[5 MINUTE READ] Is it time for the imagination of artists to moderate the extremes of the modern economy?
I was at the Kochi Biennale a few weeks ago. The curator’s message spoke about the search for a non-alienated life, one that is not led in the service of capital. Where the images and slogans force fed to us as consumers do not become the sole prism through which we see the world.
It captured the essence of art, as a sincere exploration of the truth and the diverse pathways towards it. As I experienced its varied voices of expression, it felt like the revival of a forgotten language.
If science and commerce are traditionally seen as more outward facing, and art and culture as more introspective, it is when both blend themselves together that the most interesting outcomes are observed.
Poems from the ground
At the biennale, I saw a documentary film shot during the 90s in the carnage scene of the erstwhile textile district of Mumbai. One of the narrators was a poet, mill worker and trade union activist who grew up as an orphan and died in that district. As he spoke, behind him stood a machine that had grown mute and begun to rust. A backdrop that had lost its sense of utility and organisation. He said the inspiration for his art was drawn from the poignant contrasts and inflicted failures of ordinary life. From reading people and the conditions in which they live. He said books could lie, but reality couldn’t.
In a civilization that gave birth to the Buddha, who spoke of taking what we need and sharing the rest with others, we have allowed the laws of economics to get blinkered towards the hopes and the heart of community. Where the momentum of capital decides what is right and wrong, what is practical and unviable, unmindful of its cost on the fragile balance between humans.
So the use of land rapidly transforms, from defunct textile mills that employed millions, to entertainment zones where wealthy kids race in circles in their go-karts. The entertainment economy has long begun to overwhelm a world where livelihood was inspired by physical effort and meaningful outcomes.
The poet makes a stark comment towards the end of the film. He says the time will come, when those dispossessed by economics will rise up to reclaim their world. Because they are the ones with nothing to lose.
Survival & Identity
It is argued by the liberal elite, that India is losing its secular inclusiveness with the growing surge of a more Indic civilizational narrative that reopens deep fissures in society. This is intertwined with another fundamental shift – the reassertion of grassroots voices, actively seeking to retrieve the world back from the exclusive entitlements and remote sensibilities of the elite – the smallest and most powerful minority that exists on the face of the earth.
The need for survival and the search for identity – a confluence of the two most powerful themes that drive humanity. These are vulnerable to exploitation, manipulation and incitation but can also be understood, honoured and respected as the fundamental core to being human. Because it is not production in search of markets and profits but people in search of meaning and purpose that lies at the heart of the world.
It is symptomatic of what ails the world’s largest democracy that those elected to public office live in bungalows on Malabar Hill and the Lutyens zone that share fences only with millionaires and billionaires. The accommodation provided by the tax payer to those in public service must be consistent with what is accessible to an average citizen. It is only then that they will have a direct understanding of people and the problems in the socioeconomic system and develop the intent to remedy them. Those moats of comfort were meant for our British rulers, but has been gradually usurped by our native leaders.
On the other side of a black hole
The first ever image of a black hole was unveiled a few days ago. Scientists spoke of the extreme pull of gravity, which bent space and time into a vortex before consuming them altogether. Leaving at its periphery, the brilliant hues of a flaming event horizon. The last cry of matter before it is consumed by its creator.
The fate of matter that enters a black hole is not clear. It is where the cause and effect relationships that underlie science begin to fray and embrace the unlimited imagination of art. Stephen Hawking spoke about this leading to the possibility that these cause-effect relationships could breakdown elsewhere too. That history and our memories could both be illusions. Without these to inform us of who we are, we could lose the most precious belief known to humans, our identity.
When the silent sage Ramana Maharishi was approaching his end, his close disciple Muruganar spoke about the great remorse he experienced at the thought of losing his master. Ramana said it was not the loss of his master that he was mourning, but the challenge that the idea of death poses to how deeply identified Muruganar remained with his own body. It is from this identity that stem all the stories of the world. We consider ourselves as characters in them, when we are in fact only the pages on which they are written.
The idea of ownership yields precedence to the reality of transience. The security of possession pales before the clear eyed refuge in our own mortality. These truths await being reconciled with the pragmatic concerns that underpin our lives.
Learning to coexist
On a recent trip to Auroville we arrived at a farm cultivated in the natural style propagated by Masubo Fakuoka. What grows with least effort was allowed to flourish, ensuring it is naturally in sync with its environment. There were an abundance of local berries strewn across the farm, that were sold by old women near the bus stand for next to nothing. Because the relative demand in the Chennai market leaned more towards mediterranean olives. Sustainability, in a holistic sense, involves eating local so that we grow and consume what is naturally available in abundance. This activates the local economy and allows societies to flourish in harmony with nature. The idea that human intervention and innovation can alter this without consequences is flawed. As Fukuoka said, ‘There is no one as great as the one who does not try to accomplish anything.’
Back at the biennale, another installation spoke about the public subsidies and environmental costs that enable globalisation of industrial supply chains. That have made shipping cheap enough to allow Scottish cod to be transported 10,000 miles to China to be filleted and then sent back to Scottish restaurants. It is only when we observe the absurdities in the status quo and the simplicity in the solutions – that a spontaneous shift back to basics is enabled.
For Fakuoka, the ultimate aim of farming is the cultivation and perfection of human beings. Only when economic policy is reimagined with the same intention, can it return back to an equilibrium where the forces of wealth and the moderation of wisdom learn to coexist with each other.
Like quantum physics has moved into the realm of the mystical, it is perhaps time for economics to listen more closely to the voices of poets.