All art declines rather than improves over time.
The music of today is of a lower quality than that written 200 years ago, painting worse than that made 100 years ago, and sculpture today much worse than that produced 500 years ago. The reason for this evolution in reverse is simple. And it is related not to the quality of the artist, but the scale of his ambition.
Art-i-facts: (clockwise from top left) Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Blooomberg; author V.S. Naipaul. Chris Ison / AP; Pink Floyd in concert in London. AFP; Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi. The Art Archive / Bibligrafico Bologna / Alfredo Ort / AFP; Anish Kapoor’s Cloudgate sculpture in Chicago. AFP
All art begins by describing grand themes; by describing divinity, heroism, honour, power, the sensuousness of woman, the nobility of man, his shame, his vanity, fear. Many artists become good at doing this, and a master like Michelangelo can depict heroism with finality.
As artists recognize the perfection of what their forebears have achieved, their creative instinct moves them on to work that is more nuanced, more abstract, less universal, more individual.
Flawless: Michelangelo’s David.
More appealing, in fact, to smaller groups of people. Consider the depiction by Edvard Munch in 1893 of urban anxiety with his famous painting, The Scream. It is meaningless to the majority of the world even in 2010, because most people are desperate to get into the city, not headed the other way, having had enough.
If this deterioration happens because the subject keeps narrowing, does it mean all art is best at its origin, at some point in antiquity? No. Art needs technique and technology to take off (oil paint came only 600 years ago). And it needs agreement on what it seeks to achieve.
Europe’s classical music took off only after aristocratic consensus about what good music should be: It should be melodic, of course, but it must venerate harmony, and order. It should be reproducible, and that was possible only after notation, the writing of music, was introduced 500 years ago.
The aristocracy, incidentally, was important because high culture needs patrons. Mozart spent an insecure lifetime in search of sponsors, Haydn’s work was underwritten by the nobleman Esterházy, and without the obstinacy of Pericles (“I’ll build it with my own money”), Athenians would not have finished the extravagant Parthenon.
Periclean Greece, about 500 BC, was when statues first became realistic, a necessary aspect in sculpture. Egyptian and Indian sculptors attempted to be not real, but fantastic. Their proportions were all wrong as we can see in our temples, and detail was absent.
When the Renaissance came to Italy, sculptors looked back 2,000 years to Greece, to statues such as the Venus de Medici and, though they were discovered later, the deliciously erotic (viewed from behind) Venus de Milo and the masculine Poseidon Soter at Artemisium. Michelangelo’s work was crafted to mirror reality. That is why no sculpture in India or Egypt approaches the quality of his great Pieta, and David. Or the quality of Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women.
From Michelangelo, sculpture has devolved to modern greats such as Henry Moore, who rejected classical sculpture, and now Anish Kapoor, who has rejected sculpture itself. Instead he manufactures large, shiny things that are described in adjectives of vagueness, and cost millions. It’s difficult to understand why a highly polished, reflective surface is art, but not a mirror.
Let us now observe the decline of painting. Painting is prehistoric, but it became real only after a technique was found: the discovery of perspective. The monk artists of Ajanta actually introduced perspective in their cave paintings around the time of Christ, and it came to Europe only centuries later. But Europe knew it was gold. Leonardo da Vinci opens his Treatise on Painting with the line: “The young student should in the first place acquire a knowledge of perspective.” India, characteristically, let the knowledge lapse, and that is why our medieval art (Rajput painting) is so flat.
Europe used art to advance its civilization. Europeans sprang out of the Middle Ages and into their Renaissance, the single most important moment in the history of man, between Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1426) and Tintoretto’s St Mark’s body brought to Venice (1548). These artists reached for the great theme: Christianity’s shame and piety.
But progressively, artists saw other themes in religion. In his famous 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, Velázquez makes his subject look malevolent. He does this so subtly that Innocent X reads it the other way and rewards Velázquez.
Francis Bacon (died 1992) made a series of copies of Velázquez’s portrait, but he shows the pope aflame in hell. And Bacon was in turn copied by Delhi’s Mickey Patel, who made a menacing silhouette of John Paul II.
All of this is clever, but appealing to a much smaller group, sceptics, and, therefore, not universal.
Velázquez (died 1660) was an extraordinary painter. It is difficult for men to remain unstirred by his Toilet of Venus. And he showed a racist Europe what nobility looked like in a black man, with his portrait of Pareja, his slave. The equality of man is an important theme in art. Americans were shown nobility in the black man by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Negro infantry marching in his 1897 Shaw Memorial sensitizes a post-Civil War nation. Artists do not tackle these great themes any longer in the West, and they have no need to. The equality of man is accepted there now, and they have moved on.
This arc that we describe, this trajectory of art from point of invention quickly to apogee and then inexorably towards decay, may be observed quite clearly in Urdu poetry. Only 90 years separate Wali Gujarati, Urdu’s first poet, from Ghalib, its greatest. Ghalib was excellent at using Urdu’s pithiness, but he was great because of his material. He understood the beauty and the unpleasantness of life, and that was his theme. That is why he is eternal: because he nails it.
Urdu poetry went downhill after Ghalib’s death in 1869. The two famous poets who came after him wrote on atrocious themes. Iqbal (died 1938) preached world domination to India’s Muslims and marched them towards religious bigotry and Pakistan. Faiz (died 1984) was equally unhinged. He was convicted for planning a military coup over Kashmir and wrote allegories for Communism.
Classical Urdu poetry is now finished, because the poet does not tackle the overarching theme any more.
In fact he cannot, because he would sound ridiculous talking about courage and honour in 2010. And how much courage can a poet add to Homer’s Hector, or vanity to his Achilles, or virtuousness to Tulsidas’ Ram?
Let us return to classical music. Most of it was written between Vivaldi (died 1741) and Brahms (died 1897). The best composers—Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Haydn—came or went in this very short period. It is their work that is truly enjoyed even today. This may be observed at the Symphony Orchestra of India’s concerts in Mumbai. When people around you start tuning out it’s almost certain that the work of a later, more experimental, composer such as Mussorgsky or Copland is being played.
Those modern composers, however, who remain classical, by which we mean melodic, like Prokofiev, Bernstein and Orff, are still popular. At one Mumbai concert a few years ago, the Parsis started clapping time to Prokofiev’s Overture on Jewish Themes. Unheard of, irreverent and utterly delightful, it is this appreciation of music that is universal.
The problem in art is that the urge away from the universal and towards experiment quite frequently ends in the production of garbage. Consider Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet, which must only be played with each of the four musicians in a separate helicopter. Or American composer George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, which requires each of its three performing musicians to wear a mask.
And yet this urge to express in new ways is irresistible, because the nature of man is to be inventive. Even Beethoven succumbed, writing for himself by the end. The last symphony written by this master of melody is the corpulent 9th. It is revered, but rarely listened to, except for a famous tune in its fourth movement. And his delightful piano sonatas include one unfathomable piece called the Hammerklavier, which he wrote a few years before his death. Pianists often say it is his most difficult sonata to perform; it is certainly his most difficult to sit through.
Does all experimentation go wrong? Of course not. The Impressionists also experimented, but they added to art because they calibrated the extent of their departure from the real.
The pattern of decline is to be found even in low culture, such as pop music. However, it is declining for a different reason: Popularity has killed its quality, and this happens to all democratized art forms, such as popular cinema. They decay because they have too many patrons.
Rock music’s cause was the rebellion of youth, which flowered in post-War Europe. But it is an asinine sentiment, and now we know that it is quite hollow. Only the banal—crushes, cars, drug dealing, etc.—is expressed in this music, which is quite self-conscious. Adults shouldn’t really be listening to pop and rock music.
Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters now says that his writing on the album The Dark Side of the Moon was the work of a pretentious schoolboy, and that’s quite true.
What about literature? Here also, the great novels are all a thing of the past. Nobody knew why this was until Naipaul figured it out. Novels, Naipaul discovered, were actually a way of looking at a civilization, of describing it. Austen and Dickens describe Victorian England, as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky do Imperial Russia, and Flaubert and Balzac do post-Napoleonic France. But this reporting of societies is done more efficiently through non-fiction and through real people instead of tragic characters. That is why the novel declined after the invention of travel writing, and now fiction is useful only to describe societies like Egypt where it is dangerous for insiders to report fact. This explains the popularity of Arab novelists such as Naguib Mahfouz and Alaa al-Aswany.
Modern art requires us to divine meaning into the artist’s work. Hmmm... I think he means this. Or does he indicate that? This is art that, more than appreciation, requires from its audience guesswork, like the work of Jackson Pollock. His painting is stared at longest in New York’s Museum of Modern Art (there’s a bench opposite it), possibly because viewers expect some meaning will eventually emerge.
Most of us would see the work of Jacques-Louis David (died 1825) and know why it’s good. Journalist I.F. Stone used David’s Death of Socrates on the cover of his superb book defending the Athenian’s execution. Stone needs just that image to show the notion of the injustice done to Socrates, and then he goes on to demolish it.
David’s Oath of the Horatii is a fine work and we can tell that it talks to the best things within us: nobility, courage and character. Most of us would see the work of Warhol (died 1987) as rubbish. Unless we were told that there was a hidden meaning to it: that Warhol was actually parodying rubbish, or celebrating it or was doing something other than what he appeared to be doing, which was rubbish. But it is quite impossible to look at his soup cans and not feel swindled.
After being hounded out of India, M.F. Husain is being invited back out of pity: His naked goddesses have never been defended on merit. Actually, they are quite interesting, because he explores their physical form rather than aspects of their divinity as Hindu artists (with exceptions like Ravi Varma) are wont to do. But Husain is known for his raw, frenzied horses. What do they mean? Nobody can say. Animals should be painted in the manner of Landseer (died 1873).
Indian artists and critics debate modern and postmodern, remarkable in a society that believes in magic and malicious planets.
So what sort of art should we expose ourselves to? Landscapes, still life, real figures. Contemporary art by people like Lucian Freud, who paint real things. Classical sculpture like that of Saint-Gaudens and his gorgeous (from the front), Nabokovian statue of Diana hunting naked.
No abstract, modern art. Why? The instinct of Indians is primitive. We need to teach ourselves, more than anything else, order, and discipline.
Modern art was produced by societies that are self-governing. A form of rebellion, modern art is dissatisfied with order and flirts with anarchy. In India, we deal in disorder wholesale, in our manners, our traffic, our society, and have no need for more of it.
We’re living in a time when the best music, painting, literature, poetry, sculpture—the best of mankind—is behind us.
The good news is that all of it is available for us to enjoy.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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