Art is for the sake of art

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“Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Art, I mean drawing, is a wonderful subject. It is a subject that is included in Sri Lanka’s school curriculum from Pre-school to Advanced Level. It is compulsory till students have the freedom to choose an aesthetic subject for their ordinary level examination. At the Advanced Level class art is offered as a subject and then at the Universities, art is offered as a Degree.

However, Sri Lanka, a country that can boast of a rich legacy of arts, especially, wall paintings, over time sadly seems to be lacking the richness, vibrance, and quality of our arts as seen in the past. We had produced some of the world’s best art specimens such as the Sigiriya wall paintings and the Dambulla cave temple wall paintings and many more. These are considered World Heritage and valued for their extraordinary beauty and skill. Places like Ridi Vihare temple, Degal Doruwa cave temple, and Thelwatta ancient temple are considered Art Galleries as their walls are filled with exquisite wall paintings.

For centuries, starting from prehistoric drawings to the classical period arts of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa and the post-classical period arts of the Kandiya period and Southern Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka has developed an unmatchable legacy of a painting culture. These paintings were done using naturally produced paint, locally manufactured by local ingredients, and some imported ingredients. They have lasted for more than 15 centuries, continuing to awe the world.

During colonial times, Sri Lankan painters led by M.Sarlis, used ‘art’ as a tool to foster patriotism and religious sentiments among the people. He painted scenes from the life of the Buddha, sent them to Europe and mass-printed them with a beautiful gloss finish, and distributed among Sri Lankans. Those who used to display photographs of the British king or queen eventually replaced them with these Buddhist paintings. His paintings became iconic and are still hung at local households. His work was heavily influenced by European religious painting styles.

Solias Mendis was another revolutionary painter of Sri Lanka and the great master who painted at the Kelaniya Rajamaha vihare, which is his masterpiece. He bridged our classical period painting styles, with Indian classical Buddhist paintings and brought them to the present.

During the late 20th century many iconic Sri Lankan painters painted non-religious scenes and added a new impetus to Sri Lankan art.

Yet today, what has happened to the arts of Sri Lanka? Although this seems to be a positive trend, our arts did not develop as it did in Europe during the 20th century.

Although we have arts as a Degree and also offered for higher Degree programmes, and we have the best quality imported art materials, and easy access to learning materials, our arts have fast lost its splendour and quality. Has offering Art Degrees, and preparing students for competitive examinations made art lose its true purpose?

Have arts merely become a Degree and job?

We see many artists today but most of their work have lost its originality and has moved on to ‘represent the chaos’ in the mind of the artist. Techniques and methods are often seen as abandoned and a raw line or a shape and a splash of raw colours are seen splashed on the surface carelessly; abstract they call them.

The world is already in chaos and why do we need more of them? Art is seeing the beauty in the world around you and helping others to see it too. Art is a pure form of human talent and not a talent to be misused.

A country which had produced art materials; today we import almost all quality art materials. Manufacturing art materials is also a subject that can be taught in the school art syllabus and also become a source of encouragement for potential local entrepreneurs in that field.

As the early 19th century French philosopher, Victor Cousin, said, “art for art’s sake; it is not to serve any purpose such as politics or social. Art is beauty and it is to express or recreate beauty. When art is used to serve commercial or political or social purposes, it loses its grace, originality, and pureness. However, many may disagree with me on this.”

Nevertheless, in our education system, art should be taught for the sake of art, not to prepare students to face competitive examinations. Students should be allowed and guided to explore the world of art and not to by-heart lessons for a written paper. Completing a drawing should be given freedom and not be advised to be done under limitations and strict deadlines.

Art is also therapeutic as it has a tendency to soothe and heal a person. It is also a remedy for many mental illnesses. Art also helps a child to grow as a sensitive and sensible human being. Introducing arts as a competitive exam-oriented subject surely has an impact that students are straying from arts and seeing it as a boring subject.

Therefore, the subject of art should is free from examinations. It should be a therapeutic period in school where students can explore the world of colours and shapes, freely and happily.

The purpose of teaching art in schools and universities in Sri Lanka should be to produce another M. Sarlis, a Monet, a Constable, or a Rembrandt. Our purpose should be to produce a world-class masterpiece such as Sigiriya frescoes, a Monalisa, or a Potato-eaters and not to boast about the number of Distinction passes or first-class degrees and talented graduates who can reproduce a Van Gogh painting.

“Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.” – Banksy

By Ama H.Vanniarachchy