The Place of Art


K Madhavan

Photographic arts differ from other forms in a number of ways. For one, it is barely two centuries old. Music and painting on the other hand, began thousands of years ago. There is a vastly more defined, more basic, more practical nature to photography, even as it became predominantly used as a way to communicate. In this, it is more akin to the development of language, more than other arts. Of course, arts like music have their own language too. But certain aspects of the spoken and written word are unique in their requirement to transmit meaning—the exactness in symbolism, the need for immediacy, and the fidelity with which ideas are delivered. And as with photography, not everyone who can speak, read and write, have the gift of eloquence, of poetry, or of creation.

Creativity is a universal inheritance though. Every living organism that made it through billions of years of evolution have it, and have survived because of it. If you think of it, species that thrived have migrated and explored, have a more varied diet, and have made extremely harsh environments their home. And as they moved apart, a single predominant necessity differentiated humans from all other creatures—the need to communicate, effectively and immediately, over large distances—eventually leading to discoveries that changed everything.

It began with the invention of language, and ways to send language over vast distances, the telegraph, radio, and the printing press, and when language and illustration was not enough, photography, cinema, television and the internet. We invented ways to maintain identity by forming religion and philosophy, social norms and societies. And then ways for individualism to exist within the collective. In this, humans distinguished themselves in a singularly brilliant aspect. Among all the hundreds of thousands of species on the planet, this sharing of knowledge, quickly and precisely, allowed human intellect to move beyond the usual creative solving of problems, and beyond the design of various forms to function. It allowed humans to imagine and visualise, and to build on what exists. Humans are the only species on the planet that willfully produces art. And appreciate it such that artists can seek a livelihood in the creation of their art.

It does takes an extraordinary mind to produce art. The investments of learning, time, practice, and emotions are often extreme. I remember reading an interview with David Hockney, one of the most celebrated photographic artists of our times, where he described his process for some of his most well known works as a descent into madness. But putting art and artists on a pedestal belies its true nature. Where would we, in the most pedestrian sense, be without fashion, architecture, design, photography, or entertainment? Without information highways and national highways? Or, for that matter, a bit of engaging conversation, or a memory from a photo in a wallet, or mother’s secret recipes? It really does take all kinds of art—the ones we take for granted, and the works that inspire us and compel us to be better—to remember our place and get us interested in other places, to give us our identities, to provide reasons to keep seeking, to move forward, and eventually, to define who we truly are.

The photographers featured in this issue are all exhibiting at the Chennai Photo Biennale 2019, which will take place shortly. Many of them will be present there, conducting workshops and speaking about their projects at talks that will be freely open to all. As a magazine on the photographic arts, it becomes both our prerogative and duty to support wonderful initiatives like this. For readers, who will get a glimpse into the works and minds of these artists in these pages, do visit the Chennai Photo Biennale. It offers an excellent opportunity to be there, interact, and truly ‘see’, in a much larger context.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: K Madhavan Pillai, music, better photography, art, Editorial, david hockney, Painting, February 2019, Chennai Photo Biennale 2019