Religious, artistic, mystical and philosophical traditions are unanimous in asserting that we are here to appreciate, to love, to enjoy, to play, to beautify rather than to worry, to solve the mystery in logical terms. But our tragedy today is we seek explanations, utility, profit. We taunt youth why they spend time in playing or watching sports. We don’t live life. We just vegetate. We bring calculative business mentality to basic question of living. We ask how much does one earn, what work does one do, what new thing has been added. We do not know how much joy is there in the world. What great treasures we lose daily, we don’t notice. Our education doesn’t teach us to live life. “The School of Life” is nowhere to be seen. We are crippled before weal and woe of life; a small event may make us sad or even force us to consider suicide. We don’t learn the art of life in schools, in mosques, in social networking sites or elsewhere. None teaches us why we are here and how to face our deepest issues. We have forgotten life’s deeper joys. Today we consider why art or life of imagination has been central to humankind and the loss we suffer from relegating it to background.
Art concerns both with perfecting the work or vocation we are in. Pursuing or embodying beauty is the food of the soul. Ordinarily we acknowledge this only about music as we say it is the food of the soul. Beauty is apparently the most useless thing in the world but the world worships it. We are beauty-seeking creatures. Art has always offered ecstasy, sublimity. Art has celebrated epiphanic moments. Aren’t mysticism and poetry, as interfused and embodied in Persian poets, and sabk-i hindi fundamentally part of a project of aestheticization of experience? Isn’t self-transcendence or detachment from egoic passions or self-reference the key toananda or joy in any experience? Isn’t love (even its flowering in compassion in nirvana or other value directed modes of existence) valued fundamentally because it partakes of the joy of the Spirit. The secret of morals, as Shelley rightly noted in his Defence of Poetry, love. The secret of love is a movement of the Spirit that leaps in joy at the symbols or footprints of the Beloved. The secret of beauty is its attractive power that drives one on while we are seeking fuller or deeper realizations of the life of Spirit. Consciousness, knowledge or gnosis and joy – joy resulting from certain attitude or perception toward things or other are inseparable. That explains why we can assert that aesthetic and playful view of existence is a common postulate in spiritual traditions. As Bedil puts it:
In the world cast into stormy intoxication by your eyes
My self-abandonment but a ripple in the wine
The beautiful dream of existence upon me, oblivious I lie, but know
Anyone speaking your name my quiescence breaks
In my oblivion I traversed many a house of beauty
Even a false step in your desire became the masterstroke of Behzad
If the enchantment of your promise such flavour has
We shall find a leisure unbounded by a tomorrow
Art saves or consoles or uplifts us by defamiliarizing the world. Ordinarily habit makes our perception dead. Although starry heavens and rising of the sun are perpetual miracles, we fail to be overtaken by them because of habit. We see them daily. Art allows us to see them on their own terms. It is wonder that is a mode of worship. If we cease to wonder we are dead. The world appears boring. Bedil is for defamiliarization that comes from what we may call the station of wonder. Nothing is repeated in divine scheme, every moment is a new revelation. Sufi tradition has endlessly meditated on this theme and we find Ibn Arabi returning to it time and again in his work. Art owes its enchantment to what Russian formalists called defamiliarization and the magic of creative activity is itself connected to phenomenology of newness, of wonder. As Bedil puts it:
“Upon need at a stranger’s door prostrate
But raise not your solicitous gaze to a familiar face.”
When will we ask from educationists to educate us and our children in the school of life that requires art? Without the medium of art education is not possible. Without art education, we are literate but uneducated. And we don’t know how to live deeper, richer, more meaningful, more joyful lives.