Subjective Artistic Experience

For a while now, I have been pondering about re-engaging with music, and speaking with some friends about it. A brief context here would help: I began learning/singing Karnatic Music from the age of 4 (of course, at that age, whatever noise I made could not be called ‘singing’ but my mother and sister were/are singers and I would always ‘sing’ along). Music represented various things to me then: performing was cathartic; it was also an identity-marker in various contexts. Since moving abroad and a couple of years leading up to the move, I have not been singing owing to practical reasons such as relocation, etc. I, then, started my PhD on music in India (to include film and folk music- the categories are unstable but I won’t go into that issue here) and narrowed it down, in my first year of doctoral study, to Karnatic Music, a tradition that (I thought) I knew best.

Doing a PhD thesis on Karnatic Music has been a very interesting journey. I began the study thinking that I knew what Karnatic Music was, what the music, the tradition and the community meant to me. During the PhD, my pre-conceived understandings were challenged to a point were I felt that my understandings were being ‘disproved.’ It felt like some kind of existential crisis, but PhD being a kind of self-reflective exercise, does involve such experiences. (My supervisor once suggested that I blog about it whilst going through these crises, but I didn’t. Well, at least now I’m doing it…!) The crisis was due a specific reason: learning music from the age of 4 meant that I learned music as a language, alongside English and Tamil! Post-PhD, I have a completely different (and sometimes unclear) understanding of what Karnatic Music means to me. (I visualize these transformations in understanding almost like a sine curve in mathematics).

There are several arguments that need to be considered here. Firstly, of course, arguably it was my understanding that was ‘disproved’. However, my understanding, at that time at least, was what I had picked up (from the age of 4) from the community I grew up in. The cathartic, yogic, identity-marker that music was to me at that time, was a product of the social structures within which the Karnatic Music community existed. Therefore, I’d argue there that my understandings reflected the structures (by structures, I mean, the contexts within which the art was performed or experienced and the resulting social structures) put in place by and within the community. Secondly, the PhD enabled me to critically analyze the problematic structures of Karnatic Music (not a very popular argument… let the criticisms begin to pour…), patriarchy being one. Therefore, to engage with music as I used to seemed and seems problematic on multiple levels. I felt as if the PhD had rendered my language of music unstable and personally, not dependable.

Whilst attempting to understand these questions, I have a) tried singing, again; b) considered learning a musical instrument in a different tradition; c) habitually listened to music in the hope that it’ll give me an epiphany as to why I should continue singing; d) I even visited a childhood friend, a singer herself, in the hope that she would guide me to that epiphanic moment. No such moment arrived, obviously, because I am writing this blog. But these issues point to two other issues: a) the argument that any established music tradition (or art, in general) has such (may not be similar) problematic structures; b) also, isn’t interpretation of (any) art, by its very nature, subjective? Both arguments are interrelated, in that, can we, then, ignore the structures put in place that defines the art (as such) and focus on our subjective experiences of the art? Even if certain social structures (such as patriarchy) are something that we critique on a daily basis? Would such art still remain meaningful to us because we are choosing those aspects (contexts) of the art that are important to us? In other words, are we not decontexualizing the art by ignoring certain problematic issues of the social structure? On a personal level, what other art could I engage with, instead of music? Finally, what ‘art for art’s sake’ means in this context?

These questions are central to my understanding and my attempts to re-engage with Karnatic Music. I have been introduced to and following works of some artists (musicians, photographers, etc) and I constantly wonder how they negotiate these issues. Thus, to provide some clarity, I am pondering over the issues of interpretation of an art- not in the sense of whether or not the audiences would understand and interpret a particular performance or an exhibit as intended by the author/photographer/performer. Rather, my question is if the artistic experience is informed by the contexts within which it is being performed, exhibited and experienced, what is this ‘experience’ we talk about and what tools do we use to have such an experience and understanding it?

One might say, ‘why these questions? Just pick something that you would like to do!’ Therein lies the issue I am writing about. Embodiment is central to creativity and when we embody what we perform, these issues (amongst others!) come into focus and need to be negotiated. Much as we, as a society, constantly attempt to frame our lives into oversimplified narratives, there is an inherent ‘messiness’ in these issues that we negotiate constantly. Hence, what if the art is about personal salvation rather than social justice? What if it reinforces patriarchal norms or class/caste norms? Can I ignore these aspects and focus on the cathartic value it has in my life? The overarching question then is: what is the role of an(y) art in the society? How does one negotiate the subjective artistic experience, the contexts of the art and the idealized notion of art that we hold?

Perhaps I could take up painting or photography (not that I can do any of it!). A close friend gave me some art supplies recently in the hope that I would get in touch with my creative side (assuming I have not exhausted it on the PhD). It, again, made me wonder about the distinction (if there are any) between performance arts and visual arts. I notice that these are rather unstable categories. But there is a normative understanding to these categories: performance arts are, for instance, music and dance, whilst visual arts are painting, photography, etc (as if one watches a dance performance with their eyes closed! Those Karnatic musicians don’t wear expensive saris and jewellery at performances for nothing). For now, if we stay with these categories and their understandings, would artistic experience, from the perspective I have discussed above, be different between performance arts and visual arts, for the artistes and the audience?

Perhaps a page with paintings and photographs will appear on this blog as I explore these issues further.