The Science of Art

daya dissanayake

Human Art was first taken over by political and religious leaders, and then by businessmen. Art was no longer Art. They had their own reasons for the takeover. Next it was the turn of the scientists to attempt a takeover, which would originally have been out of the thirst for knowledge and out of curiosity. Someday soon Art could become a science.

Man had begun to use art as a form of communication among men, and later Art may have taken a symbolic turn. Such art was not meant to convey messages or to satisfy the aesthetic senses of animals. Just as with other scientific experiments, scientists are using monkeys and other laboratory animals to study their physiological and psychological reactions to art.

V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, in 'The Science of Art, A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience' described an experiment in 1998 to 'empirically investigate the question of how the brain responds to art'.

Ramachandran and Hirstein, talk about an experiment with rats to test their reactions to a square and a rectangle, and end up saying "all art is caricature", but adding "it is literally not true". Art amplifies the 'rasa' (very essence) of the object resulting in a super stimulus. They also argue that "an outline drawing or sketch is more effective as 'art' than a full colour photograph, and offers a scientific explanation. This principle may reflect the fact that cells in the visual pathways are adequately stimulated by edges and are indifferent to homogenous regions.

The authors continue with the view that "we have an aesthetic preference for symmetry", based on claims by evolutionary biologists that animals and humans prefer symmetrical features in their mates, because asymmetry is often due to genetics or infectious defects.

Another scientific investigation is on the artists and their mental health, like giving a name 'Savant Syndrome' when autistic children create beautiful drawings. Scientists attempts to link artistic talents to mental defects.

Ramachandran and Hirstein proposed an experiment to measure how much we like or admire or enjoy a painting using the Skin Conductance Response SCR, because emotions cause changes of the electrical resistance on our skin. The reason they give is that if a person is to express his impression or emotion it is "filtered, edited and sometimes censored by the conscious mind". Someday soon, the judgement and evaluation of all art works, and awards for such creative works, could be done by measuring the SCR and other physiological responses by the judges, rather than their comments.

Niels Bohr, the physicist philosopher, collected cubist paintings, and enjoyed explaining his interpretation of the art to visitors. Bohr compared the electrons to "one of Picasso's deconstructed guitars, a blur of brushstrokes that only made sense once you stared at it". It could be that these abstract paintings helped him understand the structure of the atom.

Then the archaeologists and anthropologists got in on the scene. The Chinese archaeologist Wang Binghua discovered the 3000 year old bas-relief carvings in a massive red-basalt outcropping in the remote Xinjiang region in China. Today we are trying to interpret these petroglyphs scientifically, considering them as erotic art or fertility rituals.

Gestalt was one early attempt to take over Art. Gestalt is a psychological term which means 'unified whole', referring to the theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s, originating with Wilhelm Wundt and Max Wertheimer. They claim that people try to see objects as groups, and not as individual elements. This may have been a new theory for the Europeans, but it was known in the east for several thousand years. Anyway the beginning of the 20th century was when everyone became interested in science and technology and there was the merging and overlapping of one science over another, and also over philosophy and religion.

When even religion was to be interpreted as a science, it was inevitable that all arts too fell under the microscope. In our country, the double Chartered Engineer (Mechanical and Civil) R. G. de S. Wettemuni published 'Buddhism and its Relation to Religion and Science' in 1984, because he also had gathered a vast knowledge on Buddha Dhamma. Claudio Naranjo finds a close connection of Gestalt with Buddhist and Sufi philosophy.

The takeover of the Arts by science is happening, all over the world. There had been a 4-day Visual Science of Art Conference in September 2012, in Alghero, Italy, which was the 35th such conference.

Science of Art also leads to the question whether animals can make and understand art. The Newscientist reports about experiments done by Keio University psychologist Shigeru Watanabe, "to see if other animals, provided with enough training, could grasp the human concept of beauty". Watanabe had also claimed that "pigeons could learn to discriminate Picasso paintings from Monet", and he won the 1995 Ig Nobel price for this study. (Ig Nobel is an award to honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think).

While the pigeons could discriminate Picasso from Monet, how many of us could really discriminate or even understand these paintings! Some scientist could be at this very moment studying if the pigeon has a higher evolved mental capacity and aesthetic sensibility than man. Then we would have to accept that pigeons too appreciate Rasa, and that Art amplifies the Rasa in them too, and we are too far behind them in our mental development that we cannot recognize the creative Arts by the pigeons and other animals.

Yet there is still a glimmer of hope, that scientists will not take over art, because in the concluding section Ramachandrana and Hirstein say, "..much of art is idiosyncratic, ineffable and defies analysis..."

And there is also the Art of Science, for us to think about.

April 3, 2013, 1:26 a.m.

My God is a Woman

Her name is Noor Zaheer. She is a writer, researcher and social activist, recipient of the Times Fellowship, and the Senior Fellowship from the Department of Culture. She received her doctorate for the research carried out on the paintings on the Buddhist monasteries in Himachal Pradesh. In her own words, she was "Brought up in a communist family that had originally been Muslim, religionlessness had been systematically ingrained and inculcated in me". She considers herself an atheist who follows Buddha Dhamma and Sufi philosophy.

Zaheer published her novel, 'My God is a Woman' in 2008, based on an incident which happened more than two decades ago. I read the book again, after hearing of the tragic incident in Delhi two months ago, when a young girl was brutalized and murdered. We are also 'celebrating' International Women's Day' two days from now.

The Supreme Court of India granted maintenance of the princely sum of Rs. 179.20 for a month, to the 62 year old muslim woman Shah Bano begum on April 23rd, 1985. She had been thrown out of the house by her advocate husband in 1978. But under pressure, Rajiv Gandhi's government passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986, "diluting" the Supreme Court judgment, limiting the maintenance for only three months. As a journalist for 'The Patriot' in the 90s, Noor Zaheer had several long discussions with Shah Bano's lawyer, Daniel Latifi, and she was able to weave this story about the oppressed women on earth. The book has since been translated into Hindi, Marati and Gujarati, and will soon be translated into Sinhala.

She has dedicated the novel to "Ammi in gratitude for bringing me up human". 'Human', I felt is the keyword, because today most of us are 'human' only in name. Noor Zaheer's 'Ammi' symbolizes the 'Mother Goddess' and Mother Earth, with love for all life on earth. Sri Lankans are not the only children who use the term 'Ammi' to address our mothers, and in Nepal they call her 'Amma'.

'My God is a Woman' is the story of Safia Abbas Jafri, daughter of Syed Murtuza Mehdi. She was 'given' in marriage to Abbas Jafri, son of high court judge Sir Safdar Ali Jaffri. But Abbas is a very active member of the Communist Party of India, who is expelled from the committee and the party by the party leaders, because he was writing about the liberation of Muslim women. A fatwa was declared and he is killed. Safia flees to Delhi with her infant daughter, and continues the fight begun by her husband. Here she learns of the fate of Shah Bano, and decides to take up the cause.

"She (Safia) had been confined to purdah from the age of nine, when she had committed the crime of writing a short story for Ghuncha, a magazine for children. The editor had published the story and had also written a note of encouragement, This was enough for her grandfather to order purdah because she was receiving letters from unknown men." (page 1).

When her father mentioned the marriage of Safia to Abbas, a friend had burst out, "That infidel! that heathen! Do you know his book is not allowed in any respectable household?" Father had replied, "You don't know my Safia. She is mature and sensible. ...her knowledge and understanding of the holy scripture is perfect. She shall bring him back to God's true faith". (Page 2). Instead her maturity and sensibility made her accept her husbands views.

In Lady Zeenat Jafri, wife of the High Court judge, the author reminds us that it is only the poor and the helpless women who suffer under patriarchal rule and not the rich and the powerful. In such elite families, it is the 'woman of the house' who is all powerful, who takes all decisions. Even though the husband is a High Court Judge, his wife's word is final. She has the power to encourage the Fatwa against her own son and daughter-in-law and to get her husband's mistress murdered, to stop the birth of an illegitimate child into the Jafri family.

Safia rises against all this injustice but she can only win a few battles, retreat and fight again. She could never win the war. She does not get the support of even her own daughter and her closest friend, until it is too late.

Zaheer shows us how the socialist, progressive parties, and even feminist movements shied away from the Sha Bano issue, because for all of them survival in the world of politics was more important than democracy, equality and the well-being of all humanity. Zaheer wrote 'My God is a Woman' to try to open the eyes of people around the world. In all societies the woman is the second class citizen and in most countries the woman suffers in silence. Even today most people in India admire the meek suffering of Sita as her chastity is doubted by Rama, and considers Rama as the Purushottam. They do not even have an equivalent female term for Purushottam.

'My God is a Woman' is the story of womankind, from the day the Mother Goddess was pushed off her pedestal by man, and installed a god in his own image, build up a patriarchal polytheistic culture where man took control of the world, and inequality continues to breed inequality.

The greater relevance of this novel today is because of the ever increasing number of reports in the media about rape and violation of women and young girls, specially in our part of the world. One reason could be the woman has been objectified in our media, in films and in advertising. She is depicted as a marketable commodity, a disposable commodity. All this exposure has made us forget that our mothers, our sisters, our wives and our daughters also happen to be women.

March 31, 2013, 12:34 p.m. » Tagged: god , woman

empathy to apathy

Bystander Apathy

daya dissanayake

From all over the world, we hear about the apathy among human beings. The 'Good Samaritan' is an endangered species nearing extinction. The Bystander Apathy was what we heard after the brutal rape and murder of the young girl in Delhi, on December 16th, 2012, where no one who stopped at the scene offered to help, even to offer a piece of clothe to cover the cold naked bleeding body of the girl. It was on the night of March 13th, 1964, in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, that a girl was knifed, raped and then killed, while her neighbours heard her screams just shut their doors and their ears. The list could go on and on.

We are today insensitised to violence because of all the inhuman cruelty we see and hear in the electronic and print media and in the films and novels, who exploit them to increase their ratings and circulation. When communications and advertising media, literature and films objectify women, this lack of empathy becomes very dangerous. The woman becomes a disposable commodity.

When we read a novel we should be reminded that we are human beings. Then we can empathize with the characters in the story, we are better able to relate to our fellow human beings and all living things. A recent study at the University of Buffalo has revealed that reading satisfies a deeply felt need for human connection because we not only feel like the characters we read or hear about but, psychologically speaking, become part of their world and derive emotional benefits from the experience. When the reading matter is all about violence we become violent too, we do not empathize with the victims, but with the violators, the murderers and rapists, and we get used to enjoy such violence, like the gladiatorial 'games', or till recently the Spanish bull fights.

Barak Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign used the term 'empathy deficit' which he saw in America. A survey by researchers at the University of Michigan found that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the steepest decline coming in the last 10 years. These students were not concerned about other people's misfortunes, however much they are constantly in touch with them. A Washington based Psychotherapist Douglas LaBier talks about EDD, Empathy Deficit Disorder. Those who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune into what other people experience. The inhuman ragging in our universities too could be due to this empathy deficit and the bystander apathy.

It is the changing times which created the need for a term like Empathy, according to Steven Pinker, it was first used by Vernon Lee in 1904 and by Edward Titchener in 1909.

The first step down the path of the deterioration of human values would have been when man learned to feign sympathy instead of empathy. Evolution and degeneration of man could be described as moving from Empathy to Sympathy to Apathy to end up with Antipathy.

We have packaged, ready made products claiming to be artistic creations, which can arouse a little sympathy, but the creation of a true artist, whether it be a painting, a poem, a short story or a novel is where we can empathize with what we see or read or hear. George Eliot has implied that art is capable of inducing one of the most profound aspects of empathy: the ability to sensitize us to the emotions of other people in ways that transcend the limits of our own experiences and perspectives.

Jeremy Rifkin is looking at the empathic evolution of the human race, reminding us that we are a fundamentally empathic species. He quotes Hegel, "happiness is the blank pages of history", because our recorded history is always about conflict and crisis, pain and suffering. This false impression is what made Thomas Hobbes say "the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Rifkin claims that empathy got pushed aside by historians and philosophers with a more bleak view of human nature.

More recent views on Empathy have been put forward by Ellen Dissanayake. She says "Most empathists held that bodily feelings were projected outward from the perceiver onto the art object. Current neurophysiological findings, however, suggest that the work of art writes itself on the perceiver's body: we can understand that the arts affect at once our bodies, minds, and souls, which themselves are aspects - processing modules in the brain - of an individual that apprehends as one". And this is what Buddha explained 2600 years ago.

Global empathy is the need of the hour. Literature, art and music are probably the best way to revive empathy. Tania Singer, neuroscientist, Max Planck Institute, Berlin, wrote that the "ability to share others’ feelings ultimately results in a better understanding of the present and future mental states and actions of the people around us and possibly promotes prosocial behavior. .....empathy is also likely to render people less selfish because it allows the sharing of emotions and feelings with others and therefore motivates other-regarding behavior."

It is still not too late to reverse the process from apathy to empathy, before the bystanders too join the violence. Let us write novels, produce films, publish news showing the good side of the human beings, the good deeds we see everyday among us, or if we cannot find such topics, at least about the humane behaviour among the animals.

Let us write about the humane animals around us, if we can find only beastly humans.

Feb. 28, 2013, 4:11 a.m. » Tagged: antipathy , apathy , empathy

porn by any other name

Meeharaka syndrome

daya dissanayake

When the Europeans invaded India, they looked at them as sex temples, as pure pornography. Some called it "The birth place of porn". To quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica, "Pornography is very much in the eye of the beholder". Even today the tourist industry exploits them as pure pornography, but available uncensored. According to Victorian standards, "pornography is representation of sexual behaviour in books, pictures, statues, motion pictures and other media that is intended to cause sexual excitement". (Encyclopedia Britannica).

Then Khajuraho is pure pornography for those who seek them for such sexual excitement. Till recent times, no one in India had considered them as obscene, because they are religious spaces, which had been built by the Chandela kings between the 9th to 11th centuries, with some of the most exquisite sculptures created by man and dedicated to Indian gods, and influenced by Tantric philosophy.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, the great man he was, erred about the temples at Khajuraho. He wanted them destroyed. He is reported as saying, "These temples will show the whole world that we are not moral people, that we are not puritans." That is why Claude Markovits wrote in 'Un-Gandhian Gandhi', "he (Gandhi) was a Victorian intellectual rather than an anglicized one, and he himself did not realize to what extent, intellectually, he was a product of the Victorian era". (p.130).

Fortunately for the art lovers of the world, the Mahatma was prevented from finishing what the Muslim invaders did a few centuries earlier, when they destroyed about 75 of the Khajuraho temples. It was Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore who had opposed this idea and saved the temples.

True Art is not pornography and Pornography is not art. All pornography is vile, not just the 'blue' videos and under-the-counter porn magazines, but even what the male intellectuals used to give a more 'respectable' term, 'erotica'. All porn is about violation of the human body and mind, and men who created them originally targeted the female, but unfortunately now the female of the species too has entered the market, producing cheap porn targeting other weak minded females and a few men.

Pornography is said to be about unnatural sex acts and perversions, but it was Aldous Huxley who had said, "Chastity is the most unnatural of all the sexual perversions." Probably porn is also a result of the concept of monogamy which arose in the west, which led to the suppression of natural human desires. Taking Aldous Huxley's statement further, monogamy too is unnatural and a perversion, not found among other animals. Did this develop with the Ten Commandments according to the Hebrew bible? "You shall not commit Adultery". "You shall not covet your neighbour's wife". The woman is grouped with the neighbour's other possessions, his house, his slaves and animals. Yet it does not say man could have only one wife, or a woman could have more than one husband.

Perhaps man had misinterpreted the divine command, in the same way some Buddhists have misinterpreted the Five Precepts, by reading the Third precept in isolation, with taking the word kama as sexual desire, while it means sensual desire. If we take all Five Precepts together, as long as we show loving kindness to all life, do not take what does not belong to us, do not hurt or abuse any one by thought or deed, then there would be no need to impose any sexual mores or commandments, and there would never be any need for pornography or sexual violence.

It is the suppression of the sex urge which would have opened the door for prostitution, after the freedom enjoyed by the men in ancient India or Greece. Roger Just (Women in Athenian Land and Life) quotes from the Greek orator Demosthenes "We have hetairai (prostitutes) for pleasure, pallakai (concubines) for our daily bodily needs, and gynaikes (wives) to bear us legitimate children and to be the faithful guardians of our households".

When man became more puritan, prostitution developed its own stigma, and visiting a prostitute was sometimes very difficult in a close knit family or in a village. Pornography would have been the next marketable product for the entrepreneur, because it could be sold and purchased more surreptitiously than buying sex with a woman. Every development in printing and digital technology made the distribution easier and easier, and today any young child could access it on his computer or even his mobile phone or at unscrupulous internet cafes.

Pornography makes the woman a sex object, a 'thing' which could be used or abused. According to Richard Brodie " get quickly aroused by visual stimuli, which is why today pornography is much more popular with men than with women." Brodie argues that it was "evolutionarily important" for the male to pass on his DNA.

Pornography cannot be controlled by authorities, by banning films or by burning books. I remember when I was a kid, once they burned a collection of Sinhala novels at the Galle esplanade. The organizers distributed a booklet, justifying their action, why such books should be banned, and this booklet was given even to the children. It contained the juiciest extracts from the books, but this booklet was not burned.

We saw what such pornography would do to a young man, in the film 'Meeharaka', by I. N. Hewawasam, some years back. May be it is this 'Meeharaka syndrome', if I may coin a term, which is one reason for the increasing incidents of rape and violence, by men who are sexually frustrated and who are further excited by pornography.

Feb. 21, 2013, 11:28 p.m. » Tagged: Khajuraho , pornography , rape


None so Blind...

daya dissanayake

In 1904 H. G. Wells wrote 'The Country of the Blind". Wells placed his village "300 miles from Chimborazo, 100 from the snows of Cotopaxi, in the wildest wastes of Ecuador's Andes." For over fifteen generations all the villagers had been blind. A man falls into this hidden valley, a man with all his normal senses intact. He finds houses built in neat rows, cleanest of streets, irrigation channels and lush vegetation. The houses had doors, but no windows and had walls of irregular plastering. The man Nunez, realizes that they are blind and "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". When he says he has sight, that he can see, the blind ask what he means, and they say "his senses are still imperfect". "There is no such word as 'see'." The blind men want to hold his hand and lead him across the village. The home of the elders was pitch dark and Nunez could not see anything. For these people their night was day, when they stayed up and did their work and the day was for rest and sleep. Nunez tried to rebel, to take over the village. But he could not fight the 'blind' men. When they asked him if he thought he could still 'See', he answered, "No, that was folly. The word means nothing-less than nothing".

The complete story can be read free on-line at Gutenberg and other sites.

It all depends on what we mean by vision, what we sense through our eyes. Perhaps the villagers described by Wells had 'Blindsight'. The term introduced by the neurologist Lawrence Weiskrantz in his book 'Blindsight: A Case Study and Implications'. 'Blindsight' is also a documentary film made about six blind kids who attempt the Everest climb, motivated by Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to climb Mount Everest in 2001. The film became a hit, but Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, questioned, "What precisely is the blind child's experience of 'climbing Everest' anyway?". To that we can also add the question, would any blind child be able to 'see' this film?

"In people who are blind, the brain reroutes other sensory inputs to unused portions of the brain to compensate for the loss of sight. ...part of the blind visual cortex is being re-wired to support hearing or touch for the localization of objects in space....for the sighted, sound and touch stimulation resulted in reduced visual cortex activation." claims a report of the U.S. National Science Foundation researchers. Yet H. G. Wells apparently was aware of this 108 years ago.

Albert Rosenfeld wrote in the 12th June 1964 issue of 'Life', about Rosa Kuleshova, a young woman in Russia, who could see with her fingers. She could identify colours with her finger-tips, and she was even able to read the business card of Life Correspondent Bob Brigham, not with her eyes, but with her elbow. The Soviet scientists called it 'Dermo-Optical Perception' or DOP., 'skin-vision' in simpler terms. The American experimental psychologist Gregory Razzan too had believed DOP was possible, that people could be trained to see with their skin. The studies are still continuing, as reported by Peter Brugger and Peter H. Weiss in 2008.

In 1877, Michel de Montaigne, in his 2nd Book of Essays, wrote about a man who was blind but refused to admit the fact. "I have seen a gentleman of a good family who was born blind, or at least blind from such an age that he knows not what sight is; who is so little sensible of his defect that he makes use as we do of words proper for seeing, and applies them after a manner wholly particular and his own. They brought him a child to which he was god-father, which, having taken into his arms, "Good God," said he, "what a fine child! How beautiful to look upon! what a pretty face it has!"

Montaigne continues, "The first consideration I have upon the subject of the senses is that I make a doubt whether or not man be furnished with all natural senses. I see several animals who live an entire and perfect life, some without sight, others without hearing; who knows whether to us also one, two, three, or many other senses may not be wanting?"

Anton's syndrome. "Patients with this syndrome behave as if they can see despite their obvious lack of sight", is the explanation given in the Journal of Clinical Neurology. It could be just one more example of the Syndrome Syndrome, where the medical profession tries to find a new syndrome for every symptom of man. Yet the above definition covers a symptom found in most of us, because we do not really see anything of the universe and life around us.

The name is after the neuropathologist Gabriel Anton, for his explanation of visual anosognosia. Patients deny their blindness despite objective evidence of visual loss. It was later named Anton-Babinski Syndrome, after the neurologist Joseph Francois Babinski.

The idea crept into creative fiction in Rupert Thomson's novel 'The Insult', and Peter Watts' 'Blindsight'. The concept appeared in Raj Patel's book on the 2008 Economic crisis, 'The Value of Nothing', and in the film Dogville by Lars von Trier. But long before that it was Plato who wrote about it in the Allegory of the Cave, in his Republic, book VII, where men chained to a bench facing a wall saw the shadows of artificial objects created by a fire behind them. They believed what they saw was reality. That is why Aldous Huxley had said, "Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don't know because we don't want to know".

What is really important is not whether we see with our eyes, or our skin or our ears, but to see and understand things as they really are.

Feb. 13, 2013, 10:50 a.m. » Tagged: Anton's syndrome , blindness , Plato's cave

Is Art Necessary

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.

Feb. 8, 2013, 11:51 a.m. » Tagged: Art , cave art , Paintings

music into art


daya dissanayake

In the mistaken effort to become more 'civilized', and 'culturally advanced' man tried to classify everything into various groups and categories, and in doing so he lost sight of the entirety. Like the blind men feeling the different parts of the elephant, he could see only one part of the whole at a time. It happened to all art forms. Man divided it into music, singing, painting, dance, and literature and he forgot they were all one form.

Thus it was a wonderful experience to see the various art forms merging into one great masterpiece, one evening at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata.

Several artistes worked as one human entity to present to us a wonderful creation which was a blend of music, song, dance and painting. It was one of the major events at Karigar Haat 2013, the festival of traditional art and culture from all over India and beyond, organized by AIM (Art Illuminates Mankind).

It was Saori Kanda who painted as she danced to the music and songs with Kariyusi folk fusion band and Miya, the jazz flute player.

Deprivation is often a blessing for an artiste. Saori was living in Baghdad, during the Iran war when she was just 2 years old. Because she did not have any Japanese toys to play with, "my only way of playing was drawing on back of used papers". She also had said at an interview that "music triggered me to pursue live painting". She has become a child of Mother Earth, because she was exposed to the world around her, not only where she was born, but in the Middle East and then later in her travels to many other countries.

There have been painters who created art from music. And musicians who created music from paintings. Franco Falsini (Sensations' Fix) brought out 'Music is Painting in the Air', in the late 60s. Beethoven's Ninth Symphony has been transformed into a painting 110 years ago by Gustav Klimt, and the Moonlight Sonata by Adonis Poitras, more recently.

Yehudi Menuhin called Norman Perryman "A musician who makes music with his paintbrush", and Perryman is planning to paint Alexander Scriabin's 'Prometheus: Poem of Fire' into a kinetic visual at a live concert on January 25th in Brussels. The Lithuanian artist/musician Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis painted the Sonata of the Sun in 1907 and continued to paint five more Sonatas, and these pictorial sonatas were cited as examples of Synesthesia, a term introduced to explain the marriage of music and art, which Wagner had called 'Total Artwork'.

A 'kinetic visual' sounds more technical than artistic, like the digital transformation of music into art, which gives us an 'abstract' colour pattern which no one could understand, and there is no feeling in it. They cannot be considered as paintings or music compositions. Computers and digital technology would never be able to acquire synesthesia.

True and near total synesthesia we saw in our own Mahagama Sekara, who left us thirty seven years ago this month. He brought his music into his paintings, into his poems and his poems into his novel and later into his film, who wanted to paint the music of the universe into one huge canvas.

In Saori Kanda's performance we also meet a true synesthete who becomes one with the music and the song and with the audience. Her hand moves as if on its own, transforming the empty canvas into a work of art, a painting which keeps ringing in our ears long after the music has stopped. The visual art she created has merged into one with the aural art created by her team, and would last in our memories for a long long time.

The art was also truly peaceful and thus useful for mankind. It confirms how Art Illuminates Mankind. After watching the performance of the Japanese artistes, as we walked around looking at the handicrafts and the artistic creations displayed at the Karigar Haat festival, we could understand and appreciate them better. We could empathize with the artisan and his creation and share his joy as he created a masterpiece out of a piece of wood or moulded it from clay.

Karigar Haat is a cultural festival of all traditional art forms. Traditional art and culture have always been a part of nature. There was no conflict between nature and culture in our traditional villages, and we could still see it here gathered at the Salt Lake Stadium. It all blended with the evenings of Baul and Sufi music, with love and many-splendoured bonds of the heart, subtly revealing the mystery of life, and love of humanity. There was also the Qawwali, traditional islamic songs of India and Pakistan, and the Kabirbhajans. Kabir was the first Indian saint to have harmonised Hindu, Islam and Sikh doctrines by preaching a universal path with his mystical and devotional poetry. There was the Wayee style of song created by Shah Abdul Latif Bhital in the 17th century, based on sensual and divine love.

The folk dances were from all over India, or should we still call this land Bharatvarsha, even though today the land is politically divided into many different countries. Here at Karigar Haat they were all of one land and one people, with love for all humanity expressed in their various forms of artistic creations. They were the true Sahrda and true Rasika.

Let us learn from them, to retain and preserve our own traditional arts and culture and to introduce them to our younger generation, to illuminate their lives and to produce peaceful and useful citizens of the world. We too have our own Karigar Haat, which we call Kala Pola, which could be developed to provide more encouragement to our own Karigars.

Jan. 24, 2013, 7:28 a.m. » Tagged: Karigar Haat , Saori Kanda , synesthesia


Syndrome Syndrome

daya dissanayake

The monthly lecture of the Royal Asiatic Society by Prof. D. C. R. A Goonetillke was on the subject of 'English Literature, Language and Politics in Sri Lanka'. Discussing the Colonial, Post -Colonial and Post-Modernist writings. He touched on the Prospero-Caliban Syndrome, taking us back to Shakespeare and the Tempest.

Octave Mannoni, wrote the book, 'Prospero and Caliban - The Psychology of Colonization' (University of Michigan Press, 1990). Boaventura de Sousa Santos wrote in the Luso-Beazilian Review, (University of Visconsin Press, 2002-winter), 'Between Prospero and Caliban: Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Inter-identity'.

Prof. Goonetilleke was speaking about Prospero and Caliban in the Sri Lankan context, about Sri Lankan literature in English. He is the most suitable academic in our country today to talk about our English literature. Dr. Susantha Goonetilleke introduced Prof. D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke as the Sri Lankan English scholar who has contributed the most number of publications on English Literature locally and internationally. Prof. Goonetilleke is a world authority on Conrad and Rushdie.

Prof. Goonetilleke was trying to relate these syndromes with the effects of the social and cultural changes of 1956, the southern uprisings in 1971 and 1989, and the northern conflict from 1983. However in our country, writing in English is still limited to a few authors enjoying urban life, and most of them are cutoff from the majority of our people in the country. It is also a feature observed in India and the other South Asian countries, where English is for the elite.

James Peacock and Tim Lusting have written, 'Disease and Disorders in Contemporary Fiction. The Syndrome Syndrome', which is to be published by Rutledge in April, 2013. The subjects covered have been announced as, '20th Century Literature, Postmodernism Literature and Trauma Studies'. It is about "the current preoccupation with neurological conditions and disorders in contemporary literature by British and American writers. The book places these fictional treatments within a broader cultural and historical context, exploring such topics as the two cultures debate, the neurological turn, postmodernism and the post-postmodernism, and responses to September 11th....the essays discuss contemporary writers' attempts to engage the relation between the individual and the social, looking at the relation between the 'syndrome syndrome' and existing work in the field of trauma studies.. "

A syndrome has been defined as a "group of symptoms that consistently occur together, or a condition characterized by a set of associated symptoms", and also as a "characteristic combination of opinions, emotions, or behaviour."

We should perhaps study this 'syndrome syndrome' taking into consideration all Sri Lankan writing, in Sinhala, Tamil and English. Some of the Sinhala writers are also trapped in the Prospero-Caliban syndrome still, because they are influenced by their colonial masters, while others are influenced by popular modern writers around the world, who are trapped in the same syndrome. So too some of the diaspora writers writing about their 'traditional homelands', but writing to please the western readers. Today we use the term diaspora to identify people who have migrated to other countries, but are trying to identify themselves with their country of origin. This is another syndrome we are faced with, as the local literati accuse the diaspora of coming in like tourists and still trying to dominate the local literary and academic scene, while the diaspora keeps talking about the island mentality of the locals, who perceive themselves superior and exceptional to the rest of the world.

South Asian diaspora pour out literary masterpieces about the rural poverty, corruption and nepotism in their countries of birth, while wallowing in the luxuries found in the countries they live in, shutting their eyes and ears to all the ills and vices before them. This is where the young diaspora suffer from the Young Desi Syndrome, talking about diasporic art. We already have Desi Literature and even conferences on Desi Literature. There is also a Desi culture, which is a cocktail of all South Asian cultures, drowning the identity of each individual culture.

The term 'Desi' is probably the unconscious yearning by the diaspora to retain their identity with the former motherland, because it could be from the Samskrit word Desi, which is in use among almost all South Asian countries.

If we go back in history, from the time the term was used by the Greeks, we all belong to diaspora. We are the descendants of the ancient Africans who scattered across the globe. Then there could not be any 'Island mentality' among any of us, but a global mentality, obscured by concepts like patriotism, motherland and mother tongue.

Perhaps it is the Stockholm Syndrome, the term originally used to describe the phenomenon in which kidnap victims express empathy and sympathy towards their captors. D. G. Dutton and S. L. Painter find that this also applies to emotional attachments between abusers and the abused, as could happen in a colonial culture and then continue under the post-colonial rulers.

The Prospero-Caliban syndrome mentioned by Prof. Goonetilleke, was evident even with the organizers of this lecture, for they still call themselves, "Royal" Asiatic Society. We are entangled in too many syndromes and too many theories. We are been told that we should shake off our 'Island mentality', that we should think globally. Then we are also told we should retain our national identity. We are told that we should read, write and live using our 'Mother tongue'. Next we are told to learn an 'International language' so we could live in harmony in the 'Global village', and at the same time develop our own identity of the international language.

All this confusion has affected our creative writing, and all art forms, from paintings, music to films and video productions. We are bogged down in a syndrome syndrome.

Jan. 18, 2013, 7:27 a.m. » Tagged: Prospero-Caliban Syndrome , syndrome syndrome