In art and technology
A NOTION of great antiquity
in the West (Latin forma, Grek morphe) form is visible, distant aspect
of something such as its shape, size, arrangement of
parts, colour and surface texture as opposed to body, its tactile,
proximate aspect such as its weight, feel, and inner texture. This
corresponds to the Sanskrit rupa which is opposed to shabda,
sparsha, gandha and rasa, the aspects conveyed by the remaining
But one could also limit the word form to the visible, linear
aspect such as shape, size and arrangement of parts as opposed to
colour, light and shade and surface texture—as one does when speaking
of dark forms moving in the mist. This use of the word corresponds
to the Sanskrit akirit.
In more general terms,
form may be considered as being opposed to material, substance, matter—as just the shape, arrangement of parts and structure.
In we speak of akara as opposed to dravya.
When the word is used in this sense, we usually refer to the
form of objects made by man or even of activities undertaken by him.
Finally, one could lump together structure and material as
form in the sense of the palpable, actual manifestation as opposed
to the function or intent, the energy or spirit underlying the manifestation.
In this context, one would oppose the Sanskrit rupa
to ashaya or artha. The underlying function or spirit
helps us to understand the outer manifestation, to get hold of the
meaning of form. It is at this point that the notion of design comes
The concept of design combines the notion of form (in the fourth
sense) with the notion of meaning.
Thus, design in meaningful form.
Here, the Sankrit kalpa is comparable, but not identical.
When an archaeologist comes across a strikingly shaped piece
of flint, he wonders whether its shape has come about by accident
living creature is in constant interaction with its environment. The survival of an organism, a local population,
even a whole species depends on this interaction being harmonious.
Man is no exception. Plants wait for water or food to come their
way, animals seek them, but humans go a step further. Their survival involves not only their own adaptation to the environment
but also the adaptation of the environment to their needs and wants.
Man not only transforms of restructures himself (through the
norms of morality and polity) but also transforms or restructures
the environment (through technology). He imposes a design on the objects in the environment
if not the whole neighbourhood itself (that’s what design in landscaping
and architecture is all about). Design
is thus a meaningful form or ordering purposefully achieved by man
in a product or a tool or the immediate environment.
The design effort selects and shapes raw material to achieve
a certain local texture and global structure so that it may fulfill
some purpose or function which, in turn, lends meaning to the design.
If one speaks of the design of the snow crystal, a bird’s wing
or of a cobweb (which are the outcomes of natural causes), one does
so only, at the metaphorical, ‘or as-it-were’ level.
On the other hand, if one speaks of the design of a performance
or the text of a piece of architecture or the programming of a piece
of communication, the analogies among varied human artifacts and their
meaningful forms (designs, text, programming) are much closer.
Technology is neither
a poor relation art nor a poor relation of science. It is the restructuring of the environment in the course of human
adaptation and is related to both art and science through the notion
of design. Indeed, as the
industrial metallurgist Cyril Stanely Smith (1975) reminds us, it
is more closely related to art than to science—art must somehow involve
the selection and manipulation of matter … the technologist, like
the artist, must work with many unanalysable complexities… historically
the first discoveries of useful materials, machines, or processes…
were not done for a perceived practical purpose. Necessity is not the mother of invention—only
of improvement….; it can only exploit what is already known to exist.
Discovery requires aesthetically motivated curiosity, not logic…’.
On the other hand, early science was often a byproduct of technology
(as geometry, alchemy). Pure
science works hard to arrive at, in Descartes’ classic phrase, clear
and distinct ideas into which the scientist hopes to translate his
initial image and hunches. Applied science begins with the formulae and
seeks to translate them into practical algorithms so that they ‘work’.
technology is not all applied science.
Most of the technology prior to the industries Revolution was
rather in the nature of craft---of applied art if you like.
One cannot be very happy with the use of the words pure
and applied in relation to art and science.
The traditional distinction between art and science (Latin
ars scientia, Greek tekhne, episteme) is somewhat reminiscent
of the traditional Indian distinction between shilpa, kala
on the hand and vidya, shastra on the other.
Like kala art tends to draw upon judgement based on
intuition and continued familiarity with a certain segment of experience
and skill based on imitation of accepted models and improvisation
based on a certain conception
of the end product. It emphasises
a grasp of the specific and concrete and a readiness t depart from
nature, Science, like Shastra, tends to draw upon judgement
based on reasoning form relatively explicit assumptions and skill
based on rules and their internalization.
It emphasizes a reaching forward to the generic and abstract
and a readiness to yield to nature.
The distinction between pure and applied goes back to
the times when the Romans divided the arts into beautiful and useful
and the Victorians divided the sciences into pure are applied.
So we end up with (Pure) Art, Applied Art (Practical Art or
Art Technology), (Pure) Science, and Applied Science (Practical Science
or Science Technology). The notion of design is applicable in all four
of these contexts. Respective
examples are: the composition of a painting or a photograph, the ground-plan
and elevation of a temple, the model serving a scientific theory,
Certain factors condition
or even constrain the achievement of design, the design effort that
goes into this achievement, and the design decisions that shape both
the achievement and the effort. The
achievement of design consists in the marrying of material and content. Success in design depends on this marriage
both at the local level (the texture of the outcome) and at the global
level (the structure of the outcome).
One could equally consider the composition of a painting or
the designing of a typewriter form this angle.
The design effort may consists in creating a mental map, an
actual map, a template or a prototype.
(The prototype of a painting is called a sketch, a study, or
even a cartoon.) Production effort picks up where design effort
leaves off. But of course
the two levels of effort may overlap in time.
Fabrication and manufacture are distinct processes, but merge
into each other.
Design decisions are needed for coping with problems (through
solving them bypassing them, or preventing them form arising), for
meeting constraints and even exploiting them, and for exercising freedom.
The designer need not be designing for himself; he may be designing
for a client. The freedom
may thus be exercised jointly by the client and the designer. This freedom is maximal in pure art but minimal in practical science.
There are three factors
that condition design achievement, effort, and decision: the available
means (material), the envisaged ends (content), and the diverse modes
of relating the two. When
we think of the means, we have in mind natural resources, capital
goods, and human resources, capital goods, and human resources (language,
know-how health, skills, labour).
We have to consider their quality their
availability and cost; and the available and feasible know how
relating to them. When we think of the ends, we have in view
the fact that the designed end-product serves a purpose, performs
some function, has meaning. These
may relate to environmental and social needs, public needs and demands,
personality and culture needs an demands, utilities and (as in war
and crime) desired disutilities.
The ends may become operative through the market, the patron,
or the community goal.
Finally, there are the three related but distinct modes of
relating the two: the technical, the aesthetic, and the managerial.
The technical mode consists in the minimax ratio between cost
and benefit. Technical improvement
is improvement in power, range, and precision.
One may draw upon not only the prevailing technology (primitive,
pre-industrial as the case may be) in the field but also the technology
in neighbouring fields (from navigation to aviation) or animal behaviour
(the aircraft designer A.V. Roe’s study of the seagulls).
The aesthetic mode has to do with the exercise of
freedom, with finding he’s own way between the ends and the
means, with the client’s taste and the designer’s style.
In functional art (design arts like architecture, landscaping,
city planning, textile design, garment design, the design of machine-made
products calligraphy) as in pure art, the relative dominance of material
and content may vary. For
example, in decorative design material dominates content; in functional
design, content dominates material., while in expressive design, the
two are balanced.
The managerial mode concerns questions like, given so many
variables and constants, who calls the tune and takes the risks?
Is it the designer, the client, or the middle-man? Who designs for whom? Thus, an advertisement or an exhibit may be
buyer-oriented or seller-oriented.
India has a rich tradition in the arts, including the design
an recreation arts. And yet, contemporary India is a rich breeding
ground of vulgarity. But before
we unravel this irony in the cultural context, we have first to understand
the anatomy of vulgarity.
A judgement that some
human act or its result or its author is vulgar used to be a wholly
social judgement. To have
said that something is vulgar was to say that something is vulgar
was to say that this is just the sort of thing that offends me about
what to me are the lower classes of my society.
Then the word vulgar was extended to acts perpetrated
by the speaker’s peers or even his superiors as a reproach: this is
just the sort of thing that reminds me about the offensive aspects
of what to me are the lower classes of my society. From this it took only a step to speak of something
as being intrinsically vulgar, as being typical of lower classes in
an ideal society so to say. The
author of the judgement presupposes a contrast between his own refined
aesthetic-ethical sensibility and his subject’s coarse one.
What started as a social judgement within a close-knit community
with shared values and known stations in life ended up as an aesthetic-ethical
judgement within a loose-knit public with values as open questions
and a stress on knowing what one likes’!
In a traditional society to be vulgar is to lapse below one’s
station or the Sanskrit gramaya, or to presume above one’s
station. In an open society to be vulgar is not to be
sure about the right thing to do and misreading the available clues. Both senses of the word vulgar survive
Typically, a vulgar performance is oversalient
or overemphatic, over explicit rather than moderately explicit or
implicit or even tacit, something that inverts the natural order of
things (as when a recent Indian advertisement assured the buyer that
their silk looks just like nylon or a young housewife in a Marathi
short story describes the riot of colours in a sunset sky as glorious
technicoulour), something that falls short of the profundity of the
passion or the insight through oversimplifying or over mystifying
(as does a good deal of instant religion or instant philosophy or
popularized mythology), or something that borrows from a genuinely
witty or profound performance only to misapply it (an intellectual
or spiritual malapropism so to say—most cliches fall in this category).
The onlooker may come
to recognize different sources of vulgarity: pretentious vulgarity
(as when a social climber with misplaced confidence in his ability
to pass off as refined moves the onlooker to laughter or pitying laughter—the
Germans call it kit ch); brazen vulgarity (as when a diffident
social climber hopes that the shortfall is not serious and that nobody
will notice it and so moves the onlooker to pity or laughing pity;
and then there is the upper class fellow trying to pass off as robust
without possessing what it takes). When there is no disharmony between intention
and performance, then of course the onlooker sees no vulgarity—only
gracefulness or earthiness, as the case may be, which is often accompanied
by a certain insouciance or a certain confidence.
India offers plenty of examples of pretensions, brazen, and nervous
vulgarity in the design arts (textile design is a notable oasis in
this aesthetic desert) and the entertainment or recreative arts. This
vulgarity can be traced to certain cultural ironies which facilitate
the process of vulgarization.
(1) the designers of consumer products, popular decoration, and popular
entertainment who think that they can manipulate and exploit popular
taste but themselves become victims of their
own uncertain taste which hovers uneasily between the middlebrow
and the lowbrow (for example, between films with a social or patriotic
message and grade-B masala films);
(2) the ‘folk’ reject folk
art in favour of the lowbrow and the lowbrow and the middle classes
indiscriminately find virtue and wholesome robustness in folk art
without examining each individual piece on its merits;
(3) the middle classes often flaunt their refinement but merely
succeed in exhibiting genteel vulgarity;
(4) the highbrows often embrace the imported middlebrow to emphasise
their refinement and end up being
tourists in their refinement and end up being tourists in their
own country, often affecting their ‘discovery’ of the Indian tradition
(Ravi Shankar! How cute!) and often treating as refined what is deemed
to be coarse in the West (fashionable Indians making a delicacy out
of fast food).
Aristotle defined the
ludicrous as that which is ugly without being painful.
There is a good deal around us of which it is difficult to
say whether it is ludicrously ugly or painfully ugly or just plain
A visiting Westerner one
said that India has a few first-class mathematicians, but no mathematics
to speak of. A visiting non-resident Indian once said that Indians
consume mathematics, but don’t make mathematics.
Between them, the two visitors have covered a good deal that
is wrong with pure science and science-based technology in contemporary
India. If a good deal of our technology deserves the jibe ‘screwdriver
technology’, a good deal of our science too is screwdriver science.
If increasingly brazen vulgarity is the besetting sin of design in
contemporary Indian pure and functional science.
What is missing is design
effort. Production effort
picks up where design effort leaves of, but production effort cannot
replace design effort. But that is precisely what contemporary Indian
scientists and science-based technologist appear to be trying to get
away with. Heuristic, improvisatory creativity cannot be replaced by algorithmic,
rule-bound productivity—at any level.
The excuse that the run-of-the-mill
scientists and technologists cannot aspire to creativity will not
hold good. It is not only given to a Jagadish Chandra Bose or a Vishveshvarayya
to be creative. It is also
given to any professional to be creative at his own level. Otherwise there is no essential difference
between an engineer and a mechanic, a physician and a paramedic, a
professional and a tradesman. At
the same time there is an essential affinity between a creative genius
and the person with no more than a spark of creative imagination and
intellect. A spark may be a spark, but it is also fire. If one realizes suddenly that one has creativity,
be it only a spark, one certainly does not shout about it from the
house tops. However, one should
accept this realization without panic.
One mustn’t say, how could unworthy me possess such a gift? Rather, one should guard with one’s life what
little one has.
Society, in its turn, must accept its debt to creativity. The history of mankind reveals that this fact is slowly drawning
upon different societies. The
all too common mistrust of the gifted individual who is often eccentric,
nonconformist, arrogant and modest by turns is being replaced by a
distant respect for him, a forgiving acceptance of his folbes, a shrewd
sense that creativity is good investment.
The present woeful situation
I India (one has only to recall here what the Nobel prize winner. Dr Khurana had to endure
before he left India for good) can no doubt be attributed in part
to the dependent status of your economy and to the short-sightedness
of the Indian businessman. But
only in part. There are deeper cultural and social factors
that one must address one self to:
The authoritarian tradition
of medieval India which frowned upon innovation, which fostered a
deep mistrust and jealously of the gifted nonconformist (the dharma
hastra distrust of scientific astronomy and medicine, for example),
and which facilitated intellectual slavery of the West (treating modern
science like shastras—to be memorized and stored away and regurgitated
if occasion demands);
The linguistic schism between
the Sanskrit-knowing pandit and the rest (later replaced by the schism
between the English-knowing babu and the rest—which served the vital educational link between one’s mother
tongue and the everyday realities it embodies and abstract and innovative
thought contained in the other tongue, which hampered the flow of
insights and even information between the two segments of society,
and which encouraged the linguistic elite to be intellectually lazy
and arrogant with no real professional pride or tradition (both the
pandit/babu and the unlearned were the losers—our ‘indigenous technology’
had to be discovered for us by others);
The borrowed schism between the two cultures in education and in
intellectual life generally—which has made the scientist and technologist
oblivious of the aesthetic and humane component of his essential activity,
oblivious of the vital need of linguistic and communicative competence
for the ‘making’ of new science and technology and for its dissemination
to the initiated as well as the general public, and oblivious of the
larger social context of his activity;
The excessive dominance of the managerial mode over the aesthetic
mode over the aesthetic and the technical mode in marrying material
and content in scientific and technological design effort which resulted
in the tyranny of the administrative babu in our educational, industrial,
and research establishments and in what has aptly been called
the tyranny of the ‘small decision’, of putting a premium on the short-range,
the expedient, the stop-gap (thus, when it comes to consumer goods,
attractive product exterior, skilful packaging, and enticing advertising
persuades people to buy things they don’t need or can’t use in order
to impress people who don’t care).
Vulgarity and derivativeness—certainly
not a pretty picture, not even a ludicrously ugly picture of design
in art and in technology in contemporary India. But it is hoped that the analysis of the underlying
factors presented here provides enough of a base to begin finding
a way out. Whether we could
also restructure ourselves enough so as to muster the necessary moral
and political will to actually adopt this way when it is identified
is another question.
Huxley, Aldous, Vulgarity
in literature, London, Chatto and Windus, 1930, pp.2-3
Kelkar, Ashok R., Art as education, New Quest, no. 43, Jan-Feb
Exorcizing technology, Indian Horizons, New Delhi, JCCR, 1989.
Sampath, S., Man-machine symbiosis: Key to a viable future,
Journal of the Institute of Engineers (India) 34;12 Bulletin Supplement,
Smith, Cyril Staley, On
art, invention, and technology (1975).
Reprinted in his: A Search for structure: Selected essays on
science, art and history, Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press, 1981, pp.325-31.
This was published in Design and Aesthetic members of Seminar
no.356 April 1989.