The American art critic Jed Perl, in a recent piece that focused on European modernism in New Republic (August 4, 2014), titles it more generally as Liberals are Killing Art, How the Left Became obsessed with Ideology over Beauty.The title is a giveaway, but to iterate the obvious, Perl is arguing for emotion, ardour and imagination against what he thinks is the rational politicising of art and literature. He has made this argument more successfully in his book Magicians and Charlatans, where he has particularly taken to task the financially-driven compromise of artistic standards among artists, collectors, galleries, and museums, a phenomenon he christenslaissez faire aesthetics.
Yes, intellect and disinterestedness have been the twin bulwarks of a left liberal quantification drive towards artistic practice. The worst form of manifestation of this impulse is utilitarian campaigns for art practice on the one side and left gatekeeping on the other. But what the conservative critique of political art does is to underplay its own ideological foundations in timelessness and the inexplicable in art — both deeply status quoist in their origin.
This fundamental romantic impulse towards the ‘play drive,’ as Friedrich Schiller had proposed or towards repose and a vigilant will in appreciating art as Ananda Coomaraswamy argues, is a case for introversion of the creative mind. This introversion can take the shape of a people or folk/volk who would revel in collective self expression and beauty — of a race, religion, or language, channelled through cultural artefacts. The first lesson in reversing this introversion into beauty means re-materializing the myths of collective will or the sonorous nothings of the belles lettres.
The very idea of the underside to our modernity has been reworking myths into political action and mobilisation and never letting that ossify into end of history sagas. So, any objective notion of passion and viscera must be emptied of the receptacle of collective unconscious and cultural consecrations. Myths and symbols, as Ritwik Ghatak had long ago presciently envisaged, are manifestations of ancient, uncanny flashes in our mind. The rhythm of the powerful flashes always has a kaumi, collective undertone to it. Myths get historicised as an effort and labour in unison. Gauchiste ideas of dealing with imagination have always been counter-romantic and gothic — say in William Blake’s paintings or Namdeo Dhasal’s syntax and poetics.
Therefore, myths would anticipate and prefigure things to come — a utopian leap into the vortex of history. Magic is converted to the heroic within the everyday — as we see in the case of the Spartacus myth, for instance, which in at least one concrete manifestation, led to an uprising against the Weimar republic in 1919. Aesthetics brings a set of values that the capitalist and fascist order impedes in an organized manner because it weaves ephemera into reality and by doing this brings forth the logic of a utopian dimension in our living. We begin to hope from the intangible, and we begin to think about a freer world even during the most dictatorial times. To bring forth ephemera as a tool, a ray of hope for the abject and common is not a cognitive service. It is not a civic duty to right injustice. Because if you do so, you begin to compete with the existing ones and the writerly labour would stand abstracted. This question of politics and form has been finely elaborated by the Italian poet, essayist and literary critic Franco Fortini when he says that the “writers and critics elaborate models of critical writing, essayist language, written information, organisation of literary investigation and study, translation, guidance in the domain of literary disciplines.”
This other model of the ephemera, beyond the mysterious and the fleeting, always responds to the complexity of the historical moment. It is dialogic, polysemous and evolving. The small works of studying and mobilising art is to place aesthetes against taste or contemplation. It is this sceptical political spade work with the literary form itself that drives those who are behind the idea of pamphlets and little magazines. What one can learn from the first avant gardists is their attention, beyond their own work, to artistic group work and group strategy. Stateless collectives are crystallised in a vein of common refusals. A commons or grouping that shuns mere personal agency is a beginning.
But intellectual labour and the collective precludes the specialist culture of journals, libraries and research institutes but seek people’s collectives—collectives that imagine themselves as Stateless and drifting perhaps. One of the most powerful novels from Bengal in recent times has been Abhijit Sen’s Rohu-Chandaler Haar. Sen narrates the story of an itinerant baajikar population whose dwelling is tamam duniya—the whole wide world. These are nomadic communities, like we have encountered in the Old Testament, but placed in contemporary times. Unperturbed by uncaring gods and the hostile nation-state, the baajikars settle for long and strenuous journeys and in the process, form powerful collectives.
The journey and the nature of their collective rallies against all disinterested or socially relevant evaluation of art and political community. It is a powerful invocation of a mythical living within the interstices of the modern but the nature of the collective is far from populist or volk-ish. In his terrific novel Khowabnama — the Bangladeshi author Akhtaruzzaman Elias transforms the history of the subcontinent by rendering vivid the political and historical legends of the collective — mapping a people who are volatile and evolving. A janapada, its thousand years of collective memory, value system, mythopoeia, processes of exchange — all are placed within the rough and tumble of history, that is ongoing, ever morphing, for Elias.
The middle-of-the-road liberals are ever suspicious about the power of aesthetics in our everyday life. More conservative elites shall continue to project art as a corollary to the opera houses and dance troupes. We don’t expect goodness or correctness from art.
But we do expect a complex interplay of the everyday and conflictual in such non-rational, unquantifiable forms — that we call art. We expect to feel and taste the fantastic. We want our tribulations and ordeals to be reflected as furores and upheavals. Trying to smuggle in rare essences as irreducible instances of mystery and magic will simply not cut ice.
The writer is Associate Professor of English, University of Delhi