Art: the basis of

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Training the Eye

The other faculty that develops through art education is the sensitivity of the eye. The more correctly the eye learns to see, the more effective and easy practical life becomes. The strength of the eye depends firstly on its physical health, secondly on factors connected with educational and/or psycho-educational processes. One is the subject of medical science and the other of education. There can be and are, of course, bridges between the two.
There are people who are born with defects and/or weaknesses of the eye, the damage having occurred before or at the time of birth or in later life due to illness or accident. One may be born partially or totally colour blind, implying thereby an absence of the capacity to see colours correctly and even seeing everything in black and white.
If a person is born with only one properly functioning eye and the other totally blind, he or she may not be able to sense depth, i.e. the third dimension. In such cases, the brain often comes to the rescue. In other words, it is a matter of understanding optical perspective, by which logic and day-to-day experience teaches that the distance between you and the objects in front can vary.
The integration of the eye and the brain is necessary for the faculty of seeing correctly. It is the task of education, and it cannot be achieved by developing the intellect alone. I have seen many intelligent people, including intellectuals, who can't judge whether or not a picture has been hung correctly on the wall, or who cannot distinguish between different shades of the same colour. Here an illustration or two would help. At one time I had nearly eighty varieties of roses in my garden in Sevagram. Quite a few people from the nearby town used to come to see them in winter season when the bushes were in bloom. The following question was often asked: "We were told that you have eighty varieties of rose but there are only three or four—red, yellow, pink arid orange. Where are the others?" It showed the lack of training of the eye. In most cases, these visitors grasped only the obvious. For them the word "red" included shades of pink, vermilion, brick-red etc. What they needed was the training to see correctly.
To explain the difference between what one sees and what one knows, I put a book on the desk in front, and asked the trainees to make sketches of it as they saw it. Drawings of only a very few students showed any sign of correct "seeing". The majority drew a rectangle. In other words they drew the book as they knew it—a rectangular shaped item. They had no notion of perspective. Some of them, perhaps, knew of the fact that an item kept near would look smaller when moved to a distance, but they had no concept of foreshortening. It was never taught to them.
Here is another interesting example of "incorrect" seeing, although an extreme one of its kind. I asked one of the students in a nature-study class to make a sketch of a millet plant, which was standing in isolation from the rest of the millet crop ready to be harvested. This person drew about ten pods on the plant whereas it had only one as all millet plants have only one each. I could have understood her visual statement if the plant had been one of the thousands with pods standing in front of her. But the plant she was asked to sketch was a solitary one, naturally with only one pod.
Although the second example given above is a bit too extreme, it reveals the deficiency in our educational system of students not being taught to "see". The one about the book, however, is very common, and when I asked another student to make a sketch of an item after seeing it only for five minutes, the results were shocking.
The above examples are related to the form and colour aspects of seeing. There is another aspect which is equally important. The play of light and shade has its own character and charm. How many people are able to make the fine distinction between the numerous effects this phenomena creates every moment in different situations! Most of us remain deprived of the joy that can be experienced through proper seeing. Art education can open the door of this treasure that lies in nature in abundance.
Rabindranath Tagore started painting when he had already reached the age of seventy. It seems he was not totally satisfied with expressing himself through literature alone. Although in many of his poems and other forms of writings he had written descriptions as vivid as a picture, there was something within that must have forced him to turn to the art of painting to express those images to which he could not give expression through writing. The fact is, art enriches the store-house of visual experience. One feels amazed looking at something that has not been seen before. Hence, there is so much joy in actually seeing. That is what Tagore called seeing through a painting.
Seeing is complete only when it is seeing with both the physical eye and the inner eye at the same time. Abanindranath Tagore has put it very succinctly: "What I see with the mind has the human element and what I see through my physical eye has the element of nature. Together, they help blossom creativity. Both are essential—seeing with the inner eye as well as with the physical eye."13

Grace in Life

Most educators all over the world have stressed the need to enhance gracefulness in life and consider it a major task of education, especially of art education. The study of several early civilizations indicates that for good education of the individual, the arts received a great deal of attention in planning educational activities. Every educated person was expected to be skilful in at least one art activity.
It surely was true about India. Every cultured citizen was supposed to be "conversant in the sixty-four arts". Talking about conditions in classical India Hazari Prasad Dwivedi wrote: " The rayees (rich) himself knew these arts. Citizens were provided training and practice in some special arts. Entertainment alone was not the only objective, development of emotional and intellectual aspects were given full attention. Conversation on art was a necessary prerequisite for taking part in meetings at the royal court and intimate gatherings. One had to prove his competence and moral authority before attending such meetings."14
In Japan, Ikebana and Moribana (Japanese art of flower arrangement) was an essential part of the education, particularly of women. Men, even military personnel, had to learn the art of calligraphy. Learning these arts required hard work and concentration. A test in flower arrangement was an integral part of the public examinations. According to the Chinese tradition, while describing the qualities of a king, a person of high position or an important public figure, it was the practice to start by mentioning his main artistic skills and then go on to other qualities. In many cases he was either a poet, a painter or a calligraphist.
While describing his ideal society Plato said "... We must look for artists and craftsmen capable of perceiving the real nature of what is beautiful, and then our young men living as it were in a healthy climate, will benefit because all the works of art they see and hear influence them for good, like the breezes from some healthy country, insensibly leading them from earliest childhood into close sympathy and conformity with beauty and reason.
And that is why this stage of education is crucial. For rhythm and harmony penetrate deeply into the mind and take a most powerful hold on it, and if education is good, bring and impart grace and beauty, if it is bad, the reverse. And moreover the proper training we propose to give will make a man quick to perceive the shortcomings of works of art or nature, whose ugliness he will rightly dislike, anything beautiful he will welcome gladly, will make it his own and so grow in true goodness of character; anything ugly he will rightly condemn and dislike, even when he is still young and cannot understand the reason for so doing, while when reason comes he will recognize and welcome her as a familiar friend because of his upbringing... In my view that is the purpose of this stage of education."15
In the same context-Plato wrote: "Good literature, therefore, and good music, beauty of form and good rhythm all depend on goodness of character; I don't mean that lack of awareness of the world which we politely call 'goodness', but a mind and character truly well and fairly formed." 16
Plato asks a question: "And are not these things which our young men must pursue, if they are to perform their function in life properly?" He himself answers: "They must. The graphic arts are full of the same qualities and so are the related crafts, weaving and embroidery, architecture and manufacture of furniture of all kinds; and the same is true of living things, animals and plants. For in all of these we find beauty and ugliness. And ugliness of form and bad rhythm and disharmony are akin to poor quality expression and character, and their opposites are akin to and represent good character and discipline."17
Plato considered music as the most powerful medium, more than any other medium, to create and influence rhythm and harmony in the soul, at the deepest level; hence a firm bondage is created between them, which, in turn, generates grace. One who has received that kind of education, i.e. of the inner life, will have the skill for understanding the weaknesses of particular arts as well as nature. With good taste one will adore truth, draw joy from it and will internalize it in one's personality, and will dislike and hate the bad and the evil and decry it openly, even in one's youth when he or she may not be fully aware of the reasons behind it.
Plato, as we have seen, has outlined, in a way, a treatise on the role the arts play in developing gracefulness in life during the early stages of education. It is evident that he talks about rhythm and harmony within the totality of life and of not only that which concerns visual arts and music. In other words, according to Plato, proper art education helps the individual to develop the sense necessary to understand what is good and what is evil. Where do we learn this from? Nature, of course.
It will be a truism to say that making life graceful is one of the aims of life. Yet, here it is necessary to put it, and do so, in the wider context, i.e. of nature, of which human kind is an integral part. One can observe that a perpetual effort of nature is to create and maintain balance. It is true that some part of human behaviour is dictated by the conscious part of the mind, but most of it is spontaneous, a result of the natural forces that go on working all the time—call it the unconscious if you like. Unless social and environmental conditioning has distorted it, behaviour dictated by natural forces tends to follow the general pattern of nature, that is, of maintaining a balance.
Although an uneducated eye might consider the movements of a child who is starting to learn walking, awkward, it is not very different from the movements of a rope-dancer who is throwing all his or her limbs in all directions to keep the balance and make the dance graceful. The movements of the child too are the result of nature's efforts to create and maintain balance all the time. The patterns created by those movements of the child are similar to those created by a dancer.
When a heavy branch on one side of a well balanced tree breaks or is cutoff, the weight of the top of the tree falls more on to one side, thus displacing the centre of gravity. If the tree is not firmly set in the ground, it may fall on the heavier side, it may be uprooted or have broken branches. If it remains standing, in due course it will throw up new branches in a way that will bring back the lost balance, unless of course, in the meantime a new accident destroys the balance again. However, in that case too the effort will still go on.
The other important effort on the part of nature that goes on all the time is related to the functional aspect of its creations. Nature does not waste. It is not extravagant in its creativity. It uses only an essential quantity of the material necessary in the production of everything it makes. The botany expert will tell us that in the creation of an orange, for instance, every element that has been used in its making is unavoidable. Even the air pockets inside the orange are decided by the mathematics involved in making it, as it were. In nature's creations there is nothing that is unnecessary or out of proportion.
There is a close inter-relationship between beauty and functionality in nature. In fact, they are one and the same. In the art world, too, efforts to create beauty and the pursuit to achieve functionality have always been the same (except for those who divided the concept of art into two—fine arts and applied arts). They are the two sides of the same coin. Sometimes the two merge with each other and the pursuit for beauty becomes the pursuit for functionality, and vice versa.
It seems there are certain principles concerning the interrelationship between beauty and functionality in nature which govern all its creativity, and that they are based on mathematical calculations. Many art experts believe that "pattern-making" has its own mathematics. One has to learn it in order to make beautiful things. This point is supported by Indian aesthetics, specially in the treatises on sculpture and architecture, in which are given clear instructions on the sizes and proportions of different images of gods and goddesses, temples as well as living spaces. Experts have studied old Indian sculpture and buildings and found that a strict "grammar" has been followed in their making. These principles had become part of the religion of the people who lived in those houses and worshipped in those temples.
Artists and architects of the European Renaissance had formulated the well-known principle, Golden Section, also called Golden Mean. According to the Dictionary of Art and Artists by Peter and Linda Murray (published by Penguin Books) it "is the name given to an 'irrational proportion', known at least since Euclid, which has often been thought to possess some aesthetic virtue in itself, some hidden harmonic proportion in tune with the Universe. It is defined strictly as a line which is divided in such a way that the smaller part is to the larger as the larger is to the whole (AB cut at C, so that CB: AC = AC: AB). In practice it works out at about 8:13 and may easily be discovered in most works of Art." Proportions drawn from this principal were applied in the construction of churches, houses and most other forms of art creations.
The musical octave is probably the best example of the fact that mathematics plays a crucial role in the making of beautiful music. A little error or deviation from the required note or scale makes the music jarring to the ear. Those who appreciate good music would never like to hear any musical creation which does not follow these principles.
Unfortunately, for many people it is difficult to grasp the fact that functionality and beauty cannot be separated from each other. It is difficult because generally the current notion of beauty is associated with either realism or ornamentation and decorativeness, and even true functionality is confused with stinginess or being "inartistic". However, many modern designers do accept the above mentioned principle.
Herbert Read writes: "Some functional objects, it will be said, cannot by any conceivable chance be made beautiful. I will admit that it is sometimes difficult to see the possibility, but a little observation will soon show that the most unexpected objects can acquire an abstract kind of beauty. The motor car is the obvious example, but a better example still is the wireless receiving set, which in a short period of five or ten years made an enormous progress towards good design. Roger Fry once doubted whether a typewriter could ever be beautiful, but in recent years new designs for typewriters have been evolved which are infinitely better in shape and appearance than previous models, and though one might still hesitate to call them works of art, they are certainly progressing in that direction..."18
There is no need to discuss this point further, but I shall only recapitulate it briefly as follows. Beauty and functionality are essentially related to each other and there are certain principles, mathematical in nature, that govern their application. They can be learnt and applied intelligently.

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