On art and heritage
The first topic brought up by Disappearing Dialogues by Nobina Gupta is that of the time flow. Mentioning the search and the building of a common heritage as a stage for dialogue, one takes in account the percolation of time on our lives. Whatever the transmission of values, competences, beliefs or narratives, one inherits from someone or something in another and often remote time. It may be relevant to reverse the postures of the heritage adventure. Through brutal accidents, slow evolutions or human decisions, time is the great transformer of our very day-to-day life. Or, better said, what we call time is the manifestation of transformations that hit every single aspect of the world, from a morning sorrow to the travel of the light in our universe. Whereas all ideas, social habits, deities, cities, human artifacts are transformed by time, we tend to take for granted many of those transformations and store this confused bundle in a blurred and lazy ignorance. Like the snake only sees what moves, humans only name and recall what they have seen moving, what has obviously been affected by the running time flow. Since we have spotted them, some of the features coming from faraway epochs are captured in our time, to which they now belong. Some are not or rather not integrated in our present time; thus easily forgotten. Yet everything is constantly transformed and what we call time is our explanation of those transformations. Time is a mysterious concept carved by most human cultures to account for the perceptible transformations in the universe. What we call heritage is today's rewind on the transformations at work, a glance on the rear mirror, an opportunity to cast a nostalgic or a disdainful eye on the transformations that have affected our surroundings: to consider the benefits or the grievances of time.
Humans have a passionate relation with past time and, differently in different cultures, they have invented words and tools to report this relation. In India as well as in Europe, we call memory one of the mental tools that help us sort out words and images, habits and beliefs gathered from other times, be the gatherer conscious or not and be the gathering instruments faithful or distorting. The other tool, we call history. History is an organised discourse on memorized facts. Whereas history pretends to give a rigorous or, say, scientific image of past periods of time, memory avows the subjectivity of the person or the group of people mentioning deeds, words or events. Philosopher Bergson used to say that memory is nothing but an extension of our affects, of our private or collective emotions. We remember what has moved us; we memorize what we loved, liked, enjoyed, feared or hated. We tend to forget what only glides above our days and feelings. Heritage belongs both to memory and to history. It is a memory that scholars or politicians, for different reasons, would like to get legitimized into history. It is an aspect of our memory that we want to revive or dump out. Heritage displays the facets of our culture that we crave to enhance or to forget.
Like everything linked with emotions, human memory is unpredictable. It comes and goes according to events upon which we have little power; it is hardly reliable. We don't exactly know what suddenly recalls a memory, a name, a face, a number, an accident or a sentiment; all the more so that memory plays with our dreams and our secret desires. We tend to idealize, for the better or for the worse, figures, ideas, images that are carried along in our collective unconscious and through the filters of our present time. When it is question of memory, we are entangled in a world of fantasies, hopes, unmentionable intentions or fears. We only have a faint idea of what we inherit through vehicles as powerful and untrustworthy as families, religious systems, casts, nations or languages, all those vehicles of heritage that come from vanishing times, mingle with one another, compete, collaborate and evolve. What we call our heritage is what we consider a message from the past; then what we pretend to recognize as particular traits or features that we are attached with or repulsed by. Memory is beyond good and bad, it has no moral value. Heritage attests to the temptation to give an ethic of the time flow.
One problem with heritage is that each cultural, biological, anthropological or material feature is likely to dig in several periods of time, often coming from different horizons and being variously interpreted by an indefinite number of human groups. Each particular aspect of a heritage, say the design of a fabric or a famous city or a powerful personality, comes from a muddled cluster of faraway epochs and shores. But what we are most interested in, with heritage, is that it offers as well, many possible interpretations of what such fabric design means and which loom is best for which type of textile; what such city evokes for us and the strangers; why such or such personality is so higly considered. We inherit who we are in our becoming, in our brief roaming: we inherit our DNA, our languages, our sexual practices, our feeding and playing habits, we inherit a specific way to raise our children, make our living, express our joys and pains, forget our sorrows, seduce and break off, wage wars and search peace. We inherit what makes us who we are today on our way to something called the future. But what we call and name our heritage is what we cherish in our deepest desires or hate out of our sharpest fears. Heritage is the arrow of our risky becoming.
There comes the second question raised by Nobina's work: what is the process of heritage? From our DNA to the most insignificant sleight of hand, since time embraces everything, heritage is everywhere to be found and felt. What we are and what we do, what we feel and what we want: we inherit everything. We are involved without our consent in the dynamic of a continuous transformation in which we are but brief passengers. What is worth casting a sharper glance at is the shape of the heritage pattern? Is it a single straight line or is it rather an entangled bundle of converging lines? I mean, do we inherit from ancestors on a single line that can be named ours in order to distinguish ourselves from the others? Or do we borrow from several side providers of the transmission in order to bridge the gap between us and them? Is heritage inclusive or is it exclusive? Today, at least, the answer is that of a multiple heritage from the indefinite providers of our versatile experience. Some events like those called revolutions, some movements like exile or some harsh infringements like destroying shrines, tend to reset our posture on the time flow. But they can only use the materials at hands reach. It is possible, although dubious, that in other moments of human history, heritage has followed rather single lines, giving sense to what anthropologists call lineages. In our global twenty-first century, though, we inherit from so many periods of our past and from so many strange people that tracking some kind of straight line in this shamble is hopeless: how can we deal with this changing, shining and mysterious kaleidoscope? We even inherit from cultures, times, peoples and symbols of which we do not know anything.
At this point, it is important to recall that heritage, or more generally what bonds people together, doesn't have to be scientifically backed. It doesn't have to be historically supported. I don't mean that it doesn't have to be true, for truth is another matter, but it doesn't have to be factualy grounded. Whatever happened between Ram and Krishna in the Khandava forest, the Mahabharata is part of a universal heritage. Notwithstanding, only to be perceptible, a heritage has to belong to a shared narrative. Heritage has to conform to some kind of common sense reality. For instance, if some French politicians claim that France, being a collaborating country of the Human rights adventure, should be heard as such on the world stage, this statement only makes sense if this country fights and acts today as a human rights activist. Because, as linked with history, heritage is ambivalent. It may be vaguely seen, appraised, measured. But, based on a volatile or subjective memory, heritage also belongs to the fantasies of mythology where the ground is joyfuly slippery. In a myth, what is said, read, understood and eventually believed is more important than what is attested by scholars. Mythology is not a lie: it is the way to recall, through a symbolic language, a real cultural trait of today's transformations. This is why art, being beyond truth or lie, is a precious way to understand and to display heritage; it is the medium par excellence. It is, together with cooking, love making or perhaps laughing, one of the few possible bridges between humans.
Art acts as a metaphorical fabric bonding many cultural traits in what seems a coherent legacy. This may be one of the major hypothesis of Nobina's project. Art is therein introduced as one of the silent links between humans, one of the few open spaces of a common understanding. Yet, we don't really know what art is. In Nobina's work, we see landscapes, smiles and clothing as obvious manifestations of an artistic sensitivity. Or, rather, if we have an idea of what art is for twenty-first century CE middle class urban dwellers, we also know that brilliant non-urban cultures have produced magnificent artifacts that we classify as art when those who produced it don't even think of it. Many of those broadly admired artifacts, like a greeting ceremony, a ritual instrument or a footbridge across the gulch, are not considered artistic by their original authors. Sometimes, the kinship between artifacts of remote origins is obvious, sometimes it is confusing. When the Europeans discovered the African masks in the early twentieth century, they instantly incorporated them into the huge and indiscriminant basket of art where they had been dismissed for so long. Yet we know from witnesses and actors that these artifacts were not conceived, didn't appear, were not admired, displayed and sometimes acquired like impressionist canvases or Broadway theatre plays. The distinctive category of art doesn't belong to all civilizations or is sometimes confused with sacred rites or power tools. Nevertheless, both the African mask and the Broadway play adopt a symbolic language to express feelings, emotions, attachments, a symbolic language that may move anyone. No explanations, ideas, arguments or projects. Art is the huge territory of what reaches humans as sensitive beings, not as reasonable actors. Even when carried by words, art doesn't convince, but moves people. Art and memory are of the same emotional matter. From what I understand, Nobina's bet is that one of the major aspect of heritage is that the converging lines of our culture, including international exhibitions and disappearing ways of life, bound different gangs of people with shared emotions. What counts here is the sharing.
This is where the metaphor of heritage, like any metaphor, starts wobbling. First because, as we have just noticed, heritage is indefinite. It has no limit. In a global world and even when living in the far off Himalayas, one can transmit to and collect from an indefinite number of sources. It's a Criss-cross game. Second, because we can appraise, among the many cultural traits that are part of possible heritages, which ones are relevant for us, which ones we like and want to enhance; and which we fear or would rather dump in the black hole of oblivion. This is the great power of heritage: freedom of interpretation and compliance. We can claim that our heritage is mainly philosophical or basically architectural or fundamentally artistic; we can grab what is near in time and geography; we can opposite-way incorporate distant, even blurred cultural traits that we shall name our common good or consider a part of our intimate culture. We can link our heritage with religious beliefs or languages, we can skip self-proclaimed evidences and catch any incoherent manifestation of life on earth as a heritage. By discussing the kinship Indians have with the Taj Mahal or with Ambedkar's deeds and writings for instance, some people and political organizations enter choices that have deep and long repercussions on the Indian mindset and on Indian politics.
The third or fourth question raised by Nobina's work addresses the subject of the heritage adventure. Who inherits? It may be comfortable to ignore this subject and postpone the embarrassing issue to a blurred future. It is often assumed that humanity at large is the broad and vague actor of the heritage adventure. It may be the case in some aspects of Nobina's research, like her organic paintings. But one day, or at one point in the development of such a work, one should designate the authors of the transmission: who hands out and who receives. Sometimes, several scales of gathering may simultaneously or sequentially claim the same heritage. For instance, a traditional herbal medical system can be claimed as part of the tribal heritage of such group of people living in such forest; it can also be staked out by the global Indian culture that encompasses this disappearing tribe; and it can be claimed by humanity as a reminder of a hunting and gathering tradition, so insightful in our time. At one point the author has to be specified because the specific group of people demanding such heritage will define itself through this demand. By disputing the city of Ayodhya between rival religious authorities, heritage becomes a tug of war. By claiming this architectural heritage as an Indian one, it becomes a common treasure that stimulates cross understanding between groups with various beliefs and, as Spinoza or Krishnamurty would have perhaps said, it enhances joy.
As a matter of fact, what one proclaims his/her heritage speaks about who one is now and who one wants to become next. It draws a road map. Being free of what one wants to inherit and who one wants to inherit from, a claimed heritage is a marker of the dynamic of a specific civilization. One is free to claim any cultural traits as his/her heritage. In other words, heritage helps one to know oneself better; and it helps a definite culture to understand itself from within, if a within makes sense. Heritage, as an opportunity for emotional misunderstandings that demand to be solved, opens and stimulates a dialogue within each and every community. All in all, every human collectivity, whether nation, family, tribe, gang, village, caste, faith or gender, potentially inherits from everyone everywhere. Be it organized or fantasied, every collection of people defines itself through an instinctive choice of cultural references; thus defines itself through the multiple heritages gathered throughout immemorial times. What makes heritage so precious in our century of great disorder, is that it offers so many opportunities to recognize and be recognized by others. The debate on heritage is a hot one today, pretending to oppose religious rituals, languages and borders in order to define, distinguish and oppose groups, nations or creeds. The great asset of art as a global heritage is that, by offering to share emotions, it opens to sharing the world.
Nobina Gupta was one of my students when I facilitated in October 2013 an online workshop named "Visions of the land in India," then in March 2018 a philosophy seminar organized in Kolkata by MACE and called "The devil's advocate". In both situation she proved to be one of the brightest and most involved participants. Nobina is a worldwide reknowned visual artist and also what I dare to call an art activist. Not only does she produce paintings, sculptures or installations that seduce many with a fascinating originality and a great elegance, but she considers that her role as an artist is also to set up art in general, and her creations in particular, as a medium between people. Nobina is moved by a basic anthropological fact that moved Levi-Strauss in the fifties the same way: the dialogue between the globalized world and some very rare pockets of marginalized tribes, villages or families, the cultures of whom are disappearing in the mist of a fast oblivion; then the loss of what we see as magnificent yet desperate ways of being humans on a shared earth. She sent me her writings and images on the subject (Disappearing Dialogues) and asked me if I could comment them. This is my comment, turned into a blog post.