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The Art of the Shark

The huge block of marble, at the works of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flowers, was awaiting its fate. His thoughts, about how impossible it seemed to craft anything out of this huge block of resistant stone, led Leonardo Da Vinci to decline the offer. On his refusal, it was offered to Michelangelo. It is said that for long he stood there, speechless, setting the great white figure free from its cast of marble in his kindled eyes. This magnificent and powerful David could have caused concerns for Goliath!

On the day of unveiling, crowds gathered to get a glimpse of David. Discussions abound about where to place it as were the opinions and criticisms. One was heard saying, “It seems to me that the nose is surely much too large for the face,” asking for an alteration. The artist spoke not a word, mounted the scaffolding and pretended to chip away with his chisel at the nose. Some chips and marble dust dropped on the head of the critic beneath. Coming down, he asked gravely, “Is that better?” “Admirable! You have given it life.” Michelangelo smiled to himself. The critic, satisfied, however, failed to notice this!


About Art

There have always been differences about approaches towards creativity and art. The very definition of ‘art’ is highly subjective and relative. Possibly the only universal definition of art, derived from Latin ars, is of something that has undergone a deliberate rearrangement under an agent. In many cases, it is a consequence of some human effort to imitate, alter or counter the acts of nature, driven by a consciousness and concern for beauty. Accordingly, one follows Albert Camus in proclaiming that art is one of the most fundamental and essential human activity, expressing human aspirations towards freedom and beauty. It is commonly assumed that putting across thoughts and ideas is the purpose of art. Andrei Tarkovsky, however, perceptively adds, “The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” Here in, lies a long argued issue about the role of an artist in the society. Are his works only mere thoughts or sincere efforts of communication with the audience, aimed at possible self-awareness?

On a spiritual note, it could mean awareness for what pervades all but evades the senses, a search for meaning. According to Tarkovsky, the artist must be willing to exhibit his weaknesses too, for only humiliation can enhance a selfless act of correspondence. Thus, it is a sacrifice on the part of the artist to bring his doubts, bewilderment, and half-formed beliefs into the presence of another, knowing he may be misinterpreted and misunderstood. The greatest artists, however, have always been willing to take that chance. One hears Camus echoing similar thoughts. “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession.”

For many others, the very refusal to give in to a notion (of hope or appeal) that is uncertain, the acceptance of mortality of men and a consciousness of death provides their dignity. Faced with the awareness that eternal values and ideas do not exist, they try to live multiple lives in an attempt to maximize their moral span. Thus, the artist commits himself and becomes himself in his work and as much lives a life in his creation as in reality. Such is the result between the confrontation of an irrational human heart, yearning for a (non-existent) meaning and order, and the indifferent universe. Hence, irrationality, often associated with distortion of reality, could provide us with a better picture of the reality for the very awareness of it provides a clarification.

The initial efforts of realistic portrayals in art, primarily in painting and print making, were gradually morphed with other modern approaches (that of a French movement of ‘impressionism’ and the idea of ‘expressionism’ centred in Germany). Referred to as ‘modern art’, the period being late nineteenth century to the seventies, it was aimed at exploring fresh insights for formulation of images. Impressionism was marked by visible brush strokes, unusual angles, lucid subject matter and light colours. Expressionism, not a movement as is commonly believed, refers to ways of conveying intense emotions, often involving distortion of reality for effect. Predominant during social turmoil, as history is witness, it usually communicates emotional angst. Though marked by unimpressive aesthetics, it evokes strong reactions and feelings within. The art of the present century, (known as contemporary art or post modern art) has experimented much into expressionism and the process of abstraction has extended to other forms of arts and visual arts as well.

Portrayals in Art

The major aim of realistic portrayal in art lost ground with the advent of photography. Thus, the road to abstraction was inevitable. It is however just to believe that there is a need for abstraction. It is a conscious effort to convey the clear essence of an involved scenario through images. This is usually done by assimilating and synthesizing the known into more general forms, by striving towards the broader view. A few pertinent examples should be mentioned.

Umberto Boccioni’s “State of Mind” series, painted in 1911, is a prime example. The painting titled “The Farewells” is an expression of the minds present at a train station, which realistic art would fail to conjure. Most of his works, using a modified impressionist technique, atomizes mass in an effect to unleash horsepower and human energy as a blur of movement. It was futuristic; stylishly as aggressive and contemporary as the industrial movements in the urban world.

One can’t help mentioning “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali. Perhaps the most famous of all surrealist paintings, it has a counterpart in Dali’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”. Combined together, it evokes interesting interpretations of time and humanity at different time periods! Notably, Dali was heavily influenced by impressionism at the age of thirteen. His artistic style changed incessantly throughout his life and he died as the greatest surrealist painter.

Pablo Picasso’s landmark work “Guernica”, a protest against the barbaric raid of a village in the Basque province of Spain during the Civil War, conveyed the carnage. It had his usual symbols of dying horse and weeping woman. Interestingly, there is a singular piece by him titled, “Weeping Woman”, another example of modern art. Perhaps Picasso was synonymous with Modern Art than any has ever been.

The Present

It is a sad commentary of our times that in matters of painting and sculptures (the first of the visual arts to be influenced by abstraction) pretension and want of confusion sells. There is a subtle distinction to be made here with other forms of art like literature, films or music, which is usually populated with its respective audience. Of course, each has its own fair share of heavily commercialized products, which mostly doesn’t merit serious discussions. Moreover, reasonably easy accessibility makes its scrutiny more severe. Paintings and sculptures, on the other hand, are restricted in its reach, and the global celebration of pretentious intellectual works seem more like the connivance of the buyers, the masterminds and the critics and their inscrutable reviews!

Among the celebrated contemporary masters, Damien Hurst is one such.

A part of the Damien Hurst window artwork at the Eyesto'rm gallery in central London. The work of art was thrown away by a cleaner, who thought it was a pile of old rubbish left over from a party the previous night. The artwork was restored to its former glory by gallery staff when the mistake was spotted. The work, which is for sale for a six figure sum, is waiting for a buyer.

His most celebrated work is titled “The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living” and depicts a shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde. There are further examples of his works which basically pickle dead cow, sheep or other animals and preserve in a glass tank and are as much objects of ridicule as any other. Likewise, an installation - a giant closed room with butterflies in it going through its life-cycle - doesn’t impart any knowledge of life or death that we aren’t aware of otherwise. He is a con-artist with the gift of gab and self confessedly, he is a master media manipulator. Since we also know what the media are, succinctly put, most contemporary art is “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”


A team of graduate Art students. An art installation. A room with white walls. Pages strewn all over the floor. An intrinsic meaning? A small piece of white marble at the center of the floor. Abstract? Art?

Agree with most of what you say; however I feel that your statement "most contemporary art is “a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered" is somewhat harsh. Sure there are the con-artists, yet some of the bewilderment associated to modern art is also due to the fact that the language of art has evolved. There are many examples of modern art that require one to know this language to appreciate it, similar to modern petry or for that matter modern mathematics! Without this background, these paintings and sculptures may appear arbitrary or meaningless.

I withhold judgement on Damien Hurst. I am yet to see the artistic value of his creations, but I would ideally like to talk to someone who (claims to) appreciate his work, before dismissing him as a con-man.

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