The Heart of Art

The Heart of Art

Recently, I experimented with Artificial Intelligence (AI) in art. I voluntarily uploaded some selfies of mine on an application, and paid a nominal price (!!) and got a few computer-generated images. They bore striking resemblance to my features, of course, but they also presented me in thematic settings I could have never imagined in real life. I was an astronaut in one image, a warrior in another, a princess and an anime character in others. It was mind-blowing, truth be told. I even shared it with a few friends excitedly. We were agape at the wonders of modern technology. 

However, when I kept revisiting those images, I began to question the nature of this art. In fact, I found it to be a bit disturbing. Was I narcissistic? Did I have to pay a price to re-imagine myself? Would I have paid as much or more to any artist to have my portrait done? There were just too many questions. And I am not sure I liked what those answers revealed about me and my preferences. But it was an uncomfortable truth, and I had to accept it.

Elsewhere, there’s growing talk about how AI might eventually take up the space of living, human artists. The possibility is very real. We just need to upload a few picture or word prompts and there are plenty of applications that generate art in a jiffy. Why do we do it? Curiosity, novelty, whatnot.

It made me further pursue the question of why is there any art at all? There is a famous quote on what art should do. ‘Art must comfort the disturbed, and art must disturb the comfortable’. True, I think. Art came from the need to express beyond what is conventional. It transcends communication that is purely transactional. Be it dance, music, painting, sculpting, whatever art form one can think of. It is both an escape and a refuge.

Coincidentally, I also happened to attend a session on Bharatiya culture, wherein the facilitator clearly reminded us that in the ancient days, art was a means to attain god. Every form of expression was an offering towards the Creator. It was an attempt for the human to reach the divine. There were depictions of secular life, too, but it was only observational. We can find murals of women wearing make-up, children engaged in play and agriculturists at work on temple walls. But the sculptor who was at work, did it as dedication to the Lord. Just as the women, children and farmers being depicted, did their duties born from their dharmas.

I am not so sure that the art created, shared and consumed now has such spiritual intent. We are mindless in our consumption of art. We are oblivious to songs with racy and vulgar lyrics. We have normalised obscene dance movements. We find children aping and competing with each other by performing such song and dance in reality shows. Photography and painting is no longer the niche of trained artists. Just anybody with access to technology can generate photos and AI-curated images. It is not born from a mind that is still, trained or dedicated. The effect is that we have galleries of nothingness, a degrading reflection of a culture that has become fully extroverted and self-centered.

There could be exceptions; and they are few and far in between. Most of the classical and folk arts that originated in India had a clear purpose to elevate the performer and the artist. It had the capacity to transport the audience to a place of calm. The temple walls still forced the seeker to reflect on the stories from the scriptures. Song and dance came from saints, poets and pilgrims on a spiritual journey.

While I am  not dismissing all modern art as being debased, the lack of spiritual purpose is quite glaring. Where art comes from the heart, the intent is clear. The artist also manages to connect with the audience almost instantaneously. But here the question is also about connecting with that which is Higher. Art can become meditation when the senses submit to an altar. Probably that was initially the purpose of art. At the heart of art is the need to be centered on the Self, not just self-centered. Hopefully, AI will nudge us back to our human roots and divine nature eventually.

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Chinmaya Udghosh