In the sixth-century the following was written in the Visnudharmottara.
A king asks a sage about the meaning of art:
"Oh Lord of men," replied the sage,
"he who does not know properly the
rules of painting cannot discern the
characteristics of images."
"Then please narrate the rules
of painting," replies the King.
"Without a knowledge of the art
of dancing," says the sage, "the
rules of painting are very difficult
"Then please speak to me about the
art of dancing … "
"The practice of dancing cannot be
understood by one who is not
acquainted with music. Indeed
without music, dancing cannot exist
"Tell me then first about music … "
"Without singing, music cannot be
understood," replied the sage. "He
who knows the rules of singing
knows everything properly."
As the sage continues you come to realise all is connected and that the arts feed off each other. They of course also feed off our whole life experience. A sense of balance comes from our peculiar ability to walk on two legs, our sense of rhythm comes from the constant heartbeat that lies beneath our chest, our feeling for the dark and light from our experience of the turning of the Earth away from and towards the Sun every 24 hours. A Guardian review this week of ‘The body in Indian Art’ reminded me of visiting the ‘In the Image of Man’ exhibition years ago at the Hayward Gallery. Indian art is about totalities, it doesn’t separate the body from the mind, doesn’t have a legacy of Christian bodily evil. Perhaps this is where our obsession with categorising things comes from. Sex and spiritual transcendence are close companions in the sensuality of Indian religious art, the body maintaining its centrality to experience. If the body is neglected or put at the command of a separate ‘mind’ this I believe only leads to repression and eventually some type of madness.
My recent venture back into working full-time on the fine art programme has convinced me that we have been getting things wrong. (See last post) I am reminded again of the time I spent with an Indian sculptor, he taught me much in the period he was over here, perhaps more than I knew at the time. In particular he told me that when he was working with his ‘master’ he was introduced to a method of understanding where the seat of the sculptural experience lay. He was first of all blindfolded, then introduced to a large stone carving by feeling it. He had to feel the forms of the sculpture and speak as he traced its forms with his fingers and every time he felt a significant change in the sculpture’s dynamics he had to explain this to the master. Sometimes the master would confirm his findings and at other times the master would retort that although there was a change it was not significant. He did this several times and several different sculptures were used, each time the master would also recite particular passages from scripture, intone lines of poetry or hum a particular rhythm that would be used to guide the young artist towards the wider consequences and meanings related to the sculpture that was being experienced. Gradually the young sculptor built up in his mind an understanding of the ‘touch’ of great sculpture. He grasped what it was for one form to meet another, how the rhythm of the hand-feel corresponded to the ‘life’ of the sculpture and how strong and weak joints feel. At the time I was very impressed, and more so now that I am older and look back upon the failure of atomised educational theory.
When I go back to work next year I will be presenting two new modules to the first year students and then moving immediately into assessment preparation for 2nd and 3rd years. I have tried to adjust my presentations to account for something more than what the modules aspire to, but I wont be available very often to personally explain or give advice as to what I meant because of my administrative duties. Perhaps what I resent most of all is the time taken away from students by the assessment process. What my old friend taught me was how important the ‘master’ / ‘student’ relationship is. Sometimes we forget how experienced we are, I have in my time looked at thousands of art works from many different cultures and spend many hours contemplating their meaning and how they were made. On top of this I have years of my own practice behind me and this is communicated at its best in a ‘one to one’ situation, where I can show what something can be, where I can demonstrate by miming or humming a tune or linking in a particular piece of music or poetry or simply pointing out something about life and how art can be made to reflect it. Life experience is something we don’t value as much as other cultures, as I was told when I went into phased retirement and questioned why my salary was so low, “We don’t value experience”. A strange phrase but one that is a product of a managerial culture, a culture whereby the people who make the decisions don’t have to be able to practice what is at the core of what is being taught. Once computers became readily available what they seemed to be used for more and more was the collecting of statistical information, each human contact reduced to number-crunched data and here perhaps lays the problem. In order to make decisions people need information but the only information that appears to count is quantitative. Qualitative information is either collected as sound-bites or simply ignored, but only in those ‘one to one’ moments of human contact will authentic communication take place and those moments are becoming few and far between.