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Disparate Strokes

Artistry, in many ways, is akin to wizardry. It is exclusive to those naturally blessed with talent and seemingly requires laborious apprenticeships before one can harness its power. Like wizards, artists increasingly have cultish followers. Or so goes the mummified ethos that is reinforced time and again through both formal and informal art mechanisms. However, most importantly, as is the case with wizards, one is quite sure that many are simply charlatans. How does one tell which ones, after all, are the real artists?

Before peddling as such, do galleries and other institutions establish through any criteria over who they are choosing to define as artists? Does the label of ‘artist’ conceive that of subsequent ‘art’ or is it the other way around? And is it in comparison to these unstated prerequisites that the term ‘Sunday painters’ is used derogatorily? It seems, particularly in present context of art from Pakistan, that this demarcating line is often drawn at having received formal art education from a university (although this is fallible in front of favorable economics).

The discipline of art has rooted itself firmly in academia and is just as involved in guarding its turf as any scientific discipline. It, too, looks inwards where it chalks out and propagates a worldview that sustains its legitimacy and authority. The construction of knowledge, thus compartmentalized, means that boundaries of disciplines are drawn not as a result of natural distinctions but artificially to create self serving islands.

The disadvantage of this is that formal students of academic visual arts are indoctrinated too early into the discipline and therefore internalize uncritically its implicit assumptions. The university’s status as a political segregating entity is overlooked and as an institution, it is in the habit of subtly denying its origins.The graduating artists are mostly of naïve vocational orientations who want to exclusively practice art as a profession or a trade. Many of them are unable to situate ideas within their parental institutional forces and thus assimilate them as autonomous natural progressions: they are unable to check their privilege as artists.

Furthermore, over specialization meets only its own ends. It absorbs dissonance and churns out what can only be likened to special effects in an action film. Particularly, the absurdity of politically charged art made, in Pakistan, only for the consumption of the rest of the art community (often with complete intention) cannot escape notice. Using the imaginary edges of the discipline as a benchmark, artists in Pakistan increasingly have conversations with themselves.

In such a setting, the crossovers become particularly important: those who can move between the ideologically frozen divisions. One such category comprises of the artists who are primarily associated with another profession or are known for something else even if they have received formal training in the arts at some point in their lives: the ones who aren’t supposed to practice visual arts but do. Shall we fondly call them the ‘Sunday painters’?

Having two or more disciplinary associations means that a person is more acutely aware of their multiple subjectivities and is wary of learned truths as seen through a single lens. These multiple associations may even at times present conflicting ideas in which case the practitioner becomes more richly informed and is able to interpret as an individual unit. It is also true that outside the confines of a discipline, there is rarely a thing as a purely scientific or a purely artistic problem: in the real world, these subjects are interconnected. Thus, for example, existential questions are equally relevant in the sciences, arts and many other disciplines, or rather more simply questions of mathematics may just as easily be explored through drawing. Therefore, a practitioner of multiple forms is able to address the fuller picture.

Similarly, a work typically located in the visual arts is often not the exclusive result of the skill set we associate with the discipline. A sculptor for example may often need carpentry; an installation artist may need other skilled labor and so on. Increasingly, the exclusivity of practicing art based upon the acquisition of skill has diminished and artists themselves are looking to employ the skills of other people in service of their ideas. Hence, firstly it is easier for a person of another skill set to enter the arts and what follows is that a person already equipped with a disparate skill set whether it includes poetry or veterinary sciences naturally has the possibility of employing it in unique ways to their advantage in the visual arts.

An example of such a personality lies in David Herbert Lawrence, who himself cites William Blake as an influence. Blake, trained as a printmaker, is today known equally well as both artist and poet. It is no surprise then that when in 1926 Lawrence circumstantially found himself in the possession of a few canvases, he forayed into painting. In the following three years, he continued his practice and exhibited finally in 1929. Like his writings, Lawrence’s paintings were scenes of unabashed albeit surreal carnality and were, above all, uncritical of the human body, unlike the social setting in which they were displayed. His technique too, in accordance with his writing, was spontaneous instead of studied although some of this could also be the result of a lesser firm grasp on drawing. Moreover, just as is typical in the craft of writing that acts of observation and recording are at a distance from each other in time, Lawrence admits to not painting from life: “They were different from the usual camellias, more like gardenias, poised delicately, and I saw them like a vision. So now, I could paint them but if I had bought a handful, and started in to paint them ‘from nature’, then I should have lost them. By staring at them I should have lost them.”

Within a few days of the show being opened to public, the British police raided the exhibition and seized Lawrence’s canvases. Perhaps this was exactly the kind of reaction that Lawrence was hoping for. With his visual works, Lawrence had attempted to provide a more shocking display than his writings maybe in the hope of a final impetus for change. He seemed to be aware how a visual affected sensibilities differently and in some cases more intensely. However despite the backing of the intellectual Bloomsbury group that Lawrence decried, he refused to become a martyr for his cause: when the police offered to return his canvases on the condition that they are never exhibited in public again, he accepted. Perhaps his brief foray into art might have initially been motivated by a need to prove a point but it seems in retrospect that painting opened another set of problems for him, one of which may have resulted in his inability to part with his work. Finally, his rallying cry was heard posthumously through his writing and not art when the controversial Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in the 60s after presenting a formidable defense in court.

Another personality known otherwise for writing but who is a practitioner of visual arts as well is the German writer Gunter Grass. Grass was initially trained as both graphic artist and sculptor. However, with the subsequent success of his writing, the viewership of his art paled in comparison. However, he still designs his own book covers and often intersperses his poetry with visuals. He claims that in some situations one form takes precedent over the other. He admits to the sensual nature of drawing and claims, ‘…where language is stifled… drawing helps me to find words’. Or that sometimes, he pursues this tactility in an attempt to free himself from the burdens of intangible writing. Drawing is a relief for him.

He goes on to claim, however, that although one form sometimes might suggest another, one is certainly not appending the other: they are both equally important. Visual and words provide separate pathways to his subject matter and he claims that while the textures of the two are different but there is dialogue among them.

It is interesting to note that Grass doesn’t consider himself a writer before an artist. There is no prioritizing of medium by the artist and he considers his practice consisting of prose, poetry, visuals and sculptures an organic whole. However, the fact that he is still identified primarily as a writer draws our attention to the mechanisms of fame and how that shapes the public identity of an artist as opposed to their private identity. Hence, the trend of unilateral practice may not be what it is understood as first sight: individuals with a richer multidisciplinary practice may be selectively viewed or understood due to a variety of reasons, and there present day association can, of course, change with time as the fuller picture is taken into account.

A present day example of these shifting labels can be found in Teju Cole. Initially known as an art historian, his subsequently published books gave him international acclaim as a writer. However, his photographic practice and his ongoing pliancy of literary and visual forms to the extent that he writes short stories and ghazals by retweeting other real time Twitter accounts means that his public image is not curtailed to any specific discipline. Speaking about his chosen mediums Cole insists they satisfy the same urge. He believed earlier that he was involved in two distinct separate activities with writing and photography each of which was arising from and catering to a different part of him. However, now he has come to the conclusion that his practice is not fragmented but the world around him is: “The central thing motivating my photography and by extension my writing is the idea that there was a mythical pre-history of humanity when everything was intact. The process of photography is finding the little pieces and somehow connecting them to each other, introducing them to each other, reuniting little bits of the shattered world.”

Closer to home, Enver Sajjad is another such artist whose professional calling is also elsewhere. Having amassed visual sensibilities by a number of professions including television, writing and acting, Sajjad approaches painting to service his ideas and not those of painting, Moreover his art practice also has had influence on his other activities and he claims that especially when writing plays he fore mostly believes in the visual treatment of the subject matter accentuated with crisp dialogue rather than focusing on a line of plot.

Many other known figures from outside of the traditional visual art circles have approached practice in this field as well, including Sylvia Plath, J. R. R. Tolkein, Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and many others. However, most of them did not seriously pursue visual mediums and considered their exercises as private dabbling.

It is clear that when visual art is approached from the special interest or method of inquiry of another discipline, it can result in surprisingly fresh perspectives and hybrid forms. However, although some people serve as great individual examples of such practice, it has done little to shift disciplinary boundaries or alter art pedagogy.

Similarly, it is discomforting to note that although art practice is often very much a physical activity in itself one is unable to find perspectives from people who might otherwise hold blue collar jobs and yet pursue art. It is either not considered a possibility or such practices are rendered invisible with disciplinary requirements.

Madyha Leghari is a visual artist, writer and a graduate in Fine Arts from the National College of Arts, She lives in Lahore.

 

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