Art For Art’s Sake

Artistic integrity is a tricky terrain. Nowhere has art served a bigger function than in the minds of its creators. And, it’s this knowledge that helps anybody who fashions themselves to be an artist tide through mundane jobs, creative blocks and the belief that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As time’s progressed and left its indelible mark on people around me, especially noticeable in the way they speak of themselves and the world, self-awareness and self-indulgence have been two sides of the same coin. Growing up, there was an incessant itch under my skin that reminded me, nagged at me about how the world owed me something. Life has a way of chipping at that illusion bit by bit as you grow older. Self-awareness is more often than not a losing game but one that I’d rather always place my bets on either way.

When I was young, I had a primitive sense of humour and an eager smile. I wore black and partied a little too hard, and spoke about myself a little too loudly and truly believed that my word was for the taking. Now, older and bit less self-congratulatory and a bit more self-deprecating, a creative crisis has found in me its sweaty, desperate clutch. If adulthood’s only measure was giving people a heads up before doing the asshole thing you were going to do anyway, I was checking all the boxes. When younger, I believed that true art came out of fearing nothing and fearing everything, to an extent. The fear that it doesn’t matter if you put a piece of yourself out for public scrutiny because there’s a lot more where that came from followed immediately. A friend once, very rightly, said that it doesn’t matter if you’re the king as long you can wear the cloak. It’s this fine line between authenticity and posturing that often gets blurred in today’s creative discourse in the country. I’m not sure what it is that I was expecting after a year studying and making films in Central Europe; I came back with a calmness and a sense of self-assuredness that’s been subject to mythic, icy judgment and indifference in the heaving, panting streets and corners of Bombay.

Which brings me to my question: what does the current creative climate stand for? We’ve been on the cusp of a creative revolution, especially when it comes to cinema, the last two decades and what do we have to show for it today? The answer eludes me more today than it ever did before. With an ever growing number of digital platforms emulating themselves after what was relevant in the Western world five years back, or are we falling in the convenient pit of social realism? Art, historically, can’t be detached from the socio-political context it’s conceived in. We live in a cautious era of kale and retracted tweets. Does art eventually become less about the preservation of the self to the proliferation of selflessness? I know friends who fashion themselves as artists, at the helm of bringing Indian design to the forefront, influenced less by the kitschy, feminist art associated with Instagrammers to roping in print artists from a small town nobody’s heard of and try and fashion him as somebody relevant, and they too have reached a point where they’ve resigned themselves to their reality – that they may have to look out for themselves because nobody else will. Looking out for one’s artistic interests and finding a way to pay the bills is the place that exists between a hard place and a rock. Another friend whose debut feature found itself in a comfortably, lucrative space with an online digital platform talks of liking artists who have their own views and imagination, as he so succinctly puts it. But, what good is any imagination when it’s carved and sculpted by the steady diet of mediocre content? Is having an uninformed opinion better than having no opinion? Did we ever, as a people, experience the days of fashionable nihilism? Hanging out at the nearest, shiniest watering hole and being introduced as a ‘writer’ brings with it a sense of hefty responsibility – one that I’m keenly aware of, and one I don’t do justice to often enough. November 2014, I was at a film festival in Beirut, Lebanon where I met contemporary film-makers from Iran and learnt first-hand their legacy of making films within the constraints they exist in. Their perspective doesn’t come across as an outsider’s perspective, because largely irrespective of socio-economic disparities, their problems as a society remain the same. Art, in their case, becomes more reciprocal and less transactional.

Growing up, I despised my art, I was hard on myself and that’s carried on over to an age of self-posturing, the flimsy world of Instagram filters and four-line verses that capture the brevity of a heartbreak through the space in between the words that string these sentences together in the grasping, needy clutch of a child who grabs because he doesn’t know any better. Nietzsche said we have art in order to not die of the truth, and nowhere is this truer in the proudly pulsating, red-blooded heart of commercial India. A personal realisation in the recent past, that’s bound to change as I do, has been that work amounts to nothing but just that – actually doing it. A friend cites Van Gogh as an example and the idea of a state of flow, the state in which you’re so focussed on your creation that the end result is of little consequence, which is similar to how Van Gogh earned his reputation. This negates the very idea of self-promotion – where art, by its definition, depends more on the process and less on the outcome. Being an adult, there’s been a recent realisation that it’s completely acceptable to find your heart in two places. As a generation spoilt by choice and inspite of it, what’s the price of the trade-off between sticking to your convictions and selling your soul out? Marketability has reached the level of finesse where now even selling your soul off has the veneer of artistic integrity. Post-modern writing that’s percolated from the more sheltered medium of literature to the more commodified medium of cinema and video content has been characterised by holding a mirror up to society and a sense of irony in showcasing what plagues it. From pop-culture American TV shows to the more indie, internet space, post-modern writing has been about despair and the lack of redemption. The writing that came next was more about fostering a sense of community and goodwill between its idiosyncratic characters than cement a sense of hope and the bravado that comes with overcoming personal limitations. That’s the writing I find myself connecting to the most.

Art, I’ve realised with time, is more about becoming than being. True artistic integrity still evades me as much as calculating the exact change on my bills does, but I suppose it just comes down to finding what you can connect with the most, without pretensions, without the fear that you’re not being original as long as you’re being authentic – to your experience, to your story or the lack of it.