The agenda of art

The agenda of art

Art has always had a purpose. It’s sometimes self-serving, sometimes an expression of deep-seated emotions, and sometimes a proclamation of wealth. How does it speak to you?

A young woman stands, holding a lit lamp in one hand. With the other, she shelters the flame from a breeze. The light reflects off her face and radiates through her fingers, while her shadow looms behind her. The viewer stands entranced , as the light illuminates the dark room.

No, this is not a scene from real life. This is the painting called ‘The Glow of Life’ or ‘Woman With The Lamp’, painted by S L Haldankar in 1945-46. The model was the painter’s daughter, Gita Uplekar. The story goes that during one Diwali, Haldankar saw his third daughter holding a brass lamp in one hand and protecting the flame with the other. Inspired by the sight, he made her pose with the lamp for three hours, and from that emerged the watercolour painting.

A couple of years later, the painting won the first prize at an art exhibition held for Dasara by the Mysore Royal Family. Subsequently, they purchased the painting and brought it to Mysore Palace. Later, it was shifted to the Jayachamarajendra Art Gallery in Jaganmohan Palace, Mysuru, where it currently resides in isolated glory in a dark curtained alcove, where it awes viewers from all over the world, long after both the artist and the model have passed on.

‘Ars longa, vita brevis,’ said Hippocrates. One of the meanings of this phrase is that ‘Art is long-lived, while life is short’. This is a fact that is borne out when you stand in front of an exceptional painting or a stunning sculpture. At that point of time, do you ever wonder how that painting came to be there? A woman or man paints a picture at a point in time, and you view it in an art gallery or a museum… hundreds of years later. Why was it created? What was the purpose it served?

The reason is you

Human beings create art because it fulfills some deep-seated emotional needs.

We want to reproduce what we see. We need to shout out to the world: “Look! This is who I am! See what I can accomplish!” We have an overwhelming urge to produce beauty that dazzles and holds us breathless. We yearn to understand what we ourselves see and feel. We have to connect to other humans, feel what they are feeling, experience that connect when someone says, “Wow, that’s brilliant! I get what they want to say.” We ardently desire to show others our version of reality.

‘Prashanth heart Nithya’ — written on an otherwise natural rock face. Our reaction? Disgust, at the defacing of an otherwise pristine surface. Yes, it is graffiti. Yet, this was one of the ways in which man expressed his art. Humans who lived hundreds and thousands of years before us couldn’t resist the lure of blank cave walls.

Using ochre, a naturally-occurring yellow/orange/red pigment, early artists found ways to make an impression on blank walls. They made ‘hand stencils’, the outline of a hand, on walls of caves by spitting or spraying red pigment over their hands. Such stencils have been found in various parts of the world, bearing out man’s irresistible urge to document what he sees and feels, and to leave a mark on his surroundings. They also drew, painted and coloured the animals they encountered and hunted. These paintings are found all over the world — in parts of Europe, India, Australia, Indonesia. Being sheltered in caves, these are the only forms of early art that survive.

Early painters depicted the hunt, their community, the animals that lived around them and the symbols they associated with fertility. The purpose of these paintings might have been to explain and illustrate events that occurred to their neighbours and friends. They may have been trying to communicate their ideas and thoughts. The paintings could have educated new members or young ones of a community in the habits of prevalent wildlife, the cycle of surrounding nature and the practices of the group, helping in the very survival of that community. They might have been executed to even create altars for ceremonial worship. Or they might be just to say, “I was here!”

As time went on and civilisation evolved to villages, cities and city states, perspectives changed. People, especially those in power, began to realise that art and artifacts tend to outlive them. They needed to show their gods and their people how good and great they were. So, what better way to let future generations know how religious and illustrious a person you were than through art? After all, the spoils of taxation and war lay idle in the state treasury. They might as well put to good use. Thus began the practice of building temples to the gods, and installing statues of oneself in them. Indeed, this became a practice of rich, powerful people from all over the world.

One such king, Gudea, who ruled a small section of Sumeria in Mesopotamia from about 2144 to 2124 BC, made sure that he got due recognition. Though he ruled only a small kingdom and that too only for about a short period of time, his statues, displayed in temples, still bear evidence to his wealth and power. Art thus became a tool for self-aggrandisement and propaganda.

One culture that took this concept to a different level altogether and set the standard for all future art is Egyptian culture. This was the land of the sphinx, obelisks and the pyramids. The ancient Egyptians believed in reincarnation, but whether or not they were reborn, they certainly achieved immortality through their tombs and temples. Their art had two purposes. One was to glorify and praise their gods and assist the passage of human souls into after-life. The other was to assert the achievements of their patrons and preserve a record of their lives.

In fact, some of Egyptian art was not meant to be seen by the ordinary living masses, but meant for the interaction of the dead with the gods. Then, there were statues placed in family chapels or temples, to honour ancestors and serve as intermediaries between the living and the gods. And of course, there were temples, huge and full of paintings and statues at places like Abu Simbel, Karnak and Luxor. The paintings remain as a record of the times, from the battles fought to the portraits of the king and his family to the flooding of the Nile. The rulers of Egypt sought to shock and awe their viewers with their show of piety, power and plenty, and that is what their art does even today.

In the dark

However, the artists of the era remain unknown. The people who laboured over these breathtaking works were trained at first and then put to work in teams, just like in the IT industry of today. A group sketched the initial outlines, to be followed by carvers and finishers, and then the painting would be done by less-skilled men with finer craftsmen giving the final touches. Many master craftsmen became powerful in their day, but only a few like Imhotep, the architect who built the Step Pyramid complex in 2660-2590 BC, are known today. On the contrary, the names of pharaohs like Ramses II, Thutmose III, Hatshepsut and Tutankhamun are well known.

Indian art, too, tells a similar story. Artists and artisans created marvellous edifices of sandstone, granite and marble for the same specific objectives as the Egyptian culture.

The underlying narratives propagated by their work, whether it be the Brihadishwara Temple at Thanjavur, the Durga Temple at Aihole, the Sun Temple in Konark or the Jama Masjid, are the same.

Royal personages with taste, be they the Guptas, Cholas or Mughals, had great interest in the arts. To develop their own styles, they patronised artists, and commissioned and financed works of art. The statuary, buildings and paintings revealed the patrons’ piety and religious sentiments. They told stories from mythology but in the styles, culture and ambience prevailing at the time, culture and sensibilities of the period. Finally, they served to remind the viewer of the might, popularity and wealth of the rulers. Here too, artists worked in teams, and though well-known in their day, their names are lost in the mists of time.

Ancient Greek and Roman art also developed along these lines. Pericles, the Athenian statesman, and Alexander the Great had no compunctions in using other people’s money. Pericles transformed the Acropolis, including the Parthenon, and Alexander became a huge patron of arts, too.

Meanwhile, art also became a tool to promote religion. Illustrated Bibles, Islamic calligraphy and mosaics and Buddhist cave paintings sought to spread religious sentiments among both the educated and the lay masses.

Flash to the time of Renaissance of Europe. At this time, wealthy and powerful bankers and moneylenders entered the picture.

The wealth they accumulated by charging high interest rates while lending was used in part to produce works of art by patronising artists and financing their work. Thus, art became their way of laundering money.

They built churches, fountains, roads, hospitals and libraries, and wherever they could, they included art work. Their acts of piety such as paying for painting a church or sculpting divine characters masked the wish to flaunt taste, money and political power. They got themselves immortalised in the paintings, in the crowds of saints and sinners surrounding divine figures of Christ, Mary and other saints, though always being careful to stay on the side of the saints.


Their coats of arms, crests, signs and symbols were also lavishly included, so that there was no doubt of the commissioning personage. Cosimo de Medici, head of the Medici banking family and de facto ruler of Florence, was the first to truly embrace artistic patronage.

He supported the famous sculptor Donatello and architect Brunelleschi. His brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent patronised artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. The first of the Medici brothers to become Pope, Pope Leo X commissioned many works from the artist Raphael. An interesting fact is that both Michelangelo and Raphael were employed by the Pope, and Michelangelo disliked Raphael.

Whatever the intent, this method worked well, because it was a symbiotic relationship between the patrons and the artists. Artists thrived and blossomed under their patrons and created a number of masterpieces that live even today. They came to be very well-respected and even became celebrities. Without the money and freedom provided by the patrons, they would no doubt have found it difficult to utilise and exhibit their extraordinary talents. With their help, they gained the opportunity to design, invent and practice their craft.

In India, too, patronage helped artists. Raja Ravi Varma became the most iconic painter of his time, thanks to the patronage of the maharajahs of Travancore, Baroda and Mysore.

However, time passed and resource distribution became broader based, causing the system of patronage to suffer setbacks. It came to be that not all artists had patrons, rich or otherwise. Also, unlike Renaissance artists who showed the world as it exists, artists began expressing their emotions and feelings. Some also adopted the idea of ‘Art for art’s sake’. Their art forms were frowned upon by art academies who rejected them, saying that they showed lack of skill.

The notable artists who suffered excruciating poverty read like the Who’s Who of innovative art: Claude Monet, the founder of French Impressionism; Vincent van Gogh, the master of Post-Impressionism; El Greco, who pretty much created his own individualistic style of painting which inspired art forms like Expressionism and Cubism; Paul Cezanne, the father of Modern Art; Paul Gaugain, the father of Primitivism; Johannes Vermeer, and many others. These were the wonderful painters who had the misfortune to be born before their time. Without a rich person to encourage them in their work, or more importantly, pay for it, they had to depend on their families, friends, girlfriends and lovers to support their art, and sometimes even their lives.

Though he created about 2,100 art works in just over a decade, van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, and depended financially on his younger brother Theodorus or Theo.

Monet was abused by public and critics that his paintings were formless, unfinished and ugly. He and his family endured abject poverty. Johannes Vermeer, who was an art dealer as well, had 10 children, and the misfortune to live through a period called rampjaar or disaster year in Dutch history when art fell in value. He had to pawn his mother-in-law’s property as surety for his debts.

Meanwhile, the economics of art was undergoing a subtle change. Patronage of artists fell, but ownership of art became more meaningful. In today’s world, owning art means sophistication, taste, wealth and power. Art auctions have become public declarations of status. In one breath, art is being both exalted and trivialised, as investment.

So, it should come as no surprise that today, Deutsche Bank owns at least as many works of art as the Louvre. J P Morgan has an art agenda too. Many family-owned art collections, like that of the Guggenheims, are housed in museums.

Wealthy Indians are among those who invest in art. Tina Ambani’s Harmony Art Foundation, Malvinder Singh of Religare, Parameshwar Godrej, Harsha Goenka, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon,Rajshree Pathy of Rajshree Sugar, and especially Kiran Nadar, wife of tech billionaire Shiv Nadar of HCL Technologies have invested huge sums on Indian artists, driving up their value both at home and abroad: patronage in contemporary form.

The most valuable art collection on the planet is jointly owned by two brothers, Ezra and David Nahmad. Their three-billion dollar art cache boggles the mind —Modigliani, Klimt, Picasso and van Gogh, as well as pieces of ancient Etruscan sarcophagi and oil paintings by da Vinci. These people will tell you that the secret to wealth is to buy good art, hold it for a while, and resell at higher prices.

So, think about what kind of a person you are. Do you like art because it speaks to you? Or do you like it because it speaks of you? Because, you know, art does have a purpose.