Talking about art

Should all art cease, we would be anything but human

Published - April 18, 2021 01:17 am IST

In the film Dead Poets Society , Robin Williams, as an effervescent teacher John Keating, says, “No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” In a world that is increasingly attributing credibility to figures, that is quick to dismiss new-found ideas with a question that almost sounds like a taunt, “But where are the statistics?”, his philosophies of life offer solace.

This is in no way a critique of using hard data to drive policy and business decisions, but the over-reliance on data (that can be skewed), the lack of human touch narratives and dialogue with stakeholders, particularly the beneficiaries, is the very reason that social welfare policies do not have the intended impact. There are drastic consequences when human beings are stripped off their identities and idiosyncrasies and simply become data points and it is certainly repugnant that the big tech companies of Silicon Valley perceive users as “interchangeable little neurons in a global super brain, no one of which is important” (Jaron Lanier, The Social Dilemma ).

Perhaps as a marker of the finality of transitioning into adulthood, I find free-floating shapes and figures shifting, in the largely unimaginative world of grown-ups, to form concrete blocks. Robin Williams, in the movie, identifies that mainstream society chooses to underplay the importance of art, sidelines it to favour the more “serious” vocations and blatantly dismisses art as an ancillary activity, something to be done at leisure, when one has completed the day’s toil.

The movie came out in 1989 (coincidentally, the same year the Microsoft Office suite was launched) and Keating’s lament on the perceived unimportance of creative pursuits is still relevant. What is hypocritical about downplaying the essentiality of art is that art, in its many forms, is constantly devoured by society. Music videos, films and books provided a lifeline and prevented many from falling off the deep end in the pandemic-induced mental distress last year. And yet it is hard to drive home to everyone the notion that art is essential and is at the core of our being, and while we could do away with Excel sheets and PowerPoint presentations, we can never do away with art, because art is an expression of who we are and in creating it or in revelling in it as an audience, we find that we are connected in ways we cannot imagine, that it is the same existential angst that the protagonist of the novel faced that you once faced, or similar line of thought that you share with the filmmaker. Art reaffirms that you are not alone.

Art has multiple forms and interpretations; from singers, actors, musicians, writers, to potters, dancers, theatre artists, filmmakers and several others, everyone is an ‘artist’, and most important, anyone can be. The world of art is a democratic space that instead of stripping you of your identity, makes you use your own identity, experiences, and thoughts in the process of creating art.

Artists are imaginative creators or actors who collaborate to create something original and unique in its perception. The act of creation is powerful, and the impact of art can be vast and boundless, in timeframes and in the intensity of its influence. Art is celebrated and recognised beyond the artist’s lifetime. We read the works of several 20th century writers, such as Slyvia Plath and J.D. Salinger, discuss it in length and maybe even relate to their ideas and feelings, and for this reason, it is impossible to measure the exact influence of an artist’s work, for it extends across periods and touches lives that are far from the place of its creation.

Art can be cathartic, to share and convey feelings from the deepest recesses of your mind, it can be a way to deal with uncomfortable emotions such as humiliation, guilt, anger and hurt. Art can be political, expressing dissent, cementing your stance on social issues, drawing from your socio-economic identity and at times, lending a voice to the plight of others. In his Ted talk, graphic novelist R. Alan Brooks says “Art scares dictators” and cites the example of the Nazis destroying books and paintings. Much was said and tweeted about Enjoy Enjaami , the independent Tamil video song, with special focus on its societal and environmental significance. The political climate in which this song has been launched is pertinent. The virality of this song has brought to the fore issues such as caste-based discrimination, farmers’ plight and the rampant corporatisation of natural habitats in the past decade.

While enjoying art in our daily lives, it is high time we recognised its power to begin essential and sometimes, difficult dialogues. It is important to support local art and encourage independent artists. Should all art cease, we would be anything but human.

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