Abstracts of Papers
Kathleen Marie Higgins
Title: Beauty and the Sense of Life
The Hegelian notion of the end of art presupposes his totalizing account of world history. Art is concerned with embodying spiritual content in sensuous form, and any instance of art is historically positioned within a single human narrative, a narrative that eventually reaches the point at which art can no longer adequately embody the wealth of spiritual content that humanity has achieved. Even if one grants Hegel’s suggestion that art always attempts to embody spiritual content, one need not embrace his account of history. Hegel’s historical vision is inadequate because it fails to recognize that cultures have had different specific goals for art, and that they have not all aimed at the transparent realism that Hegel admires.
When Hegel claims that art no longer serves its highest purpose, he is demoting beauty to a secondary role. Beauty, however, has a different spiritual role than Hegel acknowledges. Beauty resists the kind of historical positioning that he insists upon. Instead, it functions to further a sense of life. Hegel’s account subsumes individual human pursuits into (what he sees as) the collective historical enterprise; accordingly, he gives little attention to beauty’s power to arouse our individual sense of vitality or to attune us to the present moment.
I will argue that beauty’s powers are primarily ahistorical, even though accounts of temporal passage (in literature, for example) can be beautiful. Beauty revitalizes those who experience it. In this respect, it has healing powers. Although beauty is ahistorical, its promise nevertheless addresses us as temporal beings. It facilitates attention to what is immediately present as well as offering spiritual refreshment. Beauty’s promise is the joy it offers, which encourages the sense that our on-going lives may also abound in what is beautiful. In an era in which so many of us are stressed by the demands of schedules that leave us little time to appreciate life, beauty draws us back to the present moment and the satisfaction to be found in what Pater called that “quickened sense of life.” Beauty is the promise of happiness, as Stendahl says, yet the happiness is already present in each moment that we attend to beauty.
The suggestion, however, that beauty has this power does not imply that the artistic traditions across cultures have embraced beauty with the same eagerness or with the same ends in view. I will contrast rasa theory with the Kantian ideal of disinterestedness as taking different views of appropriate responses to beauty.
Cultures differ with respect to their ideologies of beauty. Nevertheless, they are often at one with regard to situations in which beauty is required. I will consider the ubiquitous tendency to use beauty in expressions of loss and mourning. Among the motives, I will argue, is an effort to reassert life when grief has sapped the sense of life in mourners. The phenomenon of appealing to beauty to heal the pains of grief is evidence for my thesis. Beauty stimulates and restores our sense of life, and promises grounds for hope in life ahead.
Title: Valli and Devasana
Beauty is not limited to a geographical space, culture or the arts. It is not only a universal concept and part of the aesthetics of the everyday. It is a constantly evolving, changing dynamic function.
In a large globalized world there are pockets of homogenous aesthetics and vastly different notions of beauty. It is in the celebration of the ‘difference’ in a continuing cosmopolitan world that the concept of beauty needs to be interrogated, contextualized and revisited.
The lineage of the Indian classical concept of Shringara and Saundarya can be traced to Bharat’s Natyashastra, the first written canvas of performance and appreciation of beauty or the shringara rasa. In kavya or poetry sundar refers mainly to sensual or material beauty without any suggestion of the metaphysical, moral, ethical or spiritual: morality and spirituality are subsumed in the concept of dharma. The term Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram (truth, god, beauty) was a much later addition in the Indian tradition. Bhakti, or devotional literature, does relate to the concept of Sundaram to Shivam, because for the devout in India, beauty can only lie in Ishvara or God. The essentially secular nature of Sundaram denotes sensual beauty.
In my paper, I would like to revisit the classical thoughts of the Indian feminine discourse through the lens of the moving image, and in terms of modernity and tradition, the very fulcrum on which contemporary thoughts on Indian beauty rest. Indian cinema is one of the most important and significant cultural signifiers of modernity. My narrative would begin with the silent movies of 1913 and end with The Dirty Picture of 2011 in a way tracing and mapping the changing face of Indian femininity.
Title: Beauty and AusterityThis chapter looks at the relationship between beauty and the ideal of austerity in the thought of four centrally important thinkers and educationists of modern India: Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo and Krishnamurty. All of these thinkers valued austerity - meaning starkness, bareness, a deliberate absence of comfort, adornment and embellishment – as well as beauty, but they conceptualized the relation between these two values in different ways. For Tagore, beauty and austerity are always in complex dialogue with one another, and the perception and creation of beauty is itself an important aspect of life. Gandhi, on the other hand, rejected art for art’s sake, viewing as unethical all forms of art that might be exploitative or wasteful, commodified in such a way that they did not contribute to the common good. Instead, he saw austerity as itself beautiful, as is reflected in the aesthetic simplicity of the domestic space he designed for himself. Aurobindo held aesthetic education to be extremely important, with the apprehension of the beautiful resulting from a purification of the “vital” sphere of human existence. Krishnamurty actually started out as a poet, and there remains a deep engagement with beauty throughout his life. He saw beauty as itself austere, a function of the economy of nature. Beauty is also connected for Krishnamurty with a kind of wholeness which is devoid of any extraneous element, including even the division between subject and object.
Title: Beauty and the promise of enduring art
The dominant conception of art in the last century infamously denied the traditional link between art and beauty. While elevating and placing the former at the center of attention, it has rejected the significance of the latter.
In contrast to this trend, I argue that beauty is an essential feature of art, and the value of an artwork amounts to the degree of its beauty. This understanding of artistic value supports the claim that the creation of art works will continue as long as there are reflective human beings who seek beauty.
I offer a brief analysis of beauty and attempt to substantiate its vitality for understanding the purpose of artistic activity. Beauty, I argue, answers the need for a special kind of order that is not satisfied by science and logic. It expresses individuality and is not based on known rules or laws; it defines its unique form and therefore it is highly informative. Due to their individuality, aesthetic orders do not compete with each other. The fact that high degree of beauty was achieved in the past, does not put an end to the human quest for new beauties in new materials and new forms of art.
Title: The Creative Sari or The Multi-layered Sari
The act of weaving, the act of ornamentation of the everyday apparel by a community is a part of their rich cultural heritage. The sari, which is used by women in most parts of India even today is perhaps the one traditional garment used by the largest number of women in India. It is estimated that over a million women wear the sari. If we unravel the significance of the sari in different parts of the country, it tell us great deal of not only the creator, but also about those who created it and the heritage in which the aesthetics were evolved. The materials used, the weight and texture of the cloth tell us of the geo-climatic conditions in which it was made. The woven motifs, the use of colour, convey the origins of the people, their cultural history and their beliefs. It also announces in some society the status of the user, are they single, married or widowed, to which ethnic group do they belong.
The finely woven cotton Bengali Sari worn by the women in Bengal, eastern India, is woven in white, and carries a broad red border. It is worn by the married woman and signifies her marital status. In the case of the widow, it is a plain unbleached piece of cloth and thus devoid of colour, for white is also a colour. The significance is that her life as a widow is devoid of colour.
Fabrics are also power cloth, which is imbued into them by the use of colour and design. The sari with three colours woven in Southern India, yellow, red and black, stand for triguna, the three salient aspects of the human being, satvic, rajas and tamas. The colour yellow is satvic, signifying introvertion, withdrawal and attraction to asceticism. Red is rajas, powerful, passionate, full of joy and the essence of life. Blue black stands for tamsic, it is brooding, intense and all encompassing. All three are essential for a balanced persona. These are often combined in a sari to be worn by the women and are meant to create a balance in her being and give her the power, shakti to deal with any situation.
The red and yellow checked sari is the puja sari worn for performance of rituals. The plaid or check, which in Sanskrit is chowk, is the mandala, the sacred grid, associated with a close connection with the elements. The two horizontal parallel lines running parallel to the earth cross two parallel vertical lines emerging from the earth and moving upwards. The crossing and linking, create the powerful dominant energy. The central square is the house of the Bindu, the seed from which all life emerges. It is the focal point of the mandala. The squares on four side of the central square create the shape of the fire altar, as well as the mandala used for performing all Vedic rituals. The placing of squares on all four sides of the altar creates the nine squares, which are the houses of the nine constellations, nakshatras, the planets, which according to astrology influence our lives. Thus the importance of the checkered cloth or the square is found in practically all traditional cultures of South East Asia and South Asia. It also extends from India right upto West Africa, where the checkered cloth plays an important part in the rites of passage
The act of creation of a cloth is itself a ritual. The original loom, which was the back strap loom, was used primarily by women to weave. Their body became the yantra, the loom. Their biorhythms were woven into the fabric and the act of weaving became a form of Yoga. The breathing in tensed the warp and the weft was beaten in, the release of the breath loosened the warp thread and this allowed the shed to open and the weft was thrown in and beaten in with the wooden sword. The release of the breath also allowed the warp threads to be lifted to weave in the significant patterns of the community. The tension was felt in the loins and back while weaving, as in the case of giving birth, thus this act of weaving is seen as giving birth to the inner most expression of the community.
Title: Art, Craft and Beauty – A Subjective Vision?
Laila Tyabji discusses the visible and invisible differences, dynamics and perceptions of art and craft. How does the single vision and ‘signature’ of the Western cultural tradition march with the anonymity and continuity of Indian folk art? Does collective work rather than a single vision and signature diminish the value of a piece of art? Is a votive painting done in the style of one’s ancestors less or more meaningful than a secular piece painted by an art school nurtured contemporary artist?
In Ancient India, craft and art were one - both anonymous, both an integral part of home, worship, and everyday life; not segregated into gallery displays or marketplace commerce. In contemporary India the age-old debate of craft vs. art has an especial poignancy, since it carries with it so much of the baggage of caste and social prejudice.
Indian Art prices are breaking the stratosphere, but craftspeople are not part of the party. Will there always be two separate streams of contemporary Indian Art – one canvases and installations made by studio painters, and one by so-called “folk” artists and craftspeople? One sold in galleries, the other on footpaths and Melas? Will the first always be priced and valued higher than the other? Or can the occasional cross-over that does happen become a trend that dissolves these absurd barriers?
Laila will be illustrating her talk with anecdotes and experiences of her and Dastkar’s work with craftspeople and folk artists over the last 35 years.
Title: Beauty, Race and Western Representations of Non-Western Peoples
My paper concerns western notions of beauty during the 18th and 19th centuries, from the Enlightenment to the Victorian era. Western concepts of beauty go back to Plato, the Platonic ideal that formed the basis of Renaissance art. However, for our purposes, attitudes to beauty from the Enlightenment onwards had a direct effect on representations of non-western peoples, especially Africans. I take the example of Hogarth’s work, Analysis of Beauty as a typical instance of Enlightenment principles. His theory of beauty showed an unusual openness towards dark skin, especially towards Africans, which was a reflection of the universalism of the age. Yet within the Enlightenment there were seeds of later theories of racism. Tracing the evolution of the classification of mankind among the leading scientists, I end with the discussion of the links between race and physical attributes, epitomized in the work Comte de Gobineau.
Pushpa M. Bhargava
Title: Science, Art and Beauty
In this talk I will present evidence in support of the following eight statements:
- There is inherent beauty in what Nature generates or gives rise to following natural laws– from the lowest level of resolution as is obtained with the naked eye, to the highest as is obtained with electron microscopes, X-rays or telescopes.
- All that happens in Nature follows laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Since these four sciences represent a hierarchy between themselves, with mathematics at the top and biology at the bottom, mathematics can be considered as the ‘vital force’ of whatever Nature does and whatever is found in Nature.
- Certain mathematical relationships are dominant in nature over others so that they recur over and over again, often in apparently disparate fields.
- We are probably genetically programmed during evolution to recognize these relationships and respond to them through aesthetic experience. Appreciation of beauty is thus built in our genes and implies intuitive recognition of certain specific patterns and relationships that we then designate as beautiful.
- Not only is the appreciation of beauty probably built in our genes, but it must have also conferred an evolutionary advantage to the human species which alone seems to be capable of going through an aesthetic experience which has been the basis of evolution of art.
- When man creates, he is essentially generating beauty. His success depends on the extent to which what has been created by him is analogous to what is found in Nature and is in consonance with certain natural laws. Consequently, in man’s eternal search for beauty, he is also – sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously – seeking similies with Nature.
- Creativity and beauty are related in all areas of human endeavour, including science. This would predict that all creative activities must have common elements in terms of methodology to the extent it can be formalized.
- Given two theories, a good scientist would intuitively choose the one that is aesthetically more satisfying.
Title: The hollowing of art and the call of beauty
Fine art has been hollowed out: it is doing little for social well-being, has become elitist, and there is considerable confusion about its purposes. In India, we find a great contrast between profound and embedded beauty and an increasing and intrusive ugliness – which is particularly sharp and compelling given the culture’s rich history of making everyday things beautiful. In our contemporary art, there is a flourishing of imitation, and amnesia about several important and distinctive characteristics of the Indian art tradition. These include continuity with no art/craft divide, purposeful communication, no ‘art for art’s sake’, integrated experientiality at sensory, emotional and mental levels - rasas and ananda, a fluid occurrence across socio-economic strata that does not follow Abraham Maslow’s need hierarchy postulates. It has also been affected by an anti-beauty influence from Western contemporary art practice.
The hollowing began with the division between art and craft - when it was thought that utility and repetitive skilled work were inimical to art, and notions of individual creativity, self-expression, and ‘art for art’s sake’ became ascendant. I will argue that these are quite spurious when contemporary art practice is examined, and they are reductionist and disconnecting in this ‘Age of Inter-relationality’. In India, beauty was understood to be both an experience and a state of being, occurring in outer and inner worlds. I will revisit the axioms of balance, harmony, proportion and rhythm that were once extolled in the classical traditions of aesthetics of the East and the West, and suggest that these are relational, or inter-relational, qualities and that beauty is relational excellence and wellness.
I will also explore the need for re-purposing art and suggest that beauty, properly understood, could well be its central purpose, and that this holds much promise for the arts and artists. (This doesn’t mean painting pretty, decorative pictures and it doesn’t exclude any kind of art - superficially ugly conceptual and protest art could well fit in with this deeper and more vigorous definition of beauty.) With beauty as the central purpose of art, there is a possibility of a new renaissance in art around the world, and of art becoming more meaningful and relevant for wellbeing - experientially and systemically.
Title: Dwelling with Beauty
Criticizing the interpretation of beauty as a form of disinterested contemplation, Nietzsche famously cites Stendahl’s statement that beauty is “a promise of happiness.” But in the context of his own philosophy, the promise is a lie. Beauty, Nietzsche suggests, is an illusion, for it speaks of stability and perfection in a world that is constantly changing and very far from perfect. The longing that beauty expresses and evokes, therefore, will not be fulfilled, although the illusion it offers is still valuable for life. This sense that beauty falsifies continues to be reflected in the suspicion of beauty that informs so much of the theory and practice of art within the ethos of late modernity. Representations of beauty are thought to obscure the human condition, by glossing over its painful and tragic elements. They can also function as repressive political tools, painting the idylls of privileged classes while dulling sensitivity and resistance to injustice.
Acknowledging the partial legitimacy of such interpretations of the uses and abuses of beauty, one can ask whether they rightly apply to all types of produced beauty, and to all promises of happiness symbolized in beautiful images and figures. Are there no ways in which beauty can still serve a healing and redemptive purpose, at both the individual and the social levels, without falsification or the evocation of unfulfillable desire? And is there not a telling relation to beauty, in its connection with goodness, expressed even in the depiction of the ugly as needing redress?
I explore these questions through an analysis not of fine art but of everyday artefacts and varieties of adornment. Drawing on the later Heidegger’s analysis of making, dwelling and “things,” I examine the relation to ourselves and to nature that may be enacted in the beautiful arrangement and rearrangement of what is given. I focus, as Heidegger himself did, on the location of artefacts within meaningful patterns of care, and on types of beauty that cannot be analyzed purely in terms of either form or mimesis, but involve the evocation, and establishment, of a significant world. Finally, in light of some of the specific ills of the present age, I consider ways in which the experience and creation of the beautiful might help to build an appreciation for the immanent possibilities of human existence, and for ways of inhabiting the world in harmony with nature.
Title: Art and Shared Creativity
In received aesthetic theory, the centrality of the individual in artistic creation is almost a matter of unquestioned assumption. This makes it almost impossible to find a place, in the domain of art appreciation, for the objects of great beauty that tribal communities produce. But whether or not we accept this, the creative products of tribal imagination are of extraordinary significance for a deeper understanding of a vision of life whether or not it passes the test for a “proper” object of aesthetic appreciation. It is interesting that such understanding can sometimes come from approaching this vision through the medium of what could well fit into the modern conception of aesthetic objects, e.g. paintings which are the work of an individual painter. This paper tells the story of my own attempt at gaining insight into the tribal vision through my paintings.
Title: "Envisioning a Utopian Urban Landscape for Bangalore"
(With reference to G. H. Krumbiegel; see description of Krumbiegel project below.)
The Krumbiegel project - a curator’s note.
This project focuses on Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel (1865-1956), horticulturist and one of the chief architects of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens. Krumbiegel contributed significantly to creating for Bangalore the identity of a garden city. He introduced several exotic trees into Bangalore and curated the planting of species that flowered serially, a pattern called “serial blossoming”. The research on him to date is fragmentary, and this project aims to provide to a larger public a comprehensive presentation about his life and activity in India. It will also highlight the contribution of other distinguished individuals who have contributed to this legacy, focusing on the environment and the making of the garden city as a utopia, a city envisioned as a planned landscape.
Title: Art, Aesthetics, and Aniconism with Reflections on Nineteenth-Century Hindu Reform
In the nineteenth century, well-known reform movements within the Hindu fold, the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj, repudiated the use of visual art for devotional purposes. This paper investigates the invective against “idolatry” voiced by Rammohun Roy (1772-1833) and Dayananda Sarasvati (1824-1883). Neither figure could be called in any way a rasika, or connoisseur of the arts. These men were staunch monotheists committed to aniconism (the refusal of images).What accounts for their refusal of beautiful form?I argue that their monotheism was a form of de-mythologization in the service of modernization. Modernity globally has seen the decoupling of visual art from the iconography of religion. As well, modernist art movements have decoupled art from a concern with representation (or realism). And they have also decoupled art from any necessary concern with beauty. Did Rammohun and Dayananda’s refusal of religious art contribute at all to this process in India? The paper also addresses the paradox that, since the nineteenth century, art in the secular West has also often gone in the direction of aniconism. And this was sometimes seen as being in the service of the spiritual. Some forms of abstract, minimalist, and conceptual art sought to de-materialize the art object. Perhaps ironically, for some artists, the sheer absence of representational form was embraced as beautiful. This aniconism at times had a quasi-religious or mystical impetus which allows comparison with aniconic religion. But, I argue, the aniconism of Rammohun and Dayananda was more moral than mystical in its motivation.
Title: Iconoclasm and the Demise of Aesthetics
In the maelstrom of art practice in general but in the context of India in particular the beautiful and the ugly, the sentimental and the rudely vulgar, the profane and the profound, the classical and the avant garde seem to co-exist in an often uneasy coalition of ideas, manifesting themselves in diverse directions.
Two lots of arbiters attempt to contextualize this diversity. The first is a new breed of super theorists who analyze endorse, explain and often direct the current art practice, usually in obscure and turgid prose. The second, of course, is the market, which seems to judge and determine future trends, a market that is famously both manipulative and fickle. I will attempt to demystify some of the chaos that prevails and perhaps make some tongue-in-cheek prophecies about the prognosis of the current art practice, as I see it unfolding in the next decade.
Title: Paradigms of Cultural Nexus: Re-examining Curatorial Practice
Curating non-Western art in Western institutions leads to much re-assessment of what art is and how it affects beings. Especially in the case of so-called ‘sacred art’, within this realm one must proceed much more deeply into the energy of that which was and is spoken. Objects, including all dimensions of works, connote deeper spirituality beyond the superficial; label or catalogue description can explicate/explain. One has assumed a responsibility to conjure the energy and spirit within which such works and objects exist and continue to exist. For example, a project entitled Stewards of the Sacred: Sacred Artefacts, Religious Culture, and the Museum as Social Institution states that “Museums have traditionally affirmed their missions as the exhibition, preservation, and scholarly interpretation of objects. In the last two decades, these roles are expanding and being redefined. Because a significant proportion of the material collected in museums across the globe has religious significance, often in the context of living traditions, issues of religion are entering the museum conversation of the sacred.”
Sullivan L. E. & Edwards, A. (eds.) 2004. Stewards of the Sacred. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums http://www.hds.harvard.edu/cswr/research/RAI/stewardsofthesacred/
Moving into the realm of exhibitions and projects of contemporary art in South East Asia and the Himalayas, the role of mythology and iconography complete this reconsideration of the past within the present. This concerns not only the imagery depicted, but the underlying aesthetic and ethic demeanour, as well as the choice of palette, materials and techniques. The re-embrace of more traditional art forms, the rediscovery of the innate beauty and transformative power of such genres of art, invite vibrant realisations of creativity, which proffer a serious refute to the contemporary art world and market.
Deepa Nag Haksar
Title: Tagore on Creativity, Art and Beauty
Tagore’s thoughts on Creativity, Art and Beauty extend from his philosophy of Universal Harmony and are closely linked to his ideas on freedom, love and the concept of ‘human surplus’. Humans have the capacity to live beyond their physical needs, to fulfil their wealth of spiritual and creative self-awareness. In his vision of ‘universal harmony’, human individuality remains an essential truth and so does the larger harmonious unities of the universe, that he calls ‘creative unity’. The ‘self’ that lies outside in the world may also be realised within the inner recesses of oneself, but crucially in engagement with the units of the universe. For Tagore, artistic creation is the expression of the inner-self as well as the locus of ‘self-creation’ and self-exploration’. Art expresses the infinite capacities of humanity, and, ‘beauty’ is the harmony or balance found in life itself, that includes the spiritually chastening experience of sorrow, death and loss along with all that is alluring and bountiful.