Reducing art to a popularity contest

Creativity is more than just making ends meet or drawing public attention

Does art matter so much? I recently came across a quote from Phylicia Rashad, celebrated American actor, which said that art is so fundamental to human expression as evidenced by how children sing before they speak, draw before they write, and dance before they start walking.

I am in rainy England as I write this, doing my annual pilgrimage to mentor and train SAMYO, Britain’s orchestra for Indian music. As always, I am struck by the amount of art in public places from installations, vibrant graffiti, poetry in the underground and public kiosks for film viewing. The most fascinating of them all, to me, is the installation entitled ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’. This consists of almost 1900 pianos in public places, which anyone at any skill level can play. Local artistes use the piano as a canvas. Videos of artistes using these pianos — in stations, bus stops, sidewalks, malls — have been inundating the Internet. Started by artiste Luke Jerram in Sheffield, this movement has now spread to hundreds of cities globally. Where pianos are damaged or stolen, communities spring together and replace them. It is one of the world’s most interesting public art projects. Perhaps one of the most moving as it has unearthed so much talent. It is built on the belief that it is natural for everyone to be creative, collaborative and inventive when given the opportunity.

In looking for public art installations of this scale in India, I thought of the traditional kolams, an age-old practice in South India. Combining the love of structure and creativity in equal measure (both sides of the brain), this daily changing pattern of dots and lines have been on public display from time immemorial. Nothing celebrates this more than the Mylapore Festival, lovingly put together every year by Vincent D’Souza and team.

Talent may not be the only purpose for art in public places. As the recently concluded Chennai Photo Biennale evidenced, it also offers anyone in the community a respite from the mundane, a moment in time where the mind merges with something more idealistic than the jobs at hand. In a life corrugated with anxiety, it is a reminder to strive for something more than just making ends meet.

And yet, in a country such as ours with our teeming billions and ubiquitous talent, do we truly celebrate art?

I find that life in India has become one giant reality show. Thanks to the data floodgates opening, we have everyone accessing the Internet for almost all their needs. The boundary between art and entertainment has blurred so much that the quest is more for virality and popularity than it is for truly artistic endeavour.

Working with the number of children (and parents) that I do, what I find even more dangerous is the notion that it is more important for children to win reality shows than it is for them to learn art or music for their own sake. I see children getting dispirited when they do not qualify for any of these shows. Creativity and originality have given way to quick “cover” songs, copying others’ viral ideas and image-friendly sets and props. In a climate such as this, we are losing our original thinkers, writers, musicians, poets, artists, image makers and storytellers. Bollywood and all its regional variants stand in for artistic expression — which is fun for the most part, but not exactly inspiring originality. A child interested in Warli painting, or writing haiku poetry or playing his own compositions is quickly told to replace these with gimmicks that will be noticed.

In encouraging this behaviour, we have reduced art to a popularity contest, a race to be won. We are not fostering creativity. We are endangering it.

The writer is a well-known pianist and music educator

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 10:51:59 PM |

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