Is Art a Prescription or a Representation
Is Art a Prescription or a Representation?
From the very first form of art, known as petroglyphs, all the way to modern music and cinema, art has always been there since the dawn of humanity. Art has proved to be an incredible tool to influence, inspire, and encourage people in different ways. However, one question that has haunted art for generations, possibly since the beginning of art, is the question of whether art is a prescription or a representation.
In a recent podcast of PG Radio, Prakhar Gupta brings Anand Gandhi, an Indian filmmaker, producer, entrepreneur, and founder of Mumbai-based media studio, Memesys Culture Lab. Anand Gandhi has written and directed the critically-acclaimed film, Ship Of Theseus, which won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in 2014. In this episode of PG Radio, Prakhar and Anand have a conversation on what problem does art solves? In this podcast, Prakhar addresses this age-long question of whether art is a prescription or a representation.
Prakhar starts the conversation by bringing up a recent Netflix show, the Indian Matchmaking, and how many people believe the show is glorifying the traditional discriminatory nature of arranged marriages in India and how it has some patriarchal element attached to it as well. Prakhar tells us how this argument about the show reminded him of the first time he watched Udta Punjab and how, by the end of the film, it left Prakhar questioning if the film is just "representing" a reality or "propagating" a reality, and that leads him to ask Anand, how do we conceptualize if a piece of art is a presentation or a representation?
To answer the topic question, we must first understand art and what it truly is. According to Anand, art is the sum total of an individual's objective and subjective experiences. But what do we mean by this?
Objective experience is the experiences that we gather by interacting with our world, environment, and reality. In other words, objective experiences are actual events that are taking place in the world and our personal life. Subjective experience, on the other hand, is what we interpret or produce in response to the objective experiences. Prakhar simplifies this concept by translating objective experiences as "what it is" and subjective experiences as "what one does with it, or how they experience it."
The purpose of art is to collect these subjective and objective experiences from an individual's point of view and store it in the form of art. Due to the combination of a person's objective and subjective experiences, art not only tells us what is, but it also tells us what ought to be, from an individual’s point of view. This significant characteristic of art makes the responsibility that comes with it that much more important and relevant.
Most of the cinema in the world are indeed perpetuating certain world views and perspectives; however, the real question is, are they promoting these viewpoints or critiquing them. The answer to this question, according to Anand, is very evident in the artist's art itself. Whether it is to critique, celebrate, prescribe, or rip something apart in an attempt to build something new, the intention of the artist is very evident and transparent in the art itself.
Violence and Sex in Cinema
Next, Anand talks about the two most frequent themes, violence, and sex, and why we encounter these two themes in cinemas, again and again. Every event and story in cinemas are built around these two themes. All the different elements in a film lead up to either one of these two. Falling in love, flirting, dependencies are all events or emotions that eventually lead to sex or intend to go in that direction. Then we have anger, revenge, the evil that pushes the plot in the direction of violence. The reason for these two themes repeating themselves again and again, in not only cinema but all kinds of art, is entirely evolutionary. Violence and sex played a huge role in sustaining the human species, which is why evolution has instilled these two themes deep in our minds, and that's why humans respond to it the most.
In ancient times, when the human population was small, and access to resources were limited, progeny creation was harder to attain. Reproduction was a crucial part of survival at that time, as it was the only way to sustain our species and pass on our genes. That's part of the reason why we developed an understanding of giving importance to emotions like love, compassion, reliance, feeling loved, etc., as these emotions are a signal of opportunity to reproduce and continue one's family genes. Hence, sex had a crucial life-sustaining value in the evolution of the human species, and the same goes for violence as well. Most of mankind's history before the invention of agriculture was pre-agrarian hunting and gathering. In pre-agrarian times, violence was a crucial tool that helped us to protect our lives. It allowed us to find food and protect our offspring, which was essential so that our genes get passed onto the next generation. We learned to respond to emotions like anger, fear, revenge, danger, etc., with violence. Just as sex, violence also had a crucial life-sustaining value in the evolution of humans.
Anand believes that this is the reason why we respond to violence and sex in an addictive, or even better, in a seductive manner. The same way we react to sugar or fast food. It's because they are deeply rooted in our evolutionary behavior. Most filmmakers or artists use these two themes over and over again, without even being aware of it. They respond to it in a very behavioral manner as if they are in that situation themselves.
What Should Art Be?
In Anand’s mind, most cinema or art is about replication. It is about creating with a high degree of fidelity combined with their own subjective point of view. Anand says that creating something like that can be considered as a good piece of art, but creating a great piece of art is a whole different ball game. An artist that combines objective and subjective experiences to create art while also telling the audience what to do with it and how to use it to build a better world is what Anand is drawn towards and considers a great piece of art.
Lastly, he talks about the mistakes that some artists make, which can have a negative impact on society. It happens when there is a lack of awareness and comprehension from the artist's part on the intended effect of their art. In such cases, art can perpetuate and promote themes that should instead be critiqued and fought against.
So, to answer the question of whether art is a prescription or a representation? Yes, art does perpetuate and promote certain themes and messages depending on the vantage point of the artist, but that leaves us with another question. Should art only share the right message, or is it free to share anything?