no absolute skill

Aarti recently lent me Herbert Read’s book The Meaning of Art. I kept a notebook by my side, because I couldn’t resist writing and doodling as I read. Through some excerpts from the first chapter, I have tried to chart out what art probably means for me now.

When odd guy art’s post What is Art? was published in December 2010, I’d promised in my comment there that I would hunt for answers. But, I have come to believe there is actually no answer, only more questions and different doors we can choose from to hunt more.

I still cannot confidently string a few words into some definition of art. Herbert Read says,

Arthur Schopenhauer caricatured by Wilhelm Busch

Arthur Schopenhauer caricatured by Wilhelm Busch. Source: Wikipedia

1. Definition of Art : “…It was Schopenhauer who first said that all arts aspire to the condition of music; that remark has often been repeated, and has been the cause of a good deal of misunderstanding, but it does express an important truth. Schopenhauer was thinking of the abstract qualities of music; in music, it is possible for the artist to appeal directly, without the intervention of a medium of communication in common use for other purposes. The architect must express himself in buildings which have some utilitarian purpose. The poet must use words which one bandied about in the daily give-and-take of conversation. The painter usually expresses himself by the representation of the visible world. Only the composer of music is perfectly free to create a work of art of his own consciousness, and with no other aim than to please. But all artists have this same intention, the desire to please and art is most simply and most usually defined as attempt to create pleasing forms. ” pg 15-16

I found some ease in the way he put this, because instead of creating a new definition he chose to build on Schopenhauer’s words that suited him best. As for thinking of art as creating pleasing forms, I don’t know too many artists who consciously do so. But then again, I know many who do so for survival. Their art might please others, but each artist’s definition of pleasure and each spectator’s ranking of pleasure differ. He continues,

3. Definition of beauty: “…the test of a serious student of art is that, whatever his own sense of beauty, he is willing to admit into the realm of art the genuine manifestation of that sense in other people at other periods.” pg 17

4. Distinction between art and beauty: “…Most of our misconceptions of art arise from a lack of consistency in the use of words art and beauty. It might be said that we are only consistent in our misuse of them.” pg 17

At home, we often have friends gathering around for a drink. Most of these nights, at least two of us end up in a bitter argument on our understanding of protest, politics, violence, art, writing, theatre and so on. I’ve always felt these arguments simply rise because we refuse to understand that all these words are ambiguous to us. We have our own definitions, or definitions we build on, and when posed with another definition, we break a few glasses, storm out of a few rooms or maybe with tear-filled eyes paint forty sheets of paper with all the left over paint. There’s beauty in these ugly consequences. So, Read doesn’t stop with one definition,

5. Art as intuition: “…theory of aesthetics derived from Benedetto Croce…its general tenet, that art is perfectly defined when simply defined as intuition.” pg 18

Through this chapter, he actually almost agrees that art is all-encompassing and there is no one definition we can paste on it. The same goes for beauty,

6. The classical ideal: “The concept of beauty is, indeed, of limited historical significance… A Greek Aphrodite, a Byzantine Madonna, and a savage idol from New Guinea or the Ivory Coast cannot one and all belong to this classical sense of beauty.” pg 18-19

How can we then understand art or aesthetics? I’ve tried many times to form the image in my head before I put a pen to paper, but somehow I am freehand monger. I like to see where this piece will take me. This is how I choose to write, direct plays, and doodle…trial and error…question-to-question. Like odd guy art’s professor thinks Michelangelo’s David is not art because it was commissioned and the idea was not his, even though it was the artist who had decided which inch to chisel off and which to leave. Can we understand art through how the artist relates to his or her form of art?

7. Art not uniform: “Art, we must admit, is not the expression in plastic form of any one particular ideal. It is the expression of any ideal which the artist can realize in plastic form.” pg 19

And where does that realization come from? I find it endearing that history finds a way in to every nook and corner of life. It is history on which we stand and on which we build. I am not writing propaganda for the classical ideal or holding a placard that says ‘Old is Gold’ and I’ll let Read clear that for me,

9. Form and expression: “…The art of a period is a standard only so long as we learn to distinguish between the elements of form, which are universal, and the elements of expression, which are temporal.” pg 21

I guess the more we delve on why we are like this, on what influences us individually and as a society, art becomes clearer. Absolute skill could take a few years at a college with personal tutors. But, art is finally the artist’s relationship with his or her form and how there is mutual and constant exploration shared.

12. Distortion: “…Isolate the art and you are reduced to the elements of form and colour.” pg 25

The artist’s material is not paint, words, stone or clay. These are tangible materials that someone can use and still refuse to make art. I cannot consciously call any of the high-rise buildings and SEZs growing on marsh lands to be art. However, architecture is art. Art has to interact with its environment, whether that environment is a canvas or a forest.

14. The personal element: “What we really expect in a work of art is a certain personal element – we expect the artist to have if not a distinguished mind, at least a distinguished sensibility. We expect him to reveal something to us that is original – a unique and private vision of the world.” pg 27

Once, a painter friend of mine told me that writing must be extremely difficult, because it requires me to self-explore and criticize constantly. Maybe all art requires that. It requires us to hunt. It requires us to change and realize that change in some form.

16. Definition of form: “…the form of a work of art is nothing more than its shape, the arrangement of its parts, its visible aspects… Form does not imply regularity, or symmetry, or any kind of fixed proportion… We will assume that it is a picture, and that as the saying is, it moves us.” pg 28

Sometimes we draw something or write something, but the minute it is over we proceed to hate and despise it. My shelves are filled with papers and canvases of things I have hated, but nevertheless created. Most works of art are done because the artist needs to spill and wants to fumble around for some window.

19. Sentimentality: “The work of art is, in some sense, a liberation of the personality; normally our feelings are inhibited and repressed….Art is the economy of feeling; it is emotion cultivating good form.” pg 30-31

The further the discussion with Herbert Read’s ideas of art goes, the more confused I become about the meaning of art. Or do I understand the word ‘meaning’ itself wrong? Today, I am part of a world that is ever-changing, inter-connected, loud and fragmented. It is hard for me to sit around day in and out trying to explore my inner self. Artists have to often think about audiences and markets to change their art. Sometimes this takes away the relationship and makes it a monotonous skill of the individual. It is no longer art, if I understand Read correctly.

23. Abstract art: “We must not be afraid of this word ‘abstract’. All art is primarily abstract. For what aesthetic experience, derived it incidental trappings and associations, but a response of the body and mind of man to invented or isolated harmonies? Art is an escape from chaos.” pg 33

I have over the last three years tried again and again to write for others. However, to write for a particular market makes me feel like the cow tied up down the road, not able to walk, drink water, or eat until the time for it arises. For survival, I have tried to mould myself to accept different assignments from editors and even once successfully wrote an article on the airiness of bamboo pillows. But at the end of the day, it leaves a sore on my foot and a bad taste in my mouth. It is true I would rather enjoy writing (i.e. explore) politics, theatre, culture, arts, society and all in an inter-connected way. I would have to wait and strive to be solicited to go on writing my own way.

A fellow writer once commanded me to write a novel. She said if I get published, all my dilemmas would be solved. I tried explaining to her that survival or fame weren’t my dilemmas, but my ability to invoke and submerge in the art of writing itself. Why can’t I write if someone walks up to me and says write 3000 words on Baba Ramdev? Why can’t I just conjure up an idea for a novel and get typing on it? Why do I prefer to just write every day and find my stories through that?

25. Psychological values: ” The artist is impervious to ideas at his peril but his business is not with the presentation of such ideas, but with the communication of his emotional reaction to them.” pg 35-36

Theatre, painting, writing are the mediums of art that I have chosen. Some people might not accept my all-encompassing understanding of art. Art is the medium through which we explore ourselves and everything around us. It is our experience and the reaction to it. For instance, even breathing is an art. I do not know how to breathe properly. I understood this in a play workshop I was part of with the Performers in Chennai (Perch) with Rajiv Krishnan. My breathing has its own mind that I find it very hard to understand it.

Art is personal. Art is social. Art is political. Art is a process. Art is interaction. Art is the willingness to ask ‘What is Art?’

Herbert Read closes his book in chapter three with this paragraph:

90. The ultimate values: “…In expressing his intuition the artist will use materials placed in his hands by the circumstances of the time: at one period he will scratch on the walls of his cave, at another he will build or decorate a temple or a cathedral, at another he will paint on canvas for a limited circle of connoisseurs. The true artist is indifferent to the materials and conditions imposed upon him. He accepts any conditions, so long as they can be used to express his will-to-form. Then in the wider mutations of history his efforts are magnified or diminished, taken up or dismissed, by forces which he cannot predict, and which have very little to do with the values of which he is the exponent. It is his faith that those values are nevertheless among the eternal attributes of humanity.” Pg 191

Please share your view of art and let me know if there are more books I could read.


Excerpts chosen and interpreted are from The Meaning of Art written by Herbert Read, first published in 1931; reprinted in 1950 by Pelican Books: Penguin Books in Association with Faber and Faber. The book can be purchased on Amazon.

From the back cover HERBERT READ, the son of a farmer, was born in 1893 near Kirbymoorside, Yorkshire, and was at the University of Leeds, when the first World War broke out. He served as an Infantry officer in France and Belgium…In 1933, he became the Editor of the Burlington Magazine… His publications include: Collected Poems, The Green Child, Annals of Innocence and Experience (autobiography), The Sense of Glory, Reason and Romanticism, A Coat of Many Colours, Wordsworth, In Defence of Shelley, The Meaning of Art, Art Now, Art and Society, Art and Industry, The Politics of the Unpolitical, Poetry and Anarchism, Education Through Art, The Grass Roots of Art, Phases of English Poetry, Coleridge as Critic.

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