Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Ars Gratis Artis

I have finally acquired my own set of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a trilogy in five parts written by Douglas Adams (known as DNA to his countless fans throughout the galaxy and perhaps the most popular man now at the restaurant at the end of the universe – Elvis comes a close second). I read the five books around three years back and kept reading them again and again even though it meant bunking all my classes (which I did very gladly anyway). Our world lost a truly unique man on 11th May 2001. May his towel come in handy.

After reading a recent entry on Pracci’s blog and following the ongoing battle of wits and slandering in her comments section I decided to investigate this need to be a member of one cult group or another. Why is it that we feel the need to identify ourselves as ‘Metallica’ fans, ‘Harry Potter’ zealots and ‘Stanley Kubrick’ aficionados? Before going any further let me clear my own stance on this subject. I am a die hard buff of the following people and their work:

Note – A list of favourite films, books, TV sitcoms, performers, etc. would be endless and require a Herculean effort to prepare from my side (maybe I will do it). These are the people I worship

Al Pacino
Charlie Chaplin

Douglas Adams

Hobbes (not the philosopher because he was a materialist)


Ingrid Bergman

Jim Carrey

JRR Tolkien

Mel Blanc

Oscar Wilde


Quentin Tarantino

Roger McGough

Vivien Leigh

Yoda (I know he isn’t real, but that is the greatest tragedy of this world)

These are the names that come to my mind at this moment. There may be others but more on that later. The point of this list was to show that I am inclined in a rather extreme way to follow other people and their work and worship it. I also spend a lot of time discussing the philosophy behind a particular work.

A friend (Blue pussy I think) once said that the reason people become admirers is because of peer pressure, they like Lord of the Rings because every other person claims to be a fan. I completely disagree. Yes, there are those who could claim to be adherents of a particular film/book/actor because all their other friends are claiming the same thing. But I don’t think a 20 something guy/girl would claim to be a Harry Potter fan until and unless they really adore the books (I like the books but Rowling has a lot to learn about fantasy writing). The reason why you love something is quite hard to explain. Often the reason turns out to be quite trivial. Take for example Tarantino. All his movies are pointless, lack any coherent story and yet are so entertaining and visually stunning that he is regarded by many as a master director and story writer.

But recently I have seen another trend. Most people would claim to hate an otherwise popular book/movie just to appear different and stand out. Some of them haven’t even taken the effort to go through the books which they claim to hate so much. These are the people who are in a cult of their own – the cult of the We-Don’t-Like-Cults.

But wait. There was something else that I had in mind. The real question (three of them actually) in my mind was the following – does the creator of fiction (writer/director/actor/painter) always put his own personal philosophy forward through the medium of his work? Should the receiver (reader/viewer) really be forming his own personal philosophy based on somebody else’s work? Is it necessary for art to have a meaning, a message?

The answer to all the questions according to me is no. Great books which changed the way people thought or which were at least aimed at trying to change people are few in number. And yet I believe that a work of art is not necessarily a projection of the creator’s philosophy. It could be, but not always. A writer for example chooses a particular set of principles for his book. They could be similar to his beliefs but could also be their exact opposite. His integrity, and therefore the book’s integrity, lies in his staying true to the set of principles he has selected for his book, not in his following his own personal philosophy (which could be a superset of the book’s principles).

Example – Thomas Harris has created perhaps the greatest villain of our times – Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal loves human flesh and has killed many. Yet for some reason we find ourselves attracted towards him and are rooting for him when he is going on a killing spree. That is called integrity. Harris has remained true to his character even though he himself might be disgusted at the idea of killing and eating another human being. He has succeeded in creating a character we fear and love at the same time. There is never a sudden change of heart where Lecter is himself disgusted with his habits. A part of him is evil and is convinced of its own superiority and its right to kill and eat the ones who don’t deserve to live. Lecter is the law. He punishes. Does that mean that it is Harris’ belief that a man should take the law into his own hands and go about killing people who end up on his wrong side? I think not.

A better example would me Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Humbert Humbert is a pervert and ruins the life of Dolores Haze (Lolita) and yet the reader feels his pain and the reader’s heart goes out to him. Yeah so he did some regrettable things and fell in love with such a young girl. But Humbert has our sympathies. Nabokov’s descriptions of Humbert’s fantasy at first shock us but slowly we get involved with it because of Nabokov’s beautiful word play. Now that is integrity. The writer does not approve of child molesters and perverts and yet he has created a very endearing character that does such abominable things. The reader can actually feel himself giving advice to Humbert – don’t do it man, it isn’t worth it, she isn’t worth it. Your sympathies don’t go out to the nymphet Lolita, which in retrospect seems strange.

Douglas Adams loved science and believed in it. He knew its limitations and yet believed in its greatness. Still in his work we only see him bashing science and just showing its extreme limitations. His books are covered from page to page with eastern philosophy’s simple rules - there is no coincidence (which perhaps makes all science useless), things happen for a reason, all things in this universe are completely interconnected. And though these are parts of his personal philosophy some aspects of his books are contrary to his otherwise western ideas.

On the question whether art should have a meaning, I believe meaning is overrated. There is no need that a book should have a message. It could be plain old Pulp Fiction. It is in no way the creator’s responsibility to give a message to his audience. I believe in the aesthetic movement – art for art’s sake – ars gratis artis. Ars gratis hominis doesn’t make sense because I don’t think that the artist is answerable to, nor has an obligation towards the audience. It could have a message and the audience is free to interpret it any which way they want. So I give my thumbs up to David Lynch’s latest movies (his old stuff like the Elephant man is pure gold but his latest stuff is just his self-expression and nothing more). This brings me to the second question.

If the art does have meaning/message, is it necessary for us to intellectualize about it? Yes. But do we form our own philosophy based on it? No. Any form of art even if it rambles on for thousands of pages cannot be kept as a basis for a complete set of human principles. Rand’s and Salinger’s characters are too idyllic for the real world and wouldn’t survive in it. One could appreciate their traits but could not live their life by them. A man/woman who does not compromise would never enjoy his existence because he/she would never find love. And what is life without love. And though Roark found love, it was only in fiction. He would not continue to be in love if he doesn’t compromise.

So read/watch books/movies, have fun interpreting them and worshipping their creators, but don’t lead your life by their support. Books/movies make great companions but if they are your only companions then you are in trouble. So I am in trouble. I need to get out and get some fresh air. Maybe I should go out with some friends for a movie.

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