Once three people were sculpting various images on rocks at a proposed temple site. A passer-by inquired of them what they were doing. The first replied that he was earning a living. The second one said he was sculpting a beautiful image and the third said enthusiastically that he was carving a temple. The first person, we are to make out, was a simple artisan working for a living, while the second was making art his profession seeking fame and fortune alongside. The third could be a person on the road to spiritual fulfilment looking upon his work as a sadhana.
Ram K. Piparaiya in his Art Reinterprets Art narrates innumerable asides like this one in his efforts to differentiate the endeavour of Indian and western artists and sculptors. In his view the Indian artist has inherited a long lineage of centuries of practice where all art led ultimately toward a spiritual quest. In fact it is detachment (vairagya) that raises the practice of art to the level of sadhana.
Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra defines abhyas as that effort directed toward the attainment of that transcendental state in which the mind is free from all disturbances. Much like what Plato in ancient Greece visualised as the three ideals of all art — truth, goodness and beauty — the ancient Indian mind also appears to have visualised three spiritual ideals — satyam, sivam, sundaram. Thus even from ancient times, art in India was conceptual and inclined to the spiritual rather than toward the representative as it happened in the west.
Close-examining the innumerable ways in which art has evolved over the centuries in different cultural contexts and historical conditions, the author of this sumptuously loaded book concludes: “I believe that art is art only as long as it is pursued as an avocation, without any monetary motives. Art cease to be art and becomes a profession, when its objective is to make money or earn fame…. Excessive individualism leads to narcissism; and money motives transform relationships into nexuses. A mix of individualism and commercialization has led to narcissistic nexuses in the world of art.”
Spiritual and mundane
Piparaiya’s major attempt in this book appears to be to trace the various ways in which different art forms have engaged with ideas of the spiritual as well as the mundane over a large period of art history. As he sees it, in the West and the East alike, art has been a process of discovery and experimentation — god, sex and money are the triad under which he establishes their history and evolution.
The entire book is rife with facts, figures and anecdotes depicted under 10 chapters. There are also many thumbnail versions of several well-known paintings and sculptures from all over the world about which the author incorporates many issues and interesting anecdotes. Considering the fact that the author has chosen to review more than five thousand years of art history of the world in his book running into 600-odd pages — the entire project is a monumental task. Added to it is the issue of critical training and direct exposure to works of art which the author politely states that he does not possess. In fact, Ram K. Piparaiya categorically states at the very outset that his literature-survey has revealed to him that most available books about art are either too specialised or too elementary — the only exception he chooses to highlight is The Story of Art by E H Gombrich. He distinguishes his own efforts from that of Gombrich in that his endeavour is to examine modern and contemporary art. Then comes the real blow: Ram K Piparaiya cautions the reader that he is neither an artist nor an art academician (sic). He has an innate urge to write about subjects that fascinate him. “Serendipity acts as a catalyst. I call it intellectual adventurism.” So then the book assumes the tone and level of a casual coffee table book or a collection of mere facts and figures.
God, sex, money
Of course, the most distinguishing feature of our times is the plethora of information on almost anything and everything that is freely available even to the dilettante over the web. Anyone can venture to make any statement about virtually any field from Cybernetics to Cosmic Physics, and safely get away with it, drawing liberally from indiscriminate sources. Piparaiya here is no exception. As he himself states, his trajectory from New York to India during innumerable business trips had taken him over decades through the Wall Street and Stock Market and Indian Scriptures and finally paintings and sculpture. The confidence that comes with the ease of access to sheer information had seemingly inspired him to download and cut and paste bounteous information for the sheer benefit of the casual viewer and the equally desultory reader. The book is thus one among the many of his adventures.
Granted, it is no mean task to unearth facts about art and art history. However, for one who cares little for such highly specialised fields where insight, diligence, commitment, and scholarship have evolved over centuries, and who turns a blind eye toward all these so casually to the extent of making sweeping comments and equally unsubstantiated connections and claims, parading information gathered from the collieries of the internet as scholarship with sheer negligence and ease, the sky is the limit. For this author there are these three issues: god, sex and money — which constitute the cornerstones of all art activity, irrespective of whether the artists deliberately engaged with them or not. While the early phase led the inquiring soul toward the metaphysical planes the gross levels of the mundane pulled them toward issues of sexuality or commercial success.
For Piparaiya, then, the history of art is a loose array of activities individually or collectively initiated irrespective of geography, culture, or desire. As one instance of his “art critical” enterprise we may quote the following: “Picasso…married twice and had multiple mistresses. Salvador Dali… married only once and he did not have any mistresses. He even encouraged his wife to be a muse or a lover to other artists and poets. Picasso’s women were up to 40 years younger to him and he used them as his possessions, which he discarded at will. Dali really loved his wife — 11 years elder to him… The contrast continued in their art as well. Picasso…distorted style in the name of Cubism, Dali distorted contents in the style of Surrealism.”
He even lays claim to the spiritual origins of Indian art which has now undergone a market transformation in terms of representation and commerce. It is deplorable that the author lacks any cohesive historical sense with regard to a most significant human activity like art. The cultural moorings and corroborative interrogations of innumerable artists in either west or east makes so little sense in the eyes of an author who has arranged snippets of information piece meal for collective consumption in the market driven economy of the present. The book if at all it pleases it does so in bits and parts and thus still remains a delectable compilation, a source book for information collated and garnered with the express intention of showing the reader that art is an activity that deserves a special place — whether it makes any tall claims or no claims to cohesiveness at all.
(Murali Sivaramakrishnan is Professor of English in Pondicherry Central University)