Aesthetics is not a matter of arts alone in an age of stifling cultural battles
Who I am, how I absorb, feel and respond to the world around me is defined by what we refer to as ‘culture’. It is that intangible, vaporous ideation that gives me my sense of the ‘self’. Culture is, essentially, a hold. And that hold is both intellectual and emotional. It grasps me and it grounds me, contextualising my existence and giving me reason to be the way I think, feel and am. Culture is not fantasy, it is a concrete expression and we use every temporal tool to explain its character. Cuisine, attire, religion, festivals, fasts, feasts, rituals, art, habits, music, literature, dance, theatre and even scientific endeavour reflect this cultural idea. This reflection gives me insights into how I view the world around me. But culture is not just about me, it is about the community that I am part of. It is a sense of collectivity, an experientially created unit that binds me to others around me, holds us together. It is an amalgam of things that are and are not empirical, hence almost impossible to nail down, yet a clear identifier of people and their outer and inner lives. Region comes into that, as do language, religion, race, education, class and caste.
Foundationally, culture is the creative efflorescence triggered by our environment. And it is planet earth that planted the seed. From there, community living and inter-human relationships shaped its contours. We have evolved a complex maze of cultural ideas that have today given human beings social diversity, and with it, inevitably, conflict.
All of us are afloat, moving across various cultural markers, retaining, ignoring or discarding characteristics. What is difficult to understand is the basis on which we as individuals and communities choose which cultural ideas to keep and which to do away with. There is another peculiar aspect to our sense of ‘culture’. Many a time, the various cultural notions that we hold precious do not seem to coincide or collaborate. They are, in fact, contradictory. And yet it is with ease and felicity that we prioritise and compartmentalise these identities, erasing from our minds the problematic questions of ‘me’ and ‘us’ that such actions create.
Societal living is a life of multiple concentric circles, the closest being the immediate family, and the largest, no less than humanity itself. All of us have a sense of both, but how we define each is based on the contextual formation of those circles. Geography, caste, economics, education, class and gender define how they arise. We build many layers of concentric circles with each larger cultural circle taking into itself the smaller one. Therefore our largest enveloping cultural circle is influenced by every other one within it.
Each circle is a cultural membrane, filtering in and out, impressions moving between them. Each membrane is welcoming, but not entirely open. As an idea tries to come through, it can be rejected, remodelled, reinterpreted or allowed ‘as is’. What is it in the membrane that decides this? It is, for want of a better phrase, the protective part of its chemistry. We like to protect the practices, thoughts, beliefs and perceptions that inhabit each cultural circle, and consequently counter or manipulate anything that we see as a challenge. Therefore it is the perceived threat and resultant fear that determines how the membrane responds. When there is a threat to any of the cultural circles, it immediately rejects or re-configures the other cultural notions. This is the result of a fear that what is within will be corrupted or destroyed. These transferences are also dependent on ‘time’. What was allowed with negligible resistance a few decades ago may be fought tooth and nail today.
Another interesting facet of this is that every smaller cultural circle within the threatened circle also feels the same threat. When the culture of caste is challenged, family tradition feels the threat; when the nation is challenged, religion and family are fearful; and when humanity itself is pushed to the brink, everything within defends its right to exist. Therefore, when we fight for our nation, we do not forget gender or class, we only submerge it within the ‘national identity’. The larger the cultural circle, the bigger the fight, forcing us to rub shoulders and embrace all those considered cultural enemies in other contexts. We use each other to protect all that lies within our assumed culture. This momentary bonhomie is a self-serving mechanism. This is why a Hindu and Muslim will fight shoulder to shoulder for the country, but go at each other’s throat over religion. It is this alternating cycle of existential opportunism that generates and perpetuates discriminative cultural practices. Depending on the context and need, we play the appropriate card and discard it when the landscape changes, each time protecting something else with our dear life. And we would still be within the embrace of ‘our’ culture !
In all this, we cannot ignore the truth that culture in society is not just discriminatory but also inherently hierarchical. The control group has a greater stranglehold over what we call the mainstream. Which basically means that as we reach the larger cultural markers, only one dominant narrative seems to emerge as ‘the cultural sultan’ of that society, even though every society has numerous cultural identities. It is this overarching dominance that is called ‘Indian culture’. The other narratives within its fold are appropriated, made subservient, rendered immaterial or disappear after a period of time. This happens at the level of every cultural circle. And there are always those two—the dominant and the weak, with the weak fighting to be seen and heard. Economics and politics come in to give more power to these dominant streams.
Today we see that played out in the way the culture, if one may so call it, of international music is dominated by American popular music. Similarly in the Indian cultural context, elbowing others out, Bollywood claims to present and represent Indian culture. Hence the porosity of each cultural sphere that we inhabit is also clogged with discrimination. Who we are and how important our culture is to the cultural controllers determines where we are positioned in the cultural hierarchy. While we often celebrate the predominant and overarching culture with great pomp, the fact is that our culture is divided and broken up into many smaller groups, each with its own dominant sultanates and sultans. Within cultural or artistic practices, one single stifling idea of culture has held people captive and also kept others out.
It is with this understanding of culture that we need to discuss freedom. Unfortunately, we always seem to narrow the discourse on censorship and freedom of expression. While both these are important, they cannot be addressed without disentangling ourselves from our socio-cultural conditioning. All of us live with a deep anxiety that our culture will be poisoned or eliminated, and we rush to ‘protect’ it though we really do not know what we are trying to protect.
So, are cultures just the way communities do things? Are they about methodologies? Are they philosophies symbolically translated into practice? Are they ways of thinking? Are cultures only manifestations of religions? Or are they the curios, paintings, architecture, dances and melodies that we enjoy? There is no one definition of culture, but there is behind each of these dimensions a deeper intuitive reason for culture, which is about nothing more and nothing less than life and beauty, and this goes beyond protectionism.
Culture did not evolve just to be an anthropologist’s guide to understanding people. It is a celebration of living. But to truly appreciate this quality, we need to stop using antiquity, purity and faith as socio-cultural locks that resist rediscovery and questioning. These words tell us that the human being has always tried to understand himself, his reason to exist, and has been awestruck by the diversity of life. We unfortunately view each of our cultures as the way of living, sacrosanct and unshakeable. Therefore what is being protected is far removed from the creative and self-renewing idea that culture actually is. It is the fear emanating from this position that unleashes cultural violence. Fear is what motivates violent actions against artists and writers and even marginalised cultures. Cultural freedom, thus, must address fear and liberate us from its trap.
The solution to this problem lies in culture itself. In spite of our suspicious nature and hardened defence of ‘our culture’, there have been wonderful influences from what we see as the ‘outside’ that have enriched our lives. The motifs on our textiles, the vocabulary in our language and our spiritual philosophies are creations of people who were not bound by political, linguistic or religious boundaries. Somehow they seem to have gone under the radar and escaped our strangulating scrutiny. Or were we just a more open society? I don’t think we have a clear answer to this, but by understanding the nature of these absorptions, we can learn to see culture a little differently.
How does one overcome the fear that envelops us when our culture is offended? We hold culture tightly in our palms, unwilling to receive or share, believing that it is personal property designed by our collective consciousness, by ‘insiders’. All of us are aware that the insider/outsider distinction is fallacious, yet we hold on to it. This is further enabled by the concentric circles of cultures that allow us to push people in and out at will. We also make two other value judgements. First, that all the unlovely parts of our culture are a result of interpolations or misinterpretations, and second, that we have lost a lot because of outsiders. While some of this might be true, we have to recognise that we are no different. We have played and continue to play the same game. No culture has been able to go beyond the limitations of preferential judgement and segregation. A paradigm shift in thought processes is imperative.
In an attempt to change the way we receive cultural influences, let me introduce the word ‘aesthetics’, and I request the reader to understand it in a way that expands its spirit beyond the world of art. This word is used loosely to refer to something that we find beautiful, elegant or pretty. This limited understanding feeds into exactly those notions that stop us from becoming culturally free. Aesthetics is about the intent, form, structure, history and experience of any creative idea. Through observation and experience, the perceiver hopes to understand the context, shape and evolution of an idea. Aesthetics also looks at the reason for the idea’s existence, connecting the way it is explored to how it contributes to our being.
It is also essential to view aesthetics from an impersonal standpoint. It is not about choosing something out of preference, but as the result of a dispassionate understanding of its need within a certain context. What do I mean by this? Every cultural practice is closely linked to people and their lives, so how can I distance myself from it? Every cultural form has multiple layers. Not all layers are about the embellishment of the idea; many serve as hooks by which ownership is established, access is denied and practice is tweaked. These manipulations are often intertwined with cultural creations, making it impossible for us to see forms for what they are. If we detach ourselves and become observers, we will truly ‘see’. This is very difficult since it demands from us the giving up of all that we believe is us. But it is this that removes fear from the equation, opening us to the positive aspects of culture that transcend cultural identities, and enabling us to critique the damage that social contrivances have imposed on culture. Culture is still an identity marker, but it is not branded by ownership. Our culture will become in our minds an amorphous bundle of ideas that continues to travel and receive from its environment while staying acutely aware of its past and future.
If we can cultivate this attitude, then the membrane that protects every cultural circle will be a pathway to experiencing beauty, detached. This very same principle will also apply to the rejection of anything. In the art world, unconsciously, artists who are passionate in their search for that perfect note, colour, shape or story have brought in concepts, forms, narratives, images and techniques that would have otherwise never been included. They have done this with such finesse that younger generations have forgotten the original source. We need to cherish and strengthen this instinct.
We have to let aesthetics decide the direction and texture of culture and not bind it by our own conditioning. Culture must be divorced from habit. An aesthetic understanding allows us to disconnect ourselves from personal belief systems. In the process, we are not threatened by change, nor are we fearful that something will be lost. This approach also redefines what we are trying to protect in our culture. And this is a critical transformation. No more are we protecting an idea for the sake of securing our own identity. Aesthetics is about treasuring the essential creative quality of a cultural practice: in other words, its integrity. It takes care that the historicity, intent and experience of the practice are conserved even as other interpretations are absorbed. It also resists forced changes which are as dangerous as over-protective conservatism. This will naturally encourage serious cultural criticism, leading to a re-examination of the aesthetic foundations of a form. Criticism helps to evaluate the state of culture, nudging communities to eliminate regressive cultural practice and enrich the future by absorbing insightful changes.
When this happens, the concentric cultural matrices lose their role as individual and societal demarcations. They become translucent, letting every cultural idea move between human spaces with great freedom and aesthetic intent.
This change in perception will also help us view other cultures without a superiority complex. The many comparisons we make between cultures are deeply flawed because they lack an understanding of the nuances of each culture by itself. We have imposed upon the ‘other’ principles that emanate from our cultural context. Need it be said that a culturally conditioned mind is hopelessly insensitive and creatively moribund? Once we take an aesthetic approach, comparison itself becomes redundant because each culture will have to be internally and independently understood. Once we see culture aesthetically, it cannot be used to divide people or limit imagination. All that will guide culture is the internal engine of the cultural practice in question.
The ideal place to begin this metamorphosis is in the art world. Artists have to be the initiators of this change. Today artists speak of freedom of expression, but the way they—and being one myself, I should—say ‘we’ practice our art, conduct its discourse, resist serious internal questioning and keep away many sections of society does not allow for any tangible re-examination. Artists demand free expression, but we subversively and selectively restrict artistic expression.
Another serious issue is artists’ lack of openness to let themselves be touched by the varied art forms that traverse religions and regions. Artists live in cocoons of self-contentment that rarely allow them to shed the baggage of their art and themselves. There is a level of self absorption in the artist’s world that seriously restricts his contact with free cultural ideas unless it directly threatens his own position. There is a flip side to this. The artists who practise rare and dying art forms, in their search for validation, lose the very aesthetic core that defines their art. The onus to change all this lies with the artists who have the ability to change the meta-artistic narrative by bringing freedom to their art forms and empowering weaker forms.
As societies, we are often entangled in the politics of cultural battles and believe that a change in the political dispensation or cultural sultanate will address the challenges, and in the process, reduce cultural parochialism. What we fail to understand is that as collective human beings, we are first and foremost cultural entities and it is this culture that influences our political architecture. Every political identity is at its core a cultural form and hence if we want society to change, we have to first address the core cultural issue.
Cultural freedom goes far beyond being able to express oneself freely. It is about more than being free of the fear of being ostracised, spoken badly of or physically assaulted. It is about releasing culture from the stranglehold of control groups, letting ideas travel, respond, change and remodel social processes. Cultural freedom is at it its heart the way society actually understands the beauty of all that we have created without inhibition and enforcement. And we should know that cultural freedom does something more. It guards and preserves the unseen and untouched quality of the creative force that connects us human beings with life.