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Does it qualify as art?

  • Published at 12:03 am November 17th, 2016
Does it qualify as art?

“What can I do with this one, Aphrodite? She … won’t … stay … still. I want to make them beautiful, but they always turn out wrong. That one, too fat! This one, too tall!” exclaims the mentally unhinged Doctor Steinman as he viciously tears apart a patient in his quest for attaining the perfect human form in one gruesome scene in the original BioShock game.

The aforementioned Steinman was at first no sociopath. Merely a well-meaning physician who in the would-be utopian world of Rapture, the game’s setting, was overwhelmed at the prospect of certain genetic engineering breakthroughs which, quite literally, among many other things, would allow surgeons to sculpt their patients in ways previously unimagined. Thus, he concludes, that it is but the duty of surgeons to help people realise their ideal shape, a philosophy he sums up as: “Aesthetics is a moral imperative.”

Substitute the word aesthetics with good art, literature, or music, and you would have arrived at the implicit motto of critics. And much like Steinman, the ruthless savagery with which they concoct their scathing criticism, all in the name of good art or proper literature, to me, seems misguided.

Take what Virginia Woolf had to say on James Joyce’s Ulysses in her diary: “An illiterate, under-bred book it seems to me -- the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating; never did any book so bore me.” Or here is what HL Mencken, a critic and journalist of prominence, had to say on The Great Gatsby: “No more than a glorified anecdote.”

Or a more relevant case for us Bangladeshis would be the unkind words DL Ray had for the eventual Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Ray’s comment on Tagore roughly paraphrases as such: “Resorts to forced style and uses borrowed language.”

And speaking of Nobel Laureates, many are still wondering if Bob Dylan deserves to be in the same rank as Hemingway, Morrison, Kipling, or our very own Tagore. Some would point out that Bob Dylan’s win is yet another case of the Nobel committee making a bad decision.

After all, some would argue, this same committee decided to give it a pass when it came to Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov. Names that nowadays are deified in the pantheon of literature, with literature professors singing praise to them and the aficionados speaking of them in hushed awe. And thus, some conclude, that this is proof enough that the Nobel committee had failed in its duty as the arbitrator of great literature.

The ruthless savagery with which they concoct their scathing criticism, all in the name of good art or proper literature, to me, seems misguided

But I am inclined to ask if it makes any sense at all to have any arbitrator at all? Be it a body of connoisseurs or some other individual pundit.

For can we truly establish an objective yardstick to gauge the arts, in whatever form it decides to manifest itself? Progress was made in the natural sciences when Newton realised there is no privileged frame of reference to measure motion and Einstein deduced the same for time.

Similarly, can we not argue that art needs not to be art only because some intellectuals -- a privileged frame of reference -- had declared it so?

Does art not reside in the eyes of the beholder?

In the end, art is not an object. Rather, an experience. One that arises in the transcendental interaction of the mind and the work it beholds.

The goosebumps one gets when listening to inspiring music, or the immersive feel one gets in reading a novel he comes to love, or the sense of awe in beholding a painting.

And, as with all human experiences fundamentally personal, no two experiences are quite the same.

Does this truly give one the liberty to define one form of experience as the only form of experience to be worth having?

And in our zeal to define the perfect form of art, rather than being content with a more inclusive stance, we, much in the way the unhinged Steinman will only commit grotesque butchery and nothing more, say: I want beautiful art. This one too prudish! That is too ornate, and those are too abstract!

Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza is a freelance contributor.