Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Learning to Look (by Anil Dharker)

I wanted to refer to some paragraphs of an article by Anil Dharker, a newspaper editor and writer in India:

<<" I don´t understand art". How often have you heard that phrase, in every part of the world, and coming from perfectly intelligent people? Yet, you never hear people saying "I don´t understand cinema", or "I don´t understand literature". I suppose the reason for this is that movies and books are narrative forms which use words - spoken or printed - to tell a story. Unless we are students of cinema or writing, we cannot be aware of how the plot is constructed or the devices the writer/film maker uses to keep us interested while he moves the story forward. But that doesn´t matter because we get engrossed in the story unfolding before our eyes.

That doesn´t happen even in a narrative painting because the artist isn´t putting his ideas into words. He is often telling a story; the people we see on the canvas may have their own idiosyncrasies, but who is to explain them to us? One option, of course, is for the artist to append a note with each painting, explaining its every detail.

Would this be a good idea? Without doubt not, for a variety of reasons. To start with, most artists would make a hash of it. That´s because expertise in one form (painting) does not automatically give you expertise in another field (writing). Many artists are not articulate, and many are not even proficient with the language. You can see that from the titles some artists give their paintings. They are often banal, sometimes even puerille.

Another reason is that if the artist does manage to write out a readable and full explanation, it immediately narrows the painting to that particular explanation. Is that what we should want? The so-called "disadvantage" of art, that it has no words, is actually its biggest advantage. That´s because a painting, because it does not say something in concrete terms in words, can actually say very many things.

(...)Normally we move around in a gallery quickly, moving from painting to painting, getting only a general impression of what is on the walls. We certainly don´t stand in front of an art work and analyse it in detail.

(...)Forced to look at a painting with some attention, each person interprets it in his/her own unique way. One painting, therefore, gives up several different interpretations, each version varying according to the viewer´s personality, character, world view, experience, etc. Why would we want to lose this unique characteristic of art by trying to pigeon-hole its content into one "authorised" version?

These are some of the reasons why one shouldn´t say "I don´t understand art". The key to understanding art lies in you. Yes, you can train yourself by reading, going to exhibitions and seminars so that you learn to really look at art. But finally, your interpretation is as good as mine. Or - dare we say it? - as good as even the artist's.>>



Nice thoughts Ravi!

RVG said...

Thank you very much Ambuj, but all the credit goes to Anil for conveying it with his own masterful word craft. I just happened to be lucky to find his article :)

rani dharker said...

Thank you for quoting from this article by Anil Dharker. It's wonderfully written and presents a very different perspective on art.