Is Art Necessary

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Is Art Necessary

daya dissanayake

Art would not have been for Art's sake when our ancestors painted on cave walls. It could not have been Homo aestheticus who painted inside the Doravakkanda caves, but the early Homo sapiens, the intelligent animal who lived in our country over 6000 years ago.

According to Prof. Raj Somadeva, these cave paintings were a mode of communication, about their surroundings, identifying the natural resources, like water and food and also warnings of dangers and threats. Man would not have considered the beauty of his paintings, but only to convey a massage to the rest of the group, for which sometimes he would have used symbols for convenience, symbols which could have been easily understood by his fellow men, like depicting water resources by means of dots. Then we could use the term Homo symbolicus, to identify our early ancestors perhaps.

These early human beings, by what-ever name we call them, would not have suffered from the Stendhal syndrome, which is today considered as an illness. In medical jargon it is called 'hyperkulturemia', a psychosomatic disorder. It was the French author Henri-Marie Beyle who in 1817 wrote in 'Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio', "I felt a pulsating in my heart. Life was draining out of me, while I walked fearing a fall." (The author is better known by his pen-name Stendhal)

Early man would not have suffered from most of the modern day illnesses then, but they could have gone mad with the beauty of nature, and not by any imitative art created by man himself. Stendhal went crazy with the natural beauty of Florence. Psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, coined the term Stendhal syndrome, after studying the symptom of many visitors to Florence.

Yet today doctors claim hyperkulturemia affects visitors to art galleries, when they look at man-created paintings, like the woman who threw a cup of tea on the Mona Lisa, on August 2, 2009, and the professor of mathematics who attacked a statue of the Roman philosopher Seneca with a hammer in 1998. This condition causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, when an individual is exposed to "a large amount of beauty in one place." Even though doctors and psychiatrists try to find an illness in such situations, the simple explanation could be that these people had only reacted in anger and frustration about all the importance given to poor imitations of natural beauty.

In Saddhammapatirupaka Sutta, (Samyutta Nikaya), we read that real gold would not disappear as long as counterfeit gold does not appear. Buddha gave this example to explain that there is disappearance of the true Dhamma when a counterfeit of the true Dhamma has arisen in the world. In the same way when nature is imitated in the name of Art, such counterfeits result in the destruction of true natural beauty.

"the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature". Hamlet, III,2. Stendhal in his novel 'The Red and the Black', says "...a novel is a mirror carried along a high road....". Yet do we have to look in a mirror what we can see with our naked eyes?

Plato also considered art as imitation, that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life, that it was more of an illusion than is ordinary experience. The idea that art is divinely inspired, as explained by Socrates, and later emphasized during the Renaissance, persists till today because art became a major medium of propagation of religious ideas. We could even say that art really contributed to the survival of religions. Yet there is no real evidence that the earliest surviving paintings from cave walls showed any religious ideas or had been inspired by supernatural forces.

It was in the 19th century Europe that philosophers like Kant, Schelling and Hegel tried to build up a philosophy of art, perhaps based on what some of the ancient Greeks had believed. This is probably when Homo aestheticus was born, not in pre-historic times as Ellen Dissanayake has argued. Hegel claimed that "Art is the highest revelation of the beautiful, that Art makes up for the deficiencies of natural beauty, by bringing the idea into clearer light, by showing the external world in its life and spiritual animation."

Thus Art too became a kind of religion, with the art critics as the priests who interpreted the artistic creations. The common man was not expected to understand or appreciate the meaning of the new Art, and had to be interpreted and explained by the experts. Art galleries became like places of religious worship, where visitors had to move around in silence and soft feet, gazing with open mouths at the displayed work which was called art.

Aesthetics as we know it today in South Asia, is what we have inherited from the colonial masters, and we try to interpret our historical art according to them. In our country all art work created since the 3rd century BCE was religious, influenced by Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions and beliefs. Even the Sihigiri frescoes would have been drawn along religious themes, like at Ajanta. They would not have been painted just for the beauty of the women depicted. And we do not need art experts to explain to us paintings in our temples.

"Human beings cannot remain without art,... which is to say without imagination that creates, appreciates, and embodies itself in art, human beings would be far sadder, duller approximations of what they in fact are." So says Ben-Ami Schardstein in 'Art Without Borders : A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity'. Semir Zeki and Mathew Lamb, at the Institute of Neuroesthetics, based on studies of brain scans report that "the brian responds much more extensively when natural objects or scenes in their natural colours are viewed than when abstract paintings are viewed."

We should ask ourselves, has art really made man happier and less dull, than he would have been without it.

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