Art, Politics, Perception by Kaustuv Roy

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Looking back on this past semester, I feel glad that almost all students in our liberal studies undergraduate programme, whether pursuing a Physics or Economics major, expressed excitement at having enrolled in Creative Expressions, a curricular component that engages students in arts and aesthetic explorations along with physical practice.  Having entered the programme with seemingly clear goals such as devoting majority of their time to pursuing chosen majors in the Sciences, Humanities and Social Sciences, yet they have seemed happy and motivated about the time and work Creative Expressions needs.

But what if I were to encounter questions from prospective parents and students that question the relevance of such a component in education? What if I encounter questions such as, “What is the point of learning art when I know I want to become a biologist / mathematician / historian?” “Is not art a luxury enjoyed by people who don’t have to think about getting jobs?” “Why make Creative Expressions / arts compulsory?  Only those who are talented at art can choose to do it!”  “How is art going to be practically of any help to me in my future life?” “Higher education / education in general is a time for some serious studies and art is not exactly relevant” etc. etc.

While several resources exist to help make sense of and help dialog over the above questions,  I present here an article that I have found helpful while in the process of sharpening my thoughts.  With a focus on the political nature of art and artistic thinking, and implications of the same in education, it may be helpful in expanding on’es understanding on the subject.

Titled Art, Politics, Perception, the article is authored by Kaustuv Roy* and was first published in the 2012 issue of Learning Curve.

At the beginning of the article itself, the author is able to give an example of the narrow lens through which art is often understood.  He writes:

“When we think of art, not uncommonly, what comes to mind are canvases, watercolors, sculptures, and other artifacts. That is to say, the images evoked are mostly the end products of artistic endeavour. Contrast this with, say, the case of mathematics wherein we hear of mathematical reasoning or mathematical thinking and even mathematization. In other words, while value is placed on logical or systematic thinking, art, generally speaking, is measured mostly in terms of its visible end products, and not in terms of the aesthetics of thought and perception.”

The author then goes on to shed light on the qualities of art, once we acknowledge it as being something more than just the visible finished product / artifact.  In explaining its significance, the author writes:

“Like mathematics, art is a distinct mode of apprehension of space apart from other things, and hence has the potential to be deployed for describing the world; and since any process of description of the world makes choices and selections, even minimally the language of art becomes political. Further, when art is introspective, as it often is, it probes and intervenes in the psychic theatre making art’s function micropolitical, that is, able to act at the level of individual relations. We know for example that the classical paintings sometimes played into the hands of vassal society and held up existing property relations just as at the opposite end cubism did away with single perspective view of the subject ending an epoch and beginning a new way of apprehending the world and subject relations within it. Both the above are political positions whether intended or not, whether conscious or not”.

With the help of two styles of art, Cubism and Surrealism the author tries to introduce the reader to the aspect of artistic thinking or art as a tool of thought, and to one of its qualities, that of its political nature and the subsequent impact it is capable of having on the individual and on the social collective. The author concludes the article by elaborating on actual teaching – learning practices and their possible implications for the development of this artistic thinking.

“(…) the first principle in teaching art is that we must avoid imitation (…). To mimic is to conform but the idea here is to encourage direct perception from the outset. To observe, to learn how to look quietly and purposefully is to be sensitive to the eco-environment and is the first step of a political being.”

“Second, in teaching art we must not look for representative correspondence or accuracy of reproduction (…). The teacher must deliberately move away from evaluating the child’s work in terms of the usual adjectives such as “beautiful” or “bad” etc. and instead begin a dialogue between the work and the child in terms of what s/he saw and attempted to convey. This dialogue enhances the linguistic capacities and communicative competence of the student. The development of this capacity is the second step of a political being.”

“Third, and this may seem counter-intuitive and contrary to popular asked to draw from the imagination. Instead they must rst learn to draw only what they see (….). Drawing what one sees is not mere reproduction but a kind of reflective practice of looking. To be true to what one sees, or to the ‘what is’ without compromise is the third step of a developing political being.”

“Fourth, children must be encouraged to draw and illustrate actual situations from their particular lives. In other words, their work should have a large autobiographical element (….).  (With respect to children with known problems and troubled lives, specialists should be consulted before asking them to do anything of this kind). To understand and read the world autobiographically is the fourth step of a nascent political being.”

“Finally, there should be an attempt to make children aware of their dreams and if possible recall some of it in their work if they feel safe doing it.  – “(…) indirectly suggesting to the children to take dreams seriously and engage that aspect of their lives in a systematic fashion from early on. Engagement with the  psyche is a holistic element that is critical for becoming a full-edged political being, able to engage with the world consciously and meaningfully, and since the drives and impulses that guide our destinies are often seminally rooted in the psyche their articulation is an important part of self-awareness.”

Even if the article stays focussed on the visual arts, it is able to expand our understanding of the arts by helping us see it as a culmination of valuable processes that are vital and relevant to each living being, irrespective of whether he/she is an ‘artist’.  With regards to these processes and this kind of artistic way of thinking, the author writes:

“It will eventually allow the individual to sharpen their points of contact with the world in much the same way as a battery’s terminals or points of contact are cleansed of encrustation for better conductivity. Artistic thinking allows us to have a better sense of who or what we are and that is certainly one important aim of progressive education.”

A line from the article that further establishes the criticality of the art experience / aesthetic exploration in all educational endeavors: “And if education and learning is a groping toward freedom and self-knowledge then art will have as much to contribute as, say, mathematics or science to human destiny.”


*Kaustuv teaches at the Azim Premji University; he is also a member of the Academics and Pedagogy team at the University Resource Centre.  Under Kaustuv’s guidance, the University will soon have a modest Art Studio that will serve the academic community both as a base for offering courses as well as for leisure learning of artistic expression.

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