by Shujaat Mirza
“What’s madness but nobility of soul At odds with circumstance?” – Theodore Roethke
What confounds us also compels us to understand ourselves and the world at large. All art is about coming to grips with bouts of restless energy followed by moments of tranquility as we thrash around like fish out of water and once again go back into the sea. There is an ever-playing dynamic in the mad genius that prompts life itself to branch out into larger investigations and instigations into unknown truths to seek for a cerebral closure (or lapse into further confusion).
How does art enhance our understanding of life and at what precise point do we situate ourselves in a world populated by ideas that resonate and change our innate ability and veer our lives towards a newer nuance, when caught in a fulcrum of an unfolding scene or hidden in the folds of an enactment or a visual cue? Here I refer to art in its perhaps broadest sense to cover the entire gamut of cross-disciplinary exegesis, as it were, from cinema, to music, to performance, to painting, and so on.
This mediation on the idea of art as a transformative force emerged from my viewing of The Father (2020). The movie grapples with the complexity of the gradual onset of age-related dementia and succeeds in some measure to both explicate and implicate us in the dynamics of the haphazard, non-linear storyline. The narrative is so jumbled up that we almost enter the mind of the protagonist (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins) and his struggle to hold on to his sanity in a slowly slipping ground beneath him. The liminal moments between flickers of consciousness and delusions show us the uneasy roadmap that lies for anyone caught in a situation beyond his control and not of his making.
Still (screenshot) from the film The Father of the protagonist played by Sir Anthony Hopkins
Here the idea of art authentically representing an experience is one strand of the puzzle; the other is the inability of anyone to ever understand anything about life itself. Yet, the immense urge to express just that very elusive dimension is a dire necessity for an artist. The genius lies in making something of anything by owning it and living it. Art that consumes a creator brings out a truth burnished by a personal reality and hangs like a manifesto as well as a manifestation of the individual; the final product is a reflection of his or her artistic worth, inasmuch as all creation is judged on diverse parameters.
Here I will be using the movie itself as a referential in which the claustrophobic space of a flat is used to define the inner churning and the way any space itself is an intrusion. When the protagonist suddenly appears when his daughter is discussing him animatedly with her boyfriend, and catches them on the wrong foot, she has little choice but to gloss over it; the notion of whose claim to a place is more urgent becomes equally complex and intractable. Similarly, in art we see the struggle of artists to carve out a niche for themselves. But we see this is just not in art alone but life as well – how we create a space for ourselves is very much a factor of circumstances. With the space around us shrivelled into a bare essence of what our earlier lives were, the Covid pandemic gave us ample time to reflect upon our life.
Stills (screenshots) of Sir Anthony Hopkins towards the end of the movie
when he is crying at losing his moorings and sense of things
The idea of journey and introspection, of home and the outside, and of neglecting the self and exploring others is a fraught one and all art is also a deviation from norms. Painting a landscape inside the confines of our homes during the lockdown was also an act of dissension against the situation we found ourselves in. Art is after all in many parts about creating discomfort, since it leads on to the beginning of something new, and questioning our questions also leads us to unexpected answers. An artist can be both an object of ridicule and a seer of far-away truths; while one role is ascribed to him by society; the other is self-assigned.
Still (screenshot) of Sir Anthony Hopkins covering his face with his hands as he flinches being hit
Moving on to the movie, the most disturbing scene is when the daughter's boyfriend slaps the protagonist. It is the kind of truth that is out there as people dealing with a mentally ill person in a home space do resent him or her for taking so much of their time and sapping their energy. And when this is depicted second hand in cinema it is an affirmation of art as a medium to deal with the most uncomfortable of truths and place them for public viewing for everyone to see for themselves. Its remit is not to mince words and be subtle – even if it can be subtle and clever as well – but to show it as it is. This raw, unguarded reality is a penetrative realization that art imposes upon the audience. Hence art in most cases is a life-changing experience and closer to the skin than perhaps other things that are done in the world. It is more real and palpable because it exposes us and opens us to what we either don't see or miss out in our daily grind of living.
Eventually, art in many ways is a resolution. It brings us quietly to a place, guiding us, hand-holding us, where we can make a larger sense of our place in the world. Learning and unlearning go hand in hand and art makes this possible. Through the dimensions it opens up for us and takes us there, it enables us to make up our minds and or to grasp what is relevant to us, because just like art, viewing art is also a subjective experience. And just as the artist cannot anticipate the response to the work, each viewer comes with their own set of meanings and interpretations that they add to the work and embellish it. We see this in The Father when we see the total loss of every little bit of coherence as the protagonist cries like a child daunted by what was once the easiest thing to do: living. We see the nurse there for him and even in a world literally breaking apart, for all of us; similarly, in an ever-changing world, art provides us a respite, a chance to recuperate, to heal and to even release ourselves to the acceptance of the rhythms of providence, the limitations of our endeavours and go on from there to places that defy understanding and beyond the limits of our extensive remits. It is very much the same for me when writing this, as I’m in the process of committing pen to paper or more correctly, keyboard to the open document on the screen. Life and art are too intermingled and interconnected for the intercourse to break except in newer, unique iterations. Newer horizons and universes open up even as some doors get closed.
Still (screenshot) of the protagonist (Sir Anthony Hopkins) being discussed by
his daughter and her boyfriend
It is perhaps fitting that in the movie the aria, “Je crois entendre encore” from Georges Bizet's opera, "Les Pêcheurs de Perles", where the character reflects on the memory of the beautiful priestess he fell in love with, plays in the background. It beautifully connects the journey of a person struggling with dementia holding on to life, that's slipping from his hands, through the summoning of nostalgia and also points to how life is also like art a play within a play, connecting us to disparate moments and diverse experiences that combine to form the personhood that defines each of us.
In a way, art justifies itself by justifying life in its myriad shades, shapes and combinations, none less worthy than the other, our choices being just a matter of our taste, learning, predilection or upbringing. In that sense, art is contextual as well as continual, defined by our needs and circumstances and callings. Whatever is urgent and necessary is art. And art itself is hence urgent and necessary and completes us by enhancing our experiential world into something larger than us.
[Still images (screenshots) courtesy of the author, Shujaat Mirza]
Shujaat Mirza is an intrepid art aficionado, curator and critic, with a passion for multidisciplinary art. His primary area of interest is art at the intersection of visual aesthetics and verbal semantics. He is also a poet and writer and his work has been published online as well as in literary magazines.