A Call to Arts

A presentation and discussion titled Human Power: Arts for Social Change (organised by Avid Learning) in Mumbai last month left many of us in the audience wondering if the arts can actually foster social change as the title of the event suggested. A question of measurement was called for which, I feel, dampened the spirits a bit. No one felt comfortable with measuring social change, nor the arts. At least, not among the members of the audience gathered that evening. I mean, we know social change happens; and, if there is change, we know it can be measured… simply by tracking the ‘before’ and ‘after’ scenarios. All social sciences do that, though accurate measurements are sometimes difficult to determine.

The trouble, I feel, was with the inclusion of the term ‘the arts’. The arts have always been antithesis to science and, if they have not actually defied measurement over centuries, they have definitely challenged it. Hence, measuring social change as an outcome of arts projects or initiatives is always a difficult proposition. Yet, over centuries, individuals, groups, institutes of learning, associations and governments have continued their efforts and initiatives in employing the arts to bring in social change. For instance, schools and universities, by virtue of their being and their purpose, have transformed and improved our lives and societies. The question is, can the arts do the same?

Image courtesy www.whitehouse.gov/blog/  Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Image courtesy http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/ Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Recently, President Barack Obama of the United States organised A Call to Arts: The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge initiative which sought “to inspire tomorrow’s storytellers through programs, events and other mentorship opportunities — with a goal to reach one million hours of mentorship over the next three years.” According to a White House blog post and A Call to Arts website,

“The initiative is a partnership with AFI [American Film Institute] and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) that answers the president’s nationwide call to service to mentor aspiring storytellers who are pursuing careers in the cinematic arts. AFI and SAG-AFTRA will work with the Corporation for National and Community Service to help work toward the goal of one million mentor hours over the next three years.”

A Call to Arts: The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge, of course, is not the first initiative to employ the arts to foster social change in the world in some magnitude which is worth considering. There have been thousands and thousands of such initiatives and projects over centuries, many of them in India. Although I’m not sure if any of them have been measured in any scientific manner to declare fostering social change in a sizeable magnitude, some of them, I’m sure, have been and still are exemplary. This would mean that these initiatives have not only fostered social change for a while at a certain point in history, but have actually sustained their efforts to transform our lives for ever.

The interesting thing is that the A Call to Arts initiative has set a specific goal and is talking numbers similar to a marketing plan: “Through A Call to Arts, more than 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members and 300 elected leaders in 25 localities across the nation are being asked to mentor aspiring creative artists during the next three years.”  Not to mention The One Million Mentor Hours Pledge.” Once such specific goals are set for a ‘the arts for social change’ initiative/project, it’s a lot easier to measure the initiative’s/project’s performance against those goals and document its achievements. If the initiative’s/project’s performance can be measured, then there’s a strong likelihood that the social change as an outcome of the initiative/project can be measured as well.

The first art galleries

Life was hard in those Paleolithic (i.e. Old Stone Age) days. The average life span of prehistoric man is estimated (by today’s scientific measures) to have been less than 30 years. Hunting was a preoccupation, with animals providing our ancestors their main meals. Yet, there was something sacred about this, and early cave art tells us that our ancestors considered relationships between humans and animals to be important.

Cave art – i.e. paintings by prehistoric man found on the walls and ceilings of caves – came into public attention when the first cave paintings were found, accidentally by a little girl, in Altamira, northern Spain in 1879. Since then, thousands of similar paintings have been discovered in caves across the world, the earliest dating back some 40,000 years ago. The interesting thing is, no matter where on Earth cave art is discovered, the similarities between them, in terms of subject matter and style, are amazing.

The paintings look like line drawings of animals (later versions are filled in with colours), mostly depicting hunting scenes, and humans in stick-like forms or stencilled hands. A few show women and children, such as the one of a woman carrying a load on her head, dated 8,000 years ago, found in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India. It seems charcoal was the main ingredient in the black paint used in many of these cave paintings. Some of the paintings are indeed beautiful.

By today’s standards of fine arts, prehistoric cave art is childish, even clumsy. Yet, these collections of cave paintings represent what would be the first art galleries in human history. Even today, they are an enigma to historians, archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists. In some caves, according to dating measures, paintings were discontinued and resumed thousands of years later. Why, no one knows for sure.

Records suggest that cave art continued for 20,000 years or so, and came to an end when the hunters’ precarious way of life disappeared. This happened, slowly, as early man began to rely more on grains and vegetables for his food, and moved to plain open spaces which allowed cultivation. By this time, of course, human populations had increased, making it difficult for larger groups of people to stay in or near caves.

Can art be criticised?

“…the quality of an artist is measured by his ability to loyally represent his unique language to us. The smaller the distance between the original experience (the emotion of the artist) and its external representation – the more prominent the artist.”
– Dr Sam Vaknin in his article The Basic Dilemma of the Artist

Some say that art is the representation – albeit an external representation – of the artist’s experience. It’s the representation of the artist’s original emotion in a communicable form for all to see, hear, feel, sense, etc. Which would mean, the quality of a work of art ought to be a measure of the artist’s ability to loyally represent his/her unique emotion or experience to us.

Yet, we like some art; we criticise and throw away others. What gives us this authority to do so? If the origin – the source – of the art is an emotion or experience unique to the artist, and we have no access to it, how can we even judge a work of art? This, in fact, takes us to another question: If we can’t judge art, who can? Who can determine who is a good artist and who is not?

Image courtesy http://www.ft.com/ and Tomislav Georgiev

Image courtesy http://www.ft.com/ and Tomislav Georgiev

According to Dr Sam Vaknin’s article (from his website), The Basic Dilemma of the Artist, traditionally, artists have used their own reference groups – their audience, so to speak – to measure their art. This audience is a defining part of the artist’s creation – the work of art itself – and inseparable from the artist’s reputation. This reference group, this audience, is expected to have in its possession some sort of a universal guidebook – a source of knowledge – which can be used to interpret the artist’s emotion and experience from his/her art. This reference group can aptly judge the representation for what it is.

If this is true, then the concept is unique in its challenge. For, if the artist happens to be too emotionally involved with his/her art, the reference group has a privileged status. This group is the only one which can judge art – or, has the capacity to pass judgement on art. For, only this group can interpret what transpired in the artist’s mind.

I admit this is not ‘the real thing’ – the creation called art from the artist’s original emotion or experience – but it’s a pretty good substitute. While we sit back making assumptions – guesswork really – about what the artist may have felt in creating a work of art, this reference group happily goes about voicing its views, advice and criticism.

Of course, there is an outside chance that these views, advice and criticism of the reference group may not be loyal – or even close – to the artist’s original emotion or experience. After all, the emotion, the experience, the creation all belong to the artist, who is the only person who can refute these. But then, the artist is too emotionally involved with his/her art to make a logical representation.

Human Power: Arts for Social Change

Last Friday evening, I attended a discussion on Human Power: Arts for Social Change organised by Avid Learning (of the Essar Group) and Good Earth (a home decor store) in Mumbai. At the discussion, Jeroo Mulla (a Mumbai-based professor of film and media studies) was in conversation with Astad Deboo (a reputed Indian choreographer known for his experiments with various dance forms) and Paolo Regis (an Italian fashion photographer who also experiments with ‘flowing’ photography ever since he was influenced by Buddhism and the Dalai Llama).

Human Power Art for Social Change - Jeroo Mulla Paolo Regis Astad Deboo

Jeroo Mulla, Paolo Regis and Astad Deboo

While Astad Deboo presented his workshops and performances with the hearing-impaired (deaf) young women from the Clarke School for the Deaf in Chennai, the street children from the NGO Salaam Baalak Trust in Mumbai, and the Thang-Ta (martial art) and Pung cholom dancers of Manipur, Paolo Regis talked about his ‘flowing’ photography (displayed on the walls of Good Earth), the proceeds from the sales of which contributed to the Alice Project (named after Alice of ‘Alice in Wonderland’) which trains students on developing the mind through meditation and other spiritual practices and paths through ‘experimental’ schools in Sarnath, Bodh Gaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

Although it was apparent to everyone that these dance workshops and performances, as well as the ‘experimental’ schools of the Alice Project have improved the lives of many children, particularly those from under-privileged backgrounds, at the end of the discussion, a question remained unanswered (kept ‘hanging’ so to speak) as to how – and how much – these arts projects have actually contributed, and continues to contribute, to social change. A few of the questions from the audience seemed to suggest that, in order to demonstrate the impact of ‘arts for social change’ projects such the ones discussed during the evening, and to sustain ‘arts for social change’ efforts in general, we need to find ways to measure the efforts and the impact.

It was clear to us that both arts and ‘arts for social change’ cannot be sustained, nor prosper, without sponsorship and patronage.

The intense emotions of authors

In an article titled Madness to their Method in The Washington Times from April 2005, journalist Shelley Widhalm had quoted Dr Stuart Fischoff, who was professor emeritus of psychology at California State University in Los Angeles and a well-known American media psychologist, as having said that, “Creative people need intense emotions to inspire their work.”

In the article, Dr Fischoff, who passed away five months ago, had gone on to explain that, “When you’re writing, you live with yourself and your ideas. You’re in your head a lot… You end up taking your own counsel and reinforcing your own ideas, which may be deluded. You don’t have any reality testing.”

Ms Widhalm’s article, on talented mentally-troubled writers, had specifically referred to American cult writer Hunter S Thompson, who had committed suicide in February 2005, at the age of 67, two months before her article was published.

In his famous 1971 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (also made into a film by Terry Gilliam starring Johnny Depp), Thompson – a journalist and writer, and heavily into alcohol and drugs – wrote, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Would Ernest Hemingway have agreed? I wonder.

According to Dr Stuart Fischoff (Ms Widhalm quotes): “Emotions liberate us to see the world in different ways and to reach deep in our unconsciousness and souls… and without these emotions, what they [creative people] produce could sell millions but never be truly creative.”

Image courtesy en.wikipedia.org

Image courtesy en.wikipedia.org

Across the seas from America, British author Ian McEwan, in an interview with Frances Hardy (titled An enduring high-flier) in The Mail on Sunday, also from April 2005, had said, “Writing a novel takes stamina and mental effort. As you get older it starts to feel like physical effort…”

McEwan also delves deep into the dark recesses of the human psyche, but (he says) he does this for pure fictional purpose – for his characters in his stories. Although his stories have earned him “a reputation for writing literature to shock because of its preoccupations with sexualised children and violent relationships,” Mr McEwan is noted for his gentle and sophisticated ways.

Hunter S Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, drunk and depressed, unable to face reality, had committed suicide. Ian McEwan, now almost 67 years of age, winner of several literary awards and other distinctions, a father of two young men (from his first marriage which ended with some rancour twenty years ago), and now happily into his second marriage, may however live a long and happy life.