Art: the basis of

Aesthetics and Surroundings

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Aesthetics and Surroundings

People say "art makes life beautiful" and they want the artist to make beautiful objects for them. Such a feeling is strengthened by the discoveries about ancient cultures. For instance, while making a judgment on the qualitative standards of an old civilization, the first and often the major argument art historians and archaeologists put forward is based on the quality of objects unearthed from the site of a particular civilization. "The Indus civilization was great and very mature". This belief is based on the quality of the images found during the excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa as well as the town-planning of these cities. There is hardly any other proof available, written or otherwise, supporting the argument.
Today, factories producing on a mass scale, employ artists and designers to ensure that the goods they produce are popularly accepted as beautiful. Artists are employed to guide the production of commodities of daily use, be it in handicraft workshops or in factories; they are expected to provide the artisans/workers designs—shapes and colours etc. In short, the spirit behind it all is the creation of beauty in every physical aspect of our lives. With such an important place allotted to beauty in daily life, it becomes apparent that some kind of art education should be introduced as a part of general education.
However, the question is: Are the objects and the way they are used in homes, offices or in the marketplace really beautiful? The sad thing about this question, especially in the context of India, is that life in the country, which traditionally had a very high aesthetic level, is today getting overloaded with objects of poor taste. For example, take textiles. If a world history of textiles is to be written, traditions of sarees such as Paithan, Pattan, Sambalpuri, Chanderi, Baluchari and hundreds more will feature on top of the list. In the same country today women take pride in wearing voile and georgette sarees. A country which produced (and still produces) the most beautiful bronze vessels, today takes pride in manufacturing and using a large quantity of aluminium pots in the kitchen. The bronze artisan is being forced out of his vocation. Few countries had such a rich tradition of beautiful and educationally sound toys for children. But today the Sunday market is saturated with tin and plastic toys. If a traditional toy maker, by mistake, goes to the market with a basketful of his beautiful toys, he has to return home with all the toys on his back.
Generally speaking, the taste of our people has deteriorated to such an extent that the sense of proportion has been grossly distorted. Yes, there are rich people who spend large sums on making private collections of objects of traditional arts and artefacts, and they are highly respected by the society for the patronage they give to art. They are known as art connoisseurs but it is difficult to be certain that the objects of daily use in their homes, even if those objects are very expensive, are of the same aesthetic level—barring exceptions. Building an art collection and the presence of intrinsic beauty and grace in one's life today are two entirely different things.
"Considering art as a monopoly of the rich and the indulgent, many people discard it and want to keep it in exile away from their day-to-day life. They forget that the essence of real life and art is its beauty. Art cannot be judged by its price in money. The poor Santhal2 keeps his hut nicely painted with mud and cow dung and keeps his old and torn clothes neatly, but college students living in palatial hostels leave their clothes and other things untidy and spread all over, making their rooms ugly. Whereas the sense of beauty of that poor Santhal is alive and integrated with his life, the sense of beauty of the rich offspring is superficial and lifeless. I have also seen a framed calendar picture of a memsahmeb hanging next to a really good painting in the house of an educated person, an arrangement supposed to be aesthetically good. I have seen, in students' hostels, shirts hanging on picture frames, dirty cups of tea, mirror and comb lying on the study table, and paper flowers arranged in coco-cola cans, and men wearing the Indian dhoti with a Western jacket with open collar, and women wearing high heeled shoes3 with sarees. All these are examples of the lack of the sense of beauty and gracefulness in their lives. Whether we are rich or we are poor, such a situation very clearly illustrates our aesthetic poverty."4

Poverty of Taste

What are the reasons behind such a poverty of taste? There can hardly be any doubt that this aesthetic poverty is the result of the dislocation of the integration between art and life, to a great extent by the growth of industrialization which had the built-in mechanism to cause this dislocation. This does not imply that the fault is that of industrialization, but historically speaking, industrialization, in the manner it has come about, has played a crucial role in the processes of separating art from our day-to-day life. It has caused almost a total change in the tools and methods of making objects of daily use through which our sense of beauty and balance had received expression in the past.
Methods of mass production took away the human element from the processes of making things of daily use. Artisans who made such items on a small scale were replaced by machines, the aim being to produce hundreds, nay thousands of items of identical shape and colour. Whereas the nature of the craftsman's work was to let each object have its own personality, industrialization nurtured the spirit of regimentation in the matter of aesthetic taste. The same article made, in large numbers by an artist craftsman, at the first glance may look identical, but a careful observation will show that they are riot identical. Each of the items will have something of its own about it.
Despite the Industrial Revolution, for a period, aesthetic standards, by and large, continued to be the same. Whereas the making of things on a mass scale involved machines, with as little involvement of the human hand as possible, in their design and appearance the aesthetic traditions of handicrafts continued to be considered ideal. Machines manufactured things solely from the point of view of their function, but for the presentation of the objects the standards of beauty, associated with handicrafts, were considered essential. This dichotomy reinforced the divorce between function and beauty, which had taken place even before the advent of the industrial revolution.
The kind of art produced from the point of view of beauty alone came into the category of fine arts and that which produced articles for use with functionality as the main objective was called applied art. Thus painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture and music were and are still considered fine arts. Art teaching institutions are called schools or colleges of fine arts. They may also teach some crafts, but these do not enjoy the same prestige and status as painting and sculpture do.
There was never such a compartmentalization of arts in the Indian tradition; almost everything one did or made was considered art. Vatsyayana gave a list of sixty-four arts, Jain literature listed seventy-two arts and in the Buddhist tradition the list extends to eighty-four. In fact one can go on listing all the activities which involve creativity. The most interesting thing to notice is that music, dance, painting, carpentry, blacksmithy, hairdressing, cosmetics, cooking, etc. are all listed together without any hierarchy. A barber's art is as important as that of a sculptor or a dancer and valued at the same level. In other words, every act done with a sense of beauty, grace and human relevance is art and every object created with care is an artefact.
Although the division between fine arts and applied arts was fully established as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the seeds of this division had already been sown with the advent of the Renaissance. However, it is interesting to note that even in Europe in the medieval period, every art had its practical use, whether religious, spiritual or practical. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy wrote: "Art, from the medieval point of view, was a kind of knowledge in accordance with which the artist imagined the form or design of the work to be done, and by which he reproduced this form in the required or available material. The product was not called 'art', but an 'artefact', a thing 'made by art'; the art remains in the artist. Nor was there any distinction of 'fine' from applied or 'pure' from 'decorative' art. All art was for 'good use' and 'adapted to condition'. Art could be applied either to noble or to common uses, but was no more or less art in the one case than in the other..."5
Despite the Indian philosophy of art, which listed sixty four arts on a totally non-hierarchical basis, the colonial period radically transformed the general approach of the so-called educated people in India. They imitated the Western standards and values in judging all art. The division of art between fine and applied also channeled the best talents in the direction of fine arts, especially painting and sculpture, which were mostly patronized by the rich. In addition to the effects of industrialization, the hierarchical division of the arts also caused a gradual decline in the aesthetic aspect of handicrafts. It resulted in the transformation of applied art into art applied. To put it differently, in the absence of real artistic talent, most of which went into the creation of fine arts, the artisan, in order to make his artefacts look more beautiful, hence more widely acceptable, added a maximum degree of ornamentation on to them. It is something like pasting art on items for increasing their market value. The important thing to notice in this context is that the more ornamental an item, the more it is appreciated. Actually, craftsmanship, particularly the kind with much ornamentation but little artistic element, is considered beautiful without being beautiful in the real sense.
Coomaraswamy continues: "Our use of the word 'decorative' would have been abusive, as if we spoke of a millinery or upholstery: for all the words purporting decoration in many languages, Mediaeval Latin included, referred originally not to anything that could be added to an already finished and effective product merely to please the eye or ear, but to the completion of anything with whatever be necessary to its functioning, whether with respect to the mind or the

Body : a sword, for example, would 'ornament' a knight, as virtue 'ornaments' the soul or knowledge the mind... Perfection, rather than beauty, was the end in view... Nothing unintelligible could have been thought of as beautiful.”6

In Britain some people were not happy with the Victorian standards of aesthetics and the growing commercialism due to the Industrial Revolution. Among those who built an opposition movement in that direction during the later half of the nineteenth century, were John Ruskin and later William Morris. They tried to revive the Gothic spirit and values specially in arts and religion. With a short-sighted view of history it will be easy to say, perhaps legitimately, that the Ruskin/Morris revivalist movement failed in its endeavour to change the course of events. There is, however, no doubt that its impact has been very significant from the point of view of the growth of the modern movement in arts during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. It must be admitted, though, that due to the inherent clout of industrialization and the rejection of morality involved in trade and commerce due to the influence of economists like J.M. Keynes, the failure of the revivalists was predestined.
Why do I drag Keynes into a discussion on art and education? It is because art and education on the one hand, and morality and other human values on the other, are closely related to each other. Keynes and others who led the West in its pursuit of economic happiness rejected morality, thus gearing education to greed and deceit. During the thirties, economic depression Keynes speculated on the "economic possibilities for our grand children" and concluded that the day might not be all that far off when everybody would be rich. We shall then, he said, "once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful." But, he warned, "The time for all this is not yet. For at least another 100 years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight."7 If that was the philosophy of the managers of society, how could the morality oriented movement stand against it!
At such a time the formation of the Bauhaus movement by Walter Gropius in 1919 in Weimar, Germany was an important happening. It was largely responsible for revolutionizing the teaching of painting, sculpture, the industrial arts and architecture throughout the Western world. It attracted students from Austria and Germany, who became lifelong followers. The Bauhaus sought to end the nineteenth century schism between the artist and the technically expert craftsman by training students equally in both fields. In the first year, each workshop was taught by both a craftsman and an artist. Later, as the school trained its own teachers, each workshop was led by one artist-craftsman. Gropius assembled a faculty noted and admired for their brilliance, energy and productivity. An esteemed panel of artists, e.g. architects, painters and typographers were closely associated with the Bauhaus.
The Nazi rule did not like the work and the people associated with the Bauhaus movement. In 1933, the National Socialist Government of Hitler's Germany closed down the Bauhaus. In 1937, one of its leaders opened a new Bauhaus in Chicago, which was later called by the name of Institute of Design.
After the Impressionist movement, the Bauhaus made the most profound and lasting impact on the Western art scene. An important outcome of the experiment was that the hierarchic competition between the functional and the beautiful started disappearing. Designers realized that the introduction of the machine made it imperative that the character of designs and designing must be in harmony with the built-in potential and limitations of the tools used in the making of things. The Bauhaus other achievement was in clarifying the separate roles of handicrafts and machine production, and at the same time to redefine beauty as something pure and simple, not garbed with ornaments. It was a reaction to some of the norms that had developed during the Baroque period and later totally vulgarized by Victorian aesthetes.
The situation in India was somewhat different. It took some time for the Industrial Revolution to make its impact on the indigenous industry—handicrafts. Although the industrial age started here rather late, the existing cottage industries had already been under strong pressure put by the colonial trade and industrial policies. During the East India Company period, Indian handicrafts had received some backing from the British market. With the growth of their own industry on account of the Industrial Revolution, the British stopped importing finished goods from India, especially textiles. They started exporting finished cloth to India. To find a big market for their own textiles they resorted to policies that succeeded in gradually destroying the Indian traditions of textile making.
Victorian values and standards crept into Indian life, with the view of ultimately changing the country's psyche. However, two factors of the Indian situation saved the country from total disaster in the field of cultural, aesthetic and economic values. Indian society is basically rural, hence industrialization took some time to reach the country in a big way. Moreover, the British rulers were, luckily, short-sighted; they did not want to transfer their new technologies to a subject people. So, it was but natural for the machine age to take some time before reaching the masses.
The other, and the more significant point to make here is that the old traditions were so deeply rooted in the life of the country that it would have been next to impossible to throw them away overnight. In Indian civilization, one of the oldest in history, there were surely elements which even a highly modernistic educated mind would take pride in maintaining. For instance, take the Indian handicrafts, e.g. textile, metal work, terracotta sculpture for votive purposes, and jewellery. You can pick up hundreds of art objects still being produced and used as essential items of daily life, which few modern artists would dare compete with or discard because they are "old".
Unfortunately, the so-called modern education based on the educational foundations laid during the colonial period is expediting the rapid extinction of these traditions. The faster the growth of this system of education, the quicker will be the disappearance of traditional skills and aesthetic standards, and the objects that are used by the people in their daily lives will become uglier. In the course of time the beautiful objects which we still have around, will be seen only in museums. But there too they will gradually whither away, for they are not, or never were, made to last long. The lives of millions of craftspeople depended on the production of such objects.
What has been said above should not be interpreted as plea only for the continuation of all the traditional arts to the exclusion of any other development in artistic creation. Nor it is implied here that everything traditional is of the highest aesthetic order.
The purpose here is to explore the dynamics that played their role in forming traditions that made the objects of daily use, generally speaking, beautiful, and to discuss the role of education in making our surroundings aesthetically healthy; also to equip ourselves -with the capacity and discretion to select beautiful things.
As time changes so do art forms, which does not mean that old forms and expressions become redundant. Nowadays people say that they feel tired looking at or using the same thing all the time. They want to have something new, implying that even if an object is beautiful it should be abandoned because it is old. Artists (designers) start catering for new fashions. The rich set fashionable trends in a society, for they can buy even these designers. It is the lack of genuine aesthetic sense that gives precedence to novelty. Most of the people who talk of art appreciation including the art schools, ignore the truth that creativity comes through a serious study of the relationship between nature and art traditions, and not in the process of looking for novelty. All great art has been the result of this kind of study, whether done intuitively or intellectually.
The artist learns the method from traditions and discovers the form from nature. True, only a born artist can accomplish it successfully. Nonetheless, it is also true that the path of the artisan of whatever calibre, is the same, particularly as we do not make a distinction between fine arts and applied arts. In this respect the role of education is uniquely important. It is the responsibility of education to acquaint every individual member of the society with the artists' path of discovering forms, not only on a theoretical level but also in practical terms. The aim of having beautiful objects of daily use which make the household atmosphere pleasant, can be achieved by appropriate educational planning.

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