Art for heart’s sake

Why should literature be written at all if it only helps to confuse

By Asha Iyer Kumar (Issues)

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Published: Fri 25 Apr 2014, 10:11 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:36 PM

When I was little, I had a special loathing for abstract nouns. I could never decipher why ‘jealous’ was not an abstract noun, but ‘jealousy’ was, if abstract nouns, as per the teacher were ‘things’ that one could only ‘feel in the heart’ and not by touch. It was a long time before the sinister secrets of grammar and its concepts were revealed to me by my own understanding of whatever was ladled out to us in the grammar class. The teacher gave us mere definitions. The task of making sense was upon us.

Years later, I hold the word ‘abstract’ in the same degree of intrigue, the idea of incomprehension now extending beyond bland grammatical confines. There are still concepts that don’t add up, no matter how intelligent I pretend to be. I would like to believe, in a strange self-vindicating manner, that the inability to ‘make sense’ of alien views has got nothing to do with one’s intellectual power, for it is impossible to crack the mysteries of the other man’s thought without risking misinterpretation.

Nowhere has this predicament been so stark as in matters of art and literature, especially, poetry. The boys I tutor have always found poetry a baffling form of inconsequential writing. I have always fumbled with my answer when they asked why poets had to be so difficult on the readers. Why couldn’t say things straight and simple, like every day speech? I explain to them that the beauty of poetry was in its ambiguity, the language employed and its appeal to our sensibilities.

The youngsters give me a languid look. I understand what they mean. Why should a piece of literature be written at all if it only helps to confuse and not to amuse? As a last attempt to convince them, I declare that a writer or an artist creates to gratify his creative urge. To them, art is a means of purging their thoughts and emotions in a manner that satisfies their creative instincts, and to support my claim I quote Wordsworth. I only end up vexing them further. I empathise with them, for how many times have I wondered what modern poets had in mind when they wrote those fantastically abstract lines that leave me cross eyed and mentally knotted up!

Personally, I have had several people advising me to adopt a simple writing style in the interests of those suffering from acute semantic deficiency. I wonder if they meant that my writings are highly baroque or too self indulgent or just not uber cool and urban. I have been rejected by many of their kind for being too dense and vapid, and often by publishers for being simplistic and unsaleable. I can’t say how valid these assessments are, but like all people who create to satisfy their own craving than to pander to popular interests, I write because ideas can’t be stifled in the chambers of the heart, and need to be vented. Words are my means, like colours are to the painter, and the solid medium is to the sculptor.

I still don’t appreciate most abstract art, but I am now mature enough to know that they have a meaning and an inventiveness which only the artist recognises. For my part, I look at it from my perspective and attempt to interpret it in my own limited way. Often, the true import of it is lost on me, but in some rare moments of intuition I find strange, inane meanings in them.

An artist or a writer is essentially a redeemer of his raring thoughts. While R.K. Narayan chose fiction as medium, M.F Hussain chose modern art. To describe one as overly simplistic and the other as grossly impenetrable will be a folly, for genuine art exists more for art’s sake, and less for the audience. It is an abstraction that can only be felt by the heart.

Asha Iyer Kumar is a freelance journalist based in Dubai

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