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Sunday, November 4, 2001
'Art and Soul

Arts in the time of crisis
B.N Goswamy

AT a time when skyscrapers are being reduced to rubble by terrorist strikes and missiles rain down upon miserable hovels, when the air is thick with pronouncements about reprisals and punitive measures and 'enduring freedom', who, many would ask, can think of art? Does even talking about it, in times such as these, not sound singularly irrelevant? Trivial?

Twin Towers (World Trade Centre): Metal plate by H. Jhamb
Twin Towers (World Trade Centre): Metal plate by H. Jhamb

And yet, like the rest of life itself, the arts go on. They must, in fact, go on. Not only because they are so integral a part of life, but also because — far from being simply entertainment, or diversion — they are capable of leading one, in a visceral kind of way, towards a deeper understanding of life. Within them nestles a world that is subtle and layered, filled with comments and probings, questions and, sometimes, the resolution of questions. With reason, one speaks of 'cultural awareness' as a bridge between peoples, and of 'cultural ignorance' as a corrosive force that can only eat away, destroy.

EARLIER COLUMNS
The Nizams and their jewels
October 21, 2001
Reviving a languishing craft
October 7, 2001
Buddhism in Australia
September 23, 2001
Excavating the City of David
August 26, 2001
The threshold of renunciation
August 12, 2001
The Mountain Goddess of Japan
July 29, 2001
The arts of heraldry
July 15, 2001
The ‘timeless’ Indian shawl
July 1, 2001
To "explore with desire"
June 17, 2001
Things that museums do
June 3, 2001
Taoism and the arts of China
May 20, 2001
Some fakes and a scandal
May 6, 2001
A collector’s intimate world
April 22, 2001
Gutenberg and his ‘new art of writing’
March 25, 2001
Difficult business of authentication
February 25, 2001
Artist’s view of Kutch: A place apart
February 11, 2001

It is possible for me to go on in this strain, but I am inclined to take an abrupt turn here. For I wish to hasten towards sharing with others here a fine piece of writing, a short editorial, that I came upon in the October issue of The Art Newspaper, published from London and New York. The news on the front page is of course about the ‘Sack of New York', and there are reports about the reaction of the museums to the September 11 attacks, the effect of these attacks upon the art market: in other notices appear details of some of the losses incurred by art insurance firms, and the fears that the tourism industry will have to live with for a while.

But Anna Somers Cocks's editorial, which shares space with these pieces on the front page of the paper, does not even touch upon these specifics; says nothing about the Liechtenstein and the Miro and the Calder works which, among others, have just simply disappeared in the piles of rubble. She raises other issues, graver and more fundamental to the times in which suddenly everyone is speaking of a 'clash of civilisations'. Her editorial opens with voicing concerns generated by the present, dust-laden context of life. "In the mountains of words that have been written since then ( September11)", she says, "two things have struck me painfully. The first is our dangerous ignorance about one another; second, how irrelevant the art of the period immediately pre-disaster now seems."

"Within hours of the attacks", she continues, "anyone with a dark complexion in the US, and to a lesser but still shaming extent in the UK, was at risk of revenge attacks. In the US, a Sikh was taken off a train by policemen, and another shot dead just because, like an Afghan, they wore turbans. In Fort Lauderdale (Florida), rednecks spoiling for a fight said to the Daily Telegraph journalist: 'What has an Arab ever given to the world; who has ever heard of a famous Arab?' And the great military campaign was called 'Infinite Justice' (then hurriedly renamed)."

Appalled by all this ignorance, and these deep-seated prejudices, she speaks sharply — one can almost hear the tremors of anger inside her — while managing to keep a detached tone. "If there was ever a justification for good teaching, for that broad cultural awareness that the Germans call Bildung", she say, "this must be it: that we will continually be offending each other, sometimes mortally, if we only know one reality, and do not understand that the world looks different according to where you stand on it." She continues to build upon the theme: "So you confuse a Sikh with a Muslim; you threaten him and turn him into an enemy. So you do not know that the Greek philosophers and mathematics came to us through the Arabs; you insult their culture and their pride. So you do not know that for Muslims (and for Christians too, but we have lost that fine attention to theological meaning), only Allah/God is infinitely just; you risk setting the entire Islamic world against your campaign by your sacrilege…. All this obtuseness piles error on error, separating us one from another, making peace an utter impossibility."

There are things she has to say, in this very context, about the art of our times — so much of it, according to her, has been "about boredom, neurosis, self-disgust, social dissolution: the 'luxuries' of a period of risk-free excess" — but there is not enough space for me to cite from her any further. Except to add that she senses a change coming, for "it is another world now". One may not expect any immediate moves — in any case, art produced in hurried response to crisis has its limitations, "perhaps because the experiences are too strong to be digested and interpreted at the time" — but it will happen. Possibly, when things become a little clearer than they are now, and one knows what kind of war that is being waged at present it will turn out to be.

Meanwhile, I am sure there is already a ferment inside many a mind, a manthana— churning— as we call it in Sanskrit terms. Of interest to me was how one Indian artist 'recorded' the September 11, event on a metal plate that is reproduced here.

A marked insensitivity

This has nothing to do with 'art in the time of crisis', but I was struck, as I often am, and angered, by what I saw as I sat waiting in the departure lounge of the Jaipur airport the other day. It was happening around an art-work, set in the midst of the fairly spacious lounge: a trough-like structure with slightly raised edges. Inside that is a large sheet of mirror in which is reflected a large, semi-abstract painting that is placed directly above it, close to the ceiling, and suspended from it with rods. All that one sees, as one peers at the trough-mirror, is the painting, and the illusion of it occupying space inside some deep, subterranean chamber. The installation is poorly placed, one must admit, but is not uninteresting, and one sees people edge close to it from time to time. That day, as I sat waiting, and reading, a family came and occupied some chairs close to the art-work. There were two couples — jeans-clad, and seemingly well-travelled — with three children. Within minutes, bored by the waiting, the children began running about. One of them looked down at the mirror; then, on an impulse, put his leg across the edging and placed a foot upon the mirror; soon the second child followed, and then the third. It turned into a game for them, and the parents just sat there, watching and chatting, barely concerned. Equally little concerned was the security staff that stood around, supremely indifferent. After a little while, unable to take it, I went up to the couples, and asked if what their children was doing was right in their eyes. They heard me, a rude response barely held back, and one of them made a lazy gesture in the direction of the children, asking them to desist. But there was no conviction in the gesture, no sense of any wrong being done. Then, fortunately for all concerned, I think, on the public address system came the announcement of a departure call, and everyone started moving.

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