When Art becomes the Artist…

Notes on the Sky Self
If we move beyond the limited worlds of assessment, employment and success, we will be ready to create art programmes that revolutionise the identity of each child.
Why do schools need art? But the other more serious, yet absurd, question is ‘What is really art?’ I like the absurdity of it. I went around asking friends and students what they thought art was. We had some really amazing conversations. All of us were confused and also rather excited trying to figure out this expanding universe of the arts.
‘My Art is my life’ said Mir Mukhtiyar Ali. ‘Physicists, mathematicians, sociologists, historians, craftsmen, and of course artists in the conventional sense - everyone seems to be an artist’ said I. ‘How does a blind child see art?’ asked Nancy Raj. ‘Colours soak into the paper’ said another friend, Jigeesha. Her words triggered an essential link in my mind about art as product and art as process. I asked myself a series of questions:
1. Is art the product or the process?
2. When does the process become the product?
3. And what really is the product of art - the work of art or the artist himself?
Expanding our definitions of the Arts
“As I begin to paint, hold the sky in your hands; as the stretch of my canvas is unknown to me.” – M.F. Hussain
As teachers, parents, artists or viewers how do we define the arts? Our definitions characterise how we experience them, teach them or validate their necessity in our everyday lives. We often come with preconceived notions about what we call as ‘proper art’, ‘good art’ and ‘bad art’. Further, we are also limited in our understanding of what art is? Is drawing mehandi design art or should we create a realistic painting? Is folk music sung by a fruit seller art or is art what is performed on a stage? Does the word include all forms of art, or is it just the classical arts like painting, sculpture, dance and theatre. Is craft also art? Simple yet profound questions plague our understanding of the arts we encounter every day. Based on our preconceptions, we often create an environment where the arts cannot flourish, because they have been condemned before they were created.
We have put ourselves into boxes like “artist”, “scientist”, “physicist”, “teacher”, “parent”. The moment we counter something that doesn’t quite fit into a box, we scramble, and try very hard to fit it in. From the elephant stuck in a cage to a child sitting quietly in a classroom, anything that doesn’t fit into a box seems like an aberration to us. But isn’t the box itself the aberration!
Neither art nor science could flourish if it did not give satisfaction, or if satisfaction were the only aim. Constable urged that painting is a science, and I suggest that science is a humanity. Putting them in opposition misconceives and hurts both. - Nelson Goodman
By expecting children to create a realistic drawing, or repeat music without building a personal connection to the notes, we are taking away from them the ability to soak into the arts, or undergo the process of artistic evolution. Without allowing experimentation and discovery, we are also taking away the interdisciplinary nature of understanding, by expecting them to remain in one frame while understanding a subject.
There may be mathematicians who are brilliant artists, who find no way to explore their innate understanding of either subject. In the process of teaching, we are probably stunting their growth, because we do not understand how their cognition of either subject works.
Expanding our definitions of our Selves
Practice, perception, and the several arts are equally ways of gaining insight and understanding. The naive notion that science seeks truth, while art seeks beauty, is wrong on many counts. Science seeks relevant, significant, illuminating principles, often setting aside trivial or overcomplicated truths in favor of powerful unifying approximations. And art, like science, provides a grasp of new affinities and contrasts, cuts across worn categories to yield new organization, new visions of the worlds we live in. - Nelson Goodman
Art is much more than the product that it becomes, be it performance art or visual art. Art and artist evolve seamlessly through the artistic processes they undergo. Their journey adds to the multiple dimensions of the subtle mystic self as well as the political and social self in relationship with the world. Both as voice and language, the arts permeate human society and are critical to the perceptions we build of ourselves. In this essay, using the lens of four selves, let’s look at how we can build a new case for the arts in our schools.

The Subtle Self

“The search for the meaning of life and of the self in life is born with the child and is desired by the child”. – Carla Rinaldi

The arts provide us with road maps to our subtle self. When we experience art or create art, there are several internal journeys that we begin taking. Sometimes a swirl of colour evokes a meditative silence. At other times a raga, a note, an artist’s voice, the dancer’s construction of space and many other forms of art lead us into paths that resonate with a greater spirit that encompasses all of life. Sometimes looking through the microscope, looking through the macro lens of a camera opens up this world. We are suddenly removed from what we can comfortably explain as ‘reality’ to many subtle realities that exist beyond our consciousness.
“I was all alone on the beach looking for pictures, when suddenly it happened. As dimensions of time and space vanished, I slowly dissolved in the fathomless blue. Something confined within the narrow shell of my mind and body was hurled into a whirlpool of ecstasy” - Ashvin Mehta

This subtle self is important for us to evolve as human beings, and discover compassion within ourselves. It also creates space in the mind, allowing us to create anew. So, how can we educate the subtle self? Can we create a space in our classrooms that allows for this quest for the self, through aesthetics as well as cognition?
The Social Self
The grass seeks her crowd in the earth. The tree seeks his solitude of the sky. - Rabindranath Tagore
Each of us is simultaneously in a web of relationships. There is complexity and simplicity in each relationship we make during the course of our lives, be it with other human beings or with nature, objects or abstract ideas. Our relationships at once encompass feelings, reasoning, deep emotions, discoveries, practice, learning, conicts and resolutions. Expanding awareness about the intricate tapestry of this social self can help children rediscover themselves at every turn in their lives.

The Political Self
“Little one, don’t be afraid of this dark night. Walk boldly as you see the truth and light. Love well, my child, laugh all day long, But do not take from anyman his song.” - Ruskin Bond, Rain in the mountains
Every child is also constantly building an identity for herself that is political in nature. Gender, community, culture, religion, nationality, globalisation, media – each of these impose a political self on the child. Construction of the political self is a tough challenge for it takes into account history, interpretation of past, present and future. Even something as straightforward as drawing a tree can have so many influences of our unconscious political self. Engaging the child in thoughtful creation of art, writing or reflection by carefully considering the elements that constitute his thinking is important to construct a compassionate and meaningful political self.
The Sky Self
In the wild wet wind jasmines revel in their own perfume. The cloud-hidden stars thrill in secret. Let me fill my heart to the full with nothing but my own depth of joy. - Rabindranath Tagore
What if our self was not limited to our accepted notions! What if it was a sky self, what voice would it have? What colours would it be made of? The sky in the sky-self is just a metaphor for an unknown expanse. The sky-self can be an adventurous and powerful companion that allows a child to evolve and discover her potential without feeling limited.
Our definitions limit our ideas about ourselves. A group of 8, 9 and 10 year olds did a writing exercise on the topic –“If I am me, who am I?” From being human beings with two hands, face, nose, ears, girl or boy, we suddenly opened up and became as large as the universe, as tiny as ants. We started making noises of animals; we burst into ecstatic declarations of how many different things we could be. We discovered that when we feel different emotions we may have different heads. We suddenly found malleability, flexibility to our bodies and minds. It was an exercise in empathy for oneself. Children have become so tuned to learning to please their parents or their teachers, getting good marks in their exams, being imaginative and creative inside a box that limits them, that just reaching into their own self becomes impossible.

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organisation of the entire tapestry.” - Richard P. Feynman

Each child reveals a mystery of humanity. Nurturing each child to see how he or she reveals this magnificent tapestry of life is a challenge that teachers, parents and schools face. In the arts, children get many strategies, approaches, ideas and paths to discover this for themselves. However, for such discoveries to happen, our approach to the arts must embrace their interdisciplinary nature at one level. At another level, we need to open our eyes and see that the artistic processes are also cognitive in nature. They challenge, teach and nurture our thinking and help us evolve in several dimensions. If we move beyond the limited worlds of assessment, employment and success, we will be ready to create art programmes that revolutionise the identity of each child.
I leave you to ponder over the questions:
1. What is art?
2. Is art the product or the process?
3. When does the process become the product?
4. And what really is the product of art- the work of art or the artist herself?

SRIVI is an educator, writer, designer, illustrator. She has authored, co-authored and illustrated books and stories for children and adults.. She uses the arts in education to create meaningful learning experiences. She is the Founder- Director of Fooniferse Arts Pvt. Ltd (www.fooniferse.com). You can view her works on her website: www.sriviliveshere. com. She can be contacted at srivikalyan@fooniferse.com
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