Art, Culture and Identity – How Indian art represents the drive for human expression

Since the dawn of humanity, in all parts of the world, art has been created and exalted. Whilst the style, form and intention differ greatly from each artwork to the next, within them all exists a commonality – human expression.

From prehistoric cave paintings, to contemporary avant-garde; art can often be seen as representative of its cultural environment. For instance, the symbol of Buddha greatly influenced Indian artistic movements following the fall of the Maurya empire; whereas Indian art of the 1900s often represented a struggle for national identity in the context of British colonialism. In this vein, I believe that all art can be understood to represent some unique, and perhaps sometimes unexplainable, feature of human existence.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggests that art has an irreplaceable value because it allows us to engage with harsh and unexplainable features of life and existence. Referring to art, Nietzsche asks "What means have we for making things beautiful, attractive and desirable when they are not so?” The suggestion here is that via the artistic process, even the most undesirable aspects of life can be made beautiful. Taken further, this idea shows that despite the harsh realities that we must endure throughout life, art can help us to express or understand our struggle in a way that can enrich our lives.

This expression of struggle can be seen in both a personal and societal sense. The above work, The Thinker, is representative of this personal side. To me, it suggests a deep struggle for identity as the man’s disembodied features look back at him whilst his face remains hidden. The struggle to know oneself is something that all individuals must face, but with art, we can express and even appreciate it.

Art plays an immense role in the cultural identity of India. Throughout the Mughal empire (1526 to 1857), art was bold, colourful and rich, depicting legendary battles and royal courts. Similarly, the construction of the Taj Mahal in 1643 represents this proud and courageous national spirit. Compared to M.F Husain’s 1999 work Procession, who brilliantly uses his unique cubist style to demonstrate an amalgamation of British and Indian influences, clearly representative of the cultural struggle for a national Indian identity that has played a prominent role in the development of contemporary Indian art movements throughout the 1900s.

The variety of expression in Indian art is truly endless, from the veneration of religious symbols, to a modern call to unity against the Covid 19 pandemic. For example, War Against the Pandemic can be seen as an embodiment of a global optimism and ambition. All of humanity is unified by art and its ability to transcend the brutal and rigid reality of the world. Nietzsche views our artistic impulse as “an ardent desire to refashion the world”. This desire is what makes art and humanity inseparable, we will always seek to reimagine and express, freeing ourselves from the shackles of the limited natural world.

For each individual, art will have its own unique and undefinable value. Our natural drive to express ourselves, and to engage with the mysteries of the world, will constantly draw us to art and aesthetic appreciation. To view art solely in terms of its form and style is to miss the truly spectacular human quality that exists in all works of art. Existence, expression and identity will always be a complex, and perhaps ineffable, element of humanity and life; as such, we must give value to artistic processes that allow us to engage with these mysteries – because after all, to quote Edward Hopper, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.”

Article By: Alexei T Foster

Alexei recently attained his BA in Philosophy from University College London (UCL). He currently spends his time experiencing life in various cities across the UK whilst carrying out independent research of society, culture and philosophy.

A lifelong art enthusiast, he hopes to bring a unique perspective to The Connoisseur.

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