Kill The Art And You Really Hang Yourself

Jurmi Chhowing

A friend of mine made a short charming little film (height-puns intentional). But size is relative. It was called The Red Door. He had no money. Grounded in the artistic principles of the old order, he wanted to make his film his way. And not the box-office highway. Faithful to his artistic vision. Abroad, his film was appreciated. Back home he received the condescending congratulatory pat on the back (grudgingly, from the concerned ministries; the very bodies tasked with such promotion). But at film festivals, the film was something of a sleeper hit. It was screened around festivals in Europe, and in the US.
He travelled broke. Well almost. He didn’t go homeless. Or busk the streets playing guitar for change (he can’t play anyway but The Good Samaritans helped). Yet something happened. This charming visual treat showcased Bhutan’s latent filmmaking talent. With an artistic touch, the film broached the universal subject of death. It was philosophy caught on celluloid. With artistic acumen. And lots of finesse. Most economically rendered.
Bhutan was on the art-film map. Now if you think winning a medal in any sporting discipline, or excelling in academia, or for that matter, simply being recognized for excellence in any recognized discipline merits appreciation, then it baffles me why his film wasn’t. There was no recognition from government mandated organizations (but he did receive a wall of misspelt congratulations on Facebook; although he’d also gotten the same amount in a selfie dressed as a transgender vamp).
This seems to happen when art is generally misunderstood, and specifically scorned, as if making a film that probes an existential and philosophical question has nothing to do with our lives. Now besides films, the art of writing, whether it be in poetry or in prose, is also generally dismissed as mere hobby; indulged in by people who have nothing better to do. And painters, potters, photographers and sculptors also make up this club of seemingly dysfunctional weirdos who are zealously neglected and ignored by the government.
That is art, as envisioned by the powers that be, and their nonchalant attitude towards art forms, and folks who engage in the arts. Maybe I’m being a tad harsh here, as many of you will dig out the institutionalized name of the Zorig Chosum. And you’d be right, for the traditional thirteen arts and crafts keep alive our traditional arts and crafts. But art is also the best proponent of Buddhism’s most permanent theme; impermanence and change. And change of the sort that best mirrors what’s most influential in a given climate are the contemporary art forms of film, music, painting, photography, poetry, prose and etc.
In our rigid heads, art lies frozen. If it comes alive it is suspect to our petty and hasty judgments. And in our feudal minds, art lives hanging itself, framed in galleries. Committing suicide. Yet again dead. A piece of wood is a piece of wood. It’s anything but art (debatable, of course). But when a skilled artisan chisels that block of wood into a Takin, it’s transformed. That lifeless wood is now the national animal of Bhutan.
So what’s the big deal? The big deal is artists keep art alive. And art is culture. Made up of subjects that are current, as well as timeless. As a country, people, and a culture, we were all chiseled out of that same block of wood. Now what else can we chisel out is the artistic dilemma. Sometimes the expression itself is the solution, and the art. And why is that so important? Because without artistic engagement all we’d have is rotting wood.
Non-appreciation of the evolving role of art has meant the absence of artistic channels; such as platforms for the refinement of music, independent films, theater, photography, sculpture, pottery, and writing, besides many other mediums.
When people of the arts are neglected, culture, a living lineage, suffers an enforced death, and artists are effectively rendered social pariahs.
Such negligence results in an attitude of pathetic poverty; with an adamant refusal to let their minds grow expansive. The result is the proliferation of copycat-artists, with tacit acceptance and approval of the powers that be, into despairingly encouraged mediocrity. Of the kind society can do without. Like our commercial cinema. This is bad news for everyone. A culture in stagnancy is a culture in decline. Mediocrity will then reign supreme. And good art rejected.
Imitation maybe the best form of flattery, but it’s still a despicable copycat. But here it’s also the one most amply rewarded. And this reward comes at a high cost; the proliferation of the most common denominator of whatever’s fashionable in a given time; made up in generous doses of whatever’s the most current idea floating about that cesspool of mindless entertainment and wanton consumption.
Real artists and artisans, who value their mental creativity, and hence its physical expression, whether on film, canvas, musical sheet, or the paper, try and create works of art for the joy of the task, of transcendence, and never for the gory details of commerce.
Such minds should be valued. The grace and elegance of any given culture anywhere is often reflected in the kind of art they create. The mainstream will always be the mainstream. If the average American cultural orgasm was the popular movies they mass-produce in Hollywood, it would be a tragedy. Ditto for India and Bollywood. But we know what’s being shot and spun for the cash, and where real taste and class live. And these can be accessed in the cultural expressions of both countries. Via jazz, the blues, dance and theater, indie art and film, and so much more.
In our constipated minds, art is a man colorfully dressed lying dead in an open coffin, stale and inanimate; awaiting visitors. In a closed graveyard called the gallery. In our righteous outlook, culture is a seven letter word born, bred and living somewhere in a medieval age. In our self-satisfied sights, looking back is stepping towards the future. And the present is zealously guarding old decay. And in our smug know-how, art has got nothing to do with contemporary expressions of all that we hold high in the GNH pillars.
Every generation expresses themselves in the art form that attracts them best. It’s better to encourage such refinement in the arts than not. And by providing platforms that can help nurture their latent artistic leanings, art, artists and artisans just might save the day. Just as my friend intends to do with The Red Phallus, his next feature film. But first, he needs the cash. But I assure you, it will be worth your money. Should you give any.