way of communicating feelings to other people – oftentimes, feelings that can’t be expressed in mere words.” He even went as far as to say “Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.” Tolstoy’s argument was for a very conscious intervention of the artist and the explicit defining of the art by the creator.

Contemporary American philosopher Arthur Danto postulated various thought experiments that elaborate on the ideas of the definition of art. In the book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, he proposed that we imagine a selection of identical canvases that were square and painted red, each of which has a different background, meaning and name. One is a ‘Red Square,’ a Communist tribute painted as an homage to Russian avant-garde artist and art theorist Malevich, the next being a historical painting of the Red Sea, another being a Red Tablecloth, by a sour disciple of French artist Henri Matisse, and the last a canvas primed red by the Italian painter Giorgione. They are all aesthetically same and yet, could they possibly be the same?

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed one merely needs to know art as they experience it. This is in opposition to the argument made by Danto and Tolstoy. Prominent Bangladeshi artist Monirul Islam perhaps exemplifies the duality of this thought and represents both sides of this argument. He doesn’t believe his art is ever complete, as he keeps working on them throughout their lifetime, even the intent and meaning with which he initially started his work may change. He sees no explicit and unalterable definition. This adheres to Wittgenstein’s school of thought. However, Monirul Islam also feels strongly that art cannot be mass produced, as even if art can change its definition it still requires a conscious intervention of the artist to be conceived as art. If one is creating factory produced items, these items cannot have this conscious intent, and thus cannot be considered art.

Macaca nigra self-portrait

A recent legal case known as the Monkey Selfie Copyright Dispute put the issue of conscious artistic intervention to the forefront. The dispute was over rights to selfies that were taken by Naruto, a wild Celebes crested macaque, when a wildlife photographer named David Slater was not attending to his camera. This issue was resolved earlier this year when not only was Slater denied any ownership of the images as he didn’t make a conscious click to capture them, judges also shut down PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who claimed Naruto should own the images as Naruto clicked the camera. This series of events brings about the question, are these images art? Even though the images do not have a conscious artist, since Naruto didn’t know what he was doing (and neither did Slater), then how involved must a conscious decision be, in order to make something art? PETA tried to set precedent that animals were capable of conscious thought that could create art. Whether one agrees with this notion or not, it is noteworthy that the marginalisation in art due to similar kind of disdain amongst people is and has been fairly commonplace.

It is obvious that the influence of social and economic divides in the art of Bengal are set quite deep. The role of politics of economic classes between occupations that lived off the land and industry based proprietors dictated the kind of items that were being created by these two groups. For instance, communities more dependent on land based resources worshipped certain gods, inspired by the geography, and followed certain rituals and were looked down upon by communities more reliant on industry. Nisar Hossain deduced that communities living off the land were more inclined towards protecting traditions. A large proportion of the art in Bengal was rooted in everyday practices and traditions. In many cases the art was localised by specific people’s taste in confined regions. Classism and the caste system have influenced the acceptance and marginalisation of various forms of art which created clear distinctions in the region. Nisar Hossain maintains that art is not only for showcasing but also of use. He explained that anthropologists measure the acclaim of any art by its relevance to the human experience and history, which means works based on rituals revolving around the lifestyles of people in regions can qualify as art but is often neglected. For example, the artform of painting pots was rooted not as an expression of an individual artist or bespoke works for specific elites. They were all commodities for sale for ritualistic practices. Even so, the artform withstood the test of time and transcended the definition of an everyday practice. In this regard, the following thought experiment by Arthur Danto could better explain this phenomenon. Danto asks us to imagine a statue that was intended by the artist to be a cat. The statue is to be placed inside a university campus and so the authorities decide it would be prudent to chain it so it cannot be moved. Generations of students come and go but they see the statue as that of a “Chained Cat” rather than a chained statue of a cat. So is the chain on the cat part of the artwork or not? It is important to establish that art could be a mundane everyday activity or a meticulously detailed project, and so the way art is perceived at any given point is not its conclusive definition.

If art by definition is so difficult to determine, what hope is there to determine the quality of art? Scottish philosopher David Hume could perhaps help in this regard. Hume believed that in order to understand the quality of art, it is very important to know the distinction between whether one likes something and whether it’s good. The phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” coined by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, rings true to Hume’s views on subjective aesthetic taste. Hume believed everyone had their own orientation towards aspects of beauty that they are drawn to. He states “productive faculty, and gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation.” More importantly, Hume supported the notion of acquired tastes. When one exercises their faculties to learn, consume or exercise something, they will be better equipped over time to further understand what defines those things and thus will acquire better taste. So, the standard of the quality of art can change with respect to both the art and the spectators. English philosopher, historian and archaeologist Robin George Collingwood tried to better establish the standards for art. He concluded that there are two kinds of art, ‘amusement’ and ‘magic’. Stating that the art that influences our lives for the better by reshaping our perceptions are the ones that are ‘magic’.

‘The Human Condition’, René Magritte, 1933

‘Las Meninas’, Diego Velázquez, 1656

The critical question now is: What role art plays in our lives, and how does it influence our perception? As a tool that shapes perception and imagery, art can play a critical role in establishing the way something is perceived. Contemporary Bangladeshi artist Wakilur Rahman believes that Paul Cézanne’s works on cubism was one of the ways in which the perception of images would permanently be changed. René Magritte’s works like The Treachery of Images, The Human Condition and Son of Man, and Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas demonstrate the clear role of perception in imagery and artwork, as they obscure the lines between perceiving and being perceived. This was clarified by Sajjad Sharif, poet, journalist and author, who further elaborated on perception and what can be referred to as “breaking the fourth wall” in artistic imagery, during a session with Bengal Institute. He then used Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon to show how motion pictures have the ability to shape perception, as the movie questions the very nature of narratives. Both Wakilur Rahman and Sajjad Sharif referred to the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky’s works as examples of films that dissect the perception of time in unique and innovative ways, and help the audience better understand it. Motion pictures have come a long way in many ways. No longer are audiences afraid of being crushed by seeing images of a moving train in film, like they were when “L’Arrivée d’un train” by Auguste and Louis Lumière first premiered. However, just as motion pictures have the ability to open minds, it is more often than not used for obscuring the truth. In that aspect, it hasn’t come very far at all. The early American film The Birth of a Nation, the epitome of racist propaganda, was one of the first completed full length feature films, and one with the massive financial backing of the Ku Klux Klan. This particular film was selected for preservation into the National Film Registry despite its controversy and clear breach of ethical responsibilities, into a list almost exclusively made up of works widely accepted as pieces of art.

Edwin Longsden Long – Uncle Tom and Little Eva

A fairly recent controversy in Sweden involving the Chilean born artist Marco Evaristti and the exhibition ‘Helena’ could be a case that further explains the connection of ethics and art. Evaristti exhibited a selection of goldfish placed inside electric blenders that the spectators could turn on. It was a clear breach of animal rights but with a clear artistic intent and insight into the behaviour of everyone involved. Now, if his work is to be accepted as art, despite the moral contentions, then on what grounds would The Birth of a Nation not be? To represent the other side of this argument, works like Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe has to be cited. This book was written before the American Civil War when slavery was widely accepted as morally just, and was legal in the United States. At that time, this work was the first to humanise the African-American slaves and caused serious outrage and calls for banning of the work. Today it is noted as one of the most important works of literature, and responsible for challenging perceptions on a deep-seeded moral flaw of the time. So how is art to be judged on the grounds of morality? In Collingwood’s view, it is the art that helps us live better that is to be revered, and this distinction is not always easy to make.

Innovations in everyday technologies could have a profound influence in the artform. As Nisar Hossain revealed, the introduction of paper had deeply affected the regional artform of Bengal as it changed the practice of the artwork itself. Since colours and dyes that worked on fabric canvases didn’t work on paper as intended, the change in medium inspired new ways of composing, painting and polishing of the art pieces, much like the influence paper had on other everyday aspects of life. It goes to show that there is perhaps no real boundary or exclusive criteria from which to define art. There is a nonlinear approach to art when it comes to using one medium over the other. What if it involves many different styles and mediums together, and blurs the lines between these regiments? Art across all mediums are now changing. The ease of access to materials and the openness of mediums has created an environment where art can not only thrive but transcend the confines of a specific form. However, it is still important to be wary of what each medium is capable of as it is also becoming a lot easier to exploit them. Art is very much a part of each and everyone’s life, which, when and how much, varies from person to person. Perhaps Ludwig Wittgenstein said it best, “In art it is hard to say anything as good as saying nothing.”

[Essay length: 2203 Words]

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