CONCEPTUAL CENSUS OF THE ARTS
This presentation is not aprioristic and so is
not oblivious of the sometimes awkward historical realities. After all it is a faithful census. And yet it is universalistic and so keenly
aware of the various possibilities of man’s life of the various possibilities
of man’s life of the arts. It
is a conceptual census, and not a simple historical report.
How does a work of art exist at all?
What is it made of? What is the situs (or locus) of its existence?
A work of art exists at two levels—at the level of material
and at the level of medium. (This distinction is prefigured I Kant.) Thus,
a painting can be thought of as pigments mixed with oil smeared onto
a stretched piece of canvas; it is at this level that it can be said
to have been produced and be bought or insured against fire or theft. But then, clearly, not every paint-daubed canvas-piece
is a painting. That is why
nobody would call paint and canvas the medium of painting at best
they constitute the vehicle material of painting.
I speak of vehicle material in order to distinguish it from
another kind of material. A
painting can also be thought of as made out of its content material
or experimental material. It is a representational (or figurative) painting,
then it is relatively easy to say what its content is, what it is
about—a portrait, a landscape, a still life, and so forth. But eve if it is an abstract (or non-representational)
painting, one could still meaningfully ask the question-what is the
painting about? What does
it show? Again, however, the
painting has eluded us. Not
every painted figure that shows something is a painting—otherwise
every painted map will be a painting.
The painting as such exists at the level of medium-at that
level the painting presents line and shape, colour, light and shade
as they operate within painting space.
These constitute the medium of painting.
It is at this level that the painting has been created (not
merely produced); interpreted (not merely annotated or figured out);
and appraised (not merely priced).
A work of art, then, is open to the
following discriminations as one looks for the situs of its existence:
The medium is what imparts form to
the vehicle material as well as to the content material, imposes a
pattern or shape on the material, and indeed serves to blur the line
between vehicle and content. The
vehicle does not convey the content, the vehicle embodies the content—at
least in art at its best. It is the medium, again, that brings the material
home or projects it to the recipient.
It is at the level of medium that one assigns a work of art
to a certain art form—it is at that level that it is received as painting
or sculpture or music or poetry or whatever.
There is no such thing as a mixed art form. One art can enter into another art as vehicle
material (as when music enters into dance), as content material (as
when, in some of Degas’s work, dance enters into painting), or even
at the level of medium (as when a novel like Sartre’s Les Jeux
Sont faits gives a certain cinematic feel or quality).
But there is never any doubt as to whether to respond to a
given work as a poem or a prose work; an Italian opera is really theatric
music, but a Marathi SaṁgītanāÉka
is really musical
Theatre; a Russian ballet is really
theatric dance, but dance incorporated in a play remains vehicle material.
But there is no denying that various art forms together
form a network with crisscrossing resemblances and differences. An art form can differ from another art form
along a variety of axes or dimensions:
1. A piece of art has a specific vehicle, a typical content.
2. The result is a specific medium.
3. The vehicle and the content may be evenly balanced; the
vehicle may dominate content; or the content may dominate the
4. A piece of art may be seen as a spell
of activity, a becoming or happening or doing or as an object made
or both. A text is an object
that leads to a performance. A
performance is a spell of activity that may be scripted or improvised.
5. A piece of art is received by the recipient
through its vehicle.
a. The channel of reception may be
purely sensory, visual or audial or
the case may be, or it may be verbal or ideational as well. Thus, poetry is audible-intelligible, but prose
literature is intelligible-the audible/visible input false to be an
integral part of the work.
b. The reception may be structured over space or time or space-time. Thus, poetry and prose literature are received
over time, but concrete and graphic poetry are received over space-time.
So art-forms stand
distinguished from each other by virtue of –
1a. Specific vehicle.
5 a. Specific channel.
These alphanumeric signs will
be used below to save space.
Rather than setting out art-forms in a list and a classificatory
grid, it will be wise to set them out in a number of loose-knit families.
The art-forms may range from the ones with divided loyalties
(the piece hasn’t made up its mind as it were whether to remain simply
art or to claim some other status as well) to those content to be
I. The arts of design: design of products (for
example, clothes, fabrics, toys, furniture) and tools (for example,
hammers, daggers, typewriters, vehicles), design of interiors (for
example, homes, offices) and exteriors (for example, landscaping,
planning of towns and cities), architecture (for example, temples,
houses, bridges), calligraphy, topography, book-design, design of
displays (for example, museums, exhibitions, commercial display).
1a. Display of structured material and environment.
1b. Coping with reality or life, a certain vision of the environment,
2. Masses, textures, volumes, space.
3. Decorative (vehicle-dominated), functional (content-dominated), expressive
(balanced), communicative and propogative (content-dominated).
5 a. Visual, visual-tactile.
5 b. Space-time (space-dominated).
The culinary art and perfumery together constitute a closely related
arts of delectation.
II. The arts of spectacle: spectacle theatre
(for example, pantomime, puppetry,
shadow play, vaudeville, revue, musical comedy, tableau vivant),
arts (for example, acrobatics, animal show, magic show,
peep-show, slide show, son
et lumiere, pyrotechnic show), advertisement film, silent
1a. Display of other art-forms,
often in combination.
1b. Response to life,
understanding of reality and life, coping with reality and life.
2. Spectacles, theatrical gesture, against
Recreative or celebrative (vehicle-dominated), communicative
(content-dominated), theatrical (balanced),
more than performance (scripted or improvised).
rather than audial or verbal.
arts of language: audible literature (poetry, song), visible literature
(graphic and concrete poetry), intelligible literature (prose fiction
and essay), verbal theatre (prose drama, poetic drama, street play,
radio play, television play), verbal storied cinema (feature sound
film, television film, verbal storied picture strip), cartoon (verbal
language use (its sounds, forms, meanings) as text and gesture, rhythm,
melody, the spoken word, the sung word, visible, intelligible, and
audible gesture, mobile visible form and sound, displaced and enriched
expressivity, impressivity, fittingness in languages use, understanding
of and response to reality and life, coping with reality and life.
and structured meaning and gesture in the lyric mode, the narrative
mode, the dramatic mode, and the cinematic mode against a scene.
mode (balanced), prose mode (content-dominated), propogative mode
(content-dominated), procreative (vehicle-dominated).
and scripted or improvised performance (balanced or text-dominated
visual, audiovisual, verbal in various combinations.
or space-time as the case may be (under time serialization is a possibility
(for intelligible literature and cinema.
arts for display: abstract and representational graphic art (painting,
drawing, etching, etc.), abstract and representational sculpture (still
or moving, free-standing or embedded as the case may be), still and
moving photography (abstract or representational as the case may be),
non-verbal picture strip, verbal non-storied cinema (documentary,
educational, propogative films), collage and collage sculpture.
pigment, light, movement, solidity and depth.
or representational interpretation of reality, response to reality.
and shape, light and shade, texture and colour, masses and volumes
in space (two or three dimensional as the case may be).
mode (vehicle-dominated), representational mode (balanced or content-dominated
as the case may be).
or visual-verbal the case
or space-time as the case may be.
V. The arts for performance:
verbal music (as distinct form song), non-verbal music (instrumental,
vocal exercise like tarāna or pa∙hanta,
abstract dance (classical Indian n¤tta, good deal
of modern, popular, and folk dance), representational dance (the Russian
ballet, Indian classical n¤tya dance and song theatre),
theatrical music (the Italian opera).
1a. Tone, volume, sound quality,
gesture and posture (visible, also audible or intelligible in some
cases), language material, arts of design.
1b. Response to and interpretation
2. Rhythm, harmony, melody
in time; rhythm and force in arena (for dance).
3. Abstract mode (vehicle-dominated),
representational mode (balanced or vehicle-dominated, text).
4. Scripted or improvised performance.
5a. Audial or audio-visual
as the case may (also audial-intelligible, audio-visual-intelligible),
5b. Time or space-time as
the case may be.
VI. The art of criticism:
criticism of literature, music, and so forth.
1a. Language in the prose mode
(rarely poetic mode).
1b. Response to and interpretation
2. Understanding and Response.
At the farther end of the spectrum some people find it possible to
add the family of the arts of recreation in which to include gymnastic,
outdoor games, and indoor games like billiards or chess. While Olympic floor exercises, Spanish bull-fighting, and the ambience
of European football games often comes close to the arts of spectacle,
it is misleading to blur the line between play as (sports and games)
and play as creative work (art properly so called).
The democratic impulse is fine, but it mustn’t be allowed to
fudge our thinking!
Every civilization tends to have its
enumeration of major and minor arts.
Thus, calligraphy features as a major act in Chinese or Islamic
civilization but as a minor art in Indian or European civilizations. Broadly speaking, the arts of design, of delectation,
and of spectacle tend to be seen as minor arts.
But something like a major-minor stratification
cuts across these arts in most civilizations. Thus, Indian civilization used to distinguish
between at least three layers :
(1) What can be enjoyed by the refined (šiâ¶a /budha/nāgara jana) and conforms to the discipline (šāstra, mārga ).
(2) What can be enjoyed by the refined but, being
rooted in the third layer, does not wholly conform to the discipline.
(3) What can be enjoyed not only by the refined in their lighter moments
but even b the others (ltarejana, prā k¤tajana) and is typically (dešya) in appeal.
civilization recognizes a category of what cannot ordinarily be enjoyed
by the refined but is regularly enjoyed by the others—the ‘mass’ art
of pulp novels, calendar art, pop music, or commercial cinema.
Indeed the refined and the others have invented words for mutual
name-calling—kitsch art and ‘highbrow’ or ‘arty’ art. At the same time the refined have singled out one category of popular
art for their enjoyment—folk art, the regional art of pre-industrial
peasants, artisans, and ‘primitive’ people.
This yields a three-tier scheme :
two intermediate categories:
(1a) ‘popularized’ highbrow art—such as science fiction, ‘refined’ crime
fiction (Poe, Chandler, Simenon), ‘intermediate’ cinema, Sugama
or upa-šāstrīya saṁgīta
(contrast this with ‘promoted’ low art in India).
(2a) ‘commercialized’ folk art-such as jazz, ‘country’ music for mass
such socially accepted stratifications have any conceptual significance
for a census of the present sort?
Or do they merely remain social history of art?
Let us begin by agreeing to a shorthand—‘high
art’ for sacred or elite or repertory art and ‘low art’ for folk or
popular or mass-consumed art and by conceding that there can be poor
high art and good low art. What
is low art for one generation or people may get accepted as high art
for anther generation or people.
(Consider what has happened to some of the ‘folk epics’.) Each
generation decides what to save from the earlier generations—the works
so saved constitutes its repertory. A frozen repertory is a canon. Again in good
low art can be enjoyed by the refined in their more relaxed moments
and some good high art can be genuinely responded to by the other
people I their more serious moments.
In sum, high and low art is not a distinction between high-quality
and poor-quality art. Perhaps it is not a distinction at all, but
rather a recognition of the two ends of a spectrum—a polarity.
The polarity of major and minor art
forms (or of fine and useful arts, if you like) and the polarity of
high and low art are both socially accepted realties. But they are
conceptually rooted in certain considerations that have a bearing
on the very nature of art. (To speak of pure and applied art is of course
a singularly inappropriate way of conceptualizing this polarity!)
The first consideration is that art
is inseparable from and continuous with craft.
Actually art is robust enough to assimilate even mechanization
and technology as in architecture and cinema.
Many artists are proud of their craft.
The artist as well as the craftsman both exercise skills rooted
in private knowledge, personal observation and imitation, and constant
innovation rather than skills rooted in the implementation of precise
rules controlling the values of each variable.
(Indeed excess of discipline or šāstra can be the death of high art.)
So it should not come as a surprise that an art object lacking
an obvious practical purpose may also figure as extrinsically useful.
Low art claims so much energy and resources and loyalty precisely
because it helps us to cope with reality and life by satisfying certain
insistent and universal human hungers, namely, stimulus hunger, pattern
hunger, and interest hunger. Firecrackers
and bright lights, work rhythms and tidying up a house, gossip and
mass-consumed ‘human interest’ stories are some of the non-artistic
ways of satisfying these hungers. Low are satisfies them at a deeper level—but
often not at a level that is deep enough for the refined people. Thus, popular verbal theatre often lapses into
spectacle theatre—as with certain types of melodrama; and popular
graphic art into interior design—as with certain types of calendar
art. But such lapses do not show low art at its
best. Art forms and traditions
need to be understood and appraised when they are at their best. Aberrations can be conceptually misleading.
The second consideration is that art
is inseparable from and continuous with man’s attempts to understand
and interpret reality and life. Actually
art is delicate engouh to assimilate myth and ritual, philosophy and
mysticism. Art, both low and
high, is therefore often the celebration of what is shared—say, the
shared glory of a golden past or the shared hardship of a time of
distress or struggle or simply a shard life-style, even shared violation
of that life-style (as in Holi or carnival or bacchanalia).
But art, preeminently high art, is also the articulation of
the personal and innovative mode of perception (as in avant-grade
art and the art of deep human needs of conformation as well as subversion.
High art claims the energy and loyalty of the best minds precisely
by being deeply sub
However, a caveat to this argument for the deep conceptual roots for the
polarity of Minor/Major art-forms and the polarity of Low/High art-traditions
is called for. Art can be
robust and delicate at the same time.
Great art, whether high or low, transcends these polarities
through being accessible at multiple levels and through being at once
deeply confirmative and deeply subversive.
Consider this instance of great low art, a popular saying of
the Maya people of Central America:
For in the baby lies the future of
Mother must hold the baby close so that the baby knows that it is his
Father must take him to the highest
hill so that he can see what his world is like
can be both mother and father—even at the same time.
Any encyclopedia of the arts worth
the name must do justice to both Minor and Major art-forms, both Low
and High art-traditions, and both good and great art works.
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
(opp. Representational /figurati amūrta
alphanumeric sign var¸āka-cihna
cetan ī-kanra (animated sa-cetnana)
annotation/exegesis ¶ippanī, ¶īkā
architecture vāstu- šilpa
of criticism samīkā-
for display pradaršana-jīvī
for performance prayoga- jīvī kalā
of delectation āsvāda- jīvī kalā
of design ārkalpana-kalā
arts of language sam̄jñāpana- jīvī kalā
arts of spectacle vlsmaya-
audial, audiable šravya, šruti-gamya
audio-visual d¤š-šravya, d¤âti- šruti-gamya
axis/dimension akâa/parimā¸a, āyāma
cinema 1. citra-pa¶a 2.
(of. Picture strip) calat-citra-pa¶a
communicative sam̄jñāpana –lakâī
conveying (opp. Embodying) vahana
creation (opp. Production)
sarjana (rather than s¤ jana),
dance nartana-kal (rather
displaced symbol lākâa¸ika pratīka
dominant pradhāna, –dominated- pradhāna
embodying (opp. Conveying) mūrtimattā
enriched symbol vyañjaka pratīka
graphic art citra –kalā ( ra´ga,
rekhā, ra´ga-rekhā as the case may be)
high art budha-jana-lakâī kalā
improvised (opp. scripted) samaya-sūcita
interest hunger vinodana-pipāsā
interior and exterior design parisara-šilpa
level of material dravya-stara
level of medium mādhyama-stara
line and shape ākāra-rekhā
light and shade chāyā-prakāša
low art sarva-jana-lakâī kalā
maker of art kalā-virmā¸a-kartā
mass art bahujana- lākâī
masses (opp. Volumes) ghanākāra
mixed art form mišra-kalā-vidhā
moving/mobile (opp. Still/stabile)
(rather than gūha-vāda
myth divya-kathā (rather than purā-kathā,
panttern hunger a¤kti-pipāsā
picture of stip sthira-citra-pa¶a
picture and tool design vastu-šilpa
production (opp. Creation) utpādana
receipient of art kalā-graha¸a-kartā
scripted (opp. Improvised) phya-sūcita
sculpture mūrti- šilpa
situs/locus of existence astiva-kakâā
space to two/three dimensions
spectacle theatre pradaršana-nātya
still/stabile (opp. Moving/mobile)
structure 1. racanā,
2. (opp. Texture) sthūla-racanā
structuring of reception graha¸a-racanā
pā¶hya (not saṁhitā, of. Corpus pā¶hya-saṁhitā
texture (opp. Structure) sūkma-racan
theatric dance abhinta nartana-kalā,
music abhinta saṁgīta
tone svara-māna, sura
(rather than svara)
vehicle material vāhana-dravya,
visible, visual d¤šya, d¤â¶i-gama
volumes (opp. Masses) avakāškāra
This was presented at an international workshop on conceptual
structures and Model for the Encyclopedia of the Arts at Indira Gandhi
national Centre For the Arts, New Delhi, March 1992. It has remained unpublished.