My concentration was at its peak. My focus was complete and my mind and soul were absolutely fused in muted bondage as they tried to decipher the image in front. So oblivious was I, that I barely felt a set of nimble fingers tapping me on my polished leather shoes.
Sorry, I forgot to mention that I was upside-down, standing on my head and the venue was an exhibition of contemporary abstract art in Sydney. This was my first invitation to one of these beguiling events.
A bespectacled gentleman was now tapping me quite aggressively and glaring down at me at the same time. A difficult feat but he was succeeding with an amazing grace.
“Sir,” he said in a croaking voice. “You are standing on your head.”
“And you, Sir, are stating the obvious,” I said in a choked voice (happens frequently when you are standing on your head).
Having made that profound statement, I tumbled over gingerly and stood on my feet.
The bespectacled gentleman now seemed definitely more enigmatic than what he seemed upside down.
“I am the manager of the gallery,” he said. “Umm… I was just wondering what you were doing standing on your head.”
“Looking at that particular painting,” I replied, pointing at the canvas on the wall.
“Standing on your head?”
“Yes Sir,” I said. “This is my last desperate resort. I really need to understand the piece of art and the conniving motivations of the artist.”
His reply came in the form of a simple, disgusted snort. After that insightful reply, he turned and left me standing. On my feet, this time.
Years later, on another occasion at an Australian museum, I stood before a huge blank canvas coated in white paint with a little black dot on the lower right corner. I stood there scratching my head. No – it was not the dandruff. Just the mental congestion. And, once again, another tap – this time on my shoulder – brought me back from the abyss of confusion.
“You look very confused, Sir” said a smiling face.
“Yes,” I replied pointing at the creation in front of me. “It’s a blank canvas.”
“You don’t understand,” continued the smiling face. “In this day and age, it’s what you can’t see that matters.”
“Aha!” I said and looked away intelligently trying to look for other things that I couldn’t see.
Pilate had once asked “What is truth?” and had not waited for an answer. I would refrain from such strange behavior and instead ask, “What’s art in today’s context?” and then wait for an answer. I suspect it will be a futile wait.
The readers must excuse my simple mind; one that is riddled with elementary questions. I have often asked myself as to why would painters do things that they sometimes do. Is it that they want an easy way out or is it that they are more worried about the so called “avant garde” world of art than art itself.
Wassily Kandinsky is credited to having created the first abstract watercolour and he once remarked: “The more frightening the world becomes … the more art becomes abstract.” If only he had been audience to some works that I have seen, I am convinced that he would have changed his mind and uttered with an exclamation, “The more abstract the world becomes … the more art becomes frightening.”
At times, abstract art reminds me about organized religion where the abstract artiste is the high priest; preaching and practicing doctrines based on an end product that you cannot understand or see. And at times, if you are lucky, even make money out of all the confusion. Perfect!
But why blame the fine arts alone? Having spent a life time with various art forms, I dare say that the blurring between fact and fad is equally prevalent in other quarters. This was particularly underlined when I came across a friend at a social gathering.
He bore down on me like a homing pigeon and said, “Hey! I did not see you last night at the Ravi Shankar concert!”
“I had a project to finish,” I lied. I was very much there buried in the cheaper seats at the far end of the venue.
“What a concert!” he continued. “Magnificent. His handling of the guitar was like a dream.”
“Sitar,” I said cautiously. “Ravi Shankar plays the sitar.”
“Does he now?” he said, “I thought he coached George Harrison.”
“He did,” I said. “Harrison learnt the nuances of the sitar under him.”
His eyes had clouded over by now.
“Hmmm… No wonder I thought that the guitar looked a little large! By the way, have you tasted one of the lemon pies?” he asked, pointing at the table laid out with the calories.
By then, I had lost my appetite.
I have a nagging suspicion that such “big name” concerts are more to do with the after-effects than the performance itself. The concert is merely a prelude to the next social chat and the ultimate after-party discussion. The fact that you can quickly be a social outcast at such get-togethers was all too evident at a recent “arty” event where I landed up sitting next to a youngish couple. As is expected at such events, the conversation soon turned to the arts.
Amidst other things, they showed a degree of curiosity about my opinion on Ingmar Bergman’s movies, specifically “Wild Strawberries”. Alas, I had not seen that movie and the only wild strawberries I was aware of were the ones laid out neatly among other desserts on the table, in the far corner of the room. The blank look on my face was the ultimate blow to their young (arty) souls. The lady got up with a snort (it might have been a cough) to pour herself one more free drink and the gentleman, visibly upset, shifted his chair away from me. They refused to speak to me for the rest of the boring evening.
However, I must candidly admit that art and creativity seem to be flourishing these days because and I keep on bumping into music composers, singers, painters, writers every time I turn round a corner in Sydney. These extraordinary characters lurk in the most unexpected places and the numbers seem to be growing by leaps and bounds. I must confess that I feel lost. The state of affairs within the corridors of the arts is in such a shape that getting ostracized is but easy pickings these days.
If you have not been to a Salvador Dali or M.F. Hussain exhibition, you are not worth getting an invitation to the next dinner. If you have inadvertently missed a talk by Anthony Robbins, then you are definitely depressed and an incurable hypochondriac. If you have ignored an Andrea Bocelli concert, you are but an uneducated persona doomed to a life of ignorance. If you have not read Ghalib or Goethe, you are a social stink. And finally, a slight display of ignorance about the last “Swan Dance” performance in town puts you into the untouchable category.
Sir Francis Bacon once remarked that “the job of the artist is to always deepen the mystery”. Little did he realize that in the years to come, artists (I sometimes tend to call them artful artists) will take this mystery to a level that would put their works beyond the deductive skills of Sherlock Holmes (or Poirot if you like).
Although, I have come to accept the scary conjecture that much of today’s art and its subsequent demands are driven by social vogues and that discussing “culture and arts” at social gatherings has the makings of a cult, I am still hopeful.
Hopeful that I will soon get an invitation to an event where I might come across a few artists who are willing to raise a call to arms; to come forth and do what they do best and be true to the call of creativity. These true ‘creatives’ might just be able to foreshadow the end of the ersatz connoisseurs. At one such event, I might in fact be able to say loudly that art does need the umbrella of patronage to flourish but it definitely does not need the taint of make-belief authority.
To quote a close friend and artist, known for his crude and yet, philosophical remarks, “True art does not need the air of the airy-fairy neither does it need the fart of the arty-farty”.
But then many truths of the world do tend to sound impolite.