Quite frankly, there’s no other recognition in the intellectual space with the stature of the Nobel Prize. Shaken by the idea that he’d be remembered as a “merchant of death”, Alfred Nobel willed his fortune to institute an award to distinguish people making constructive contributions to humanity. And now the award is invoked to the last of the bastions of Science and Humanities — literature. It frames and fuels the ideals of inquiry and inspiration that hold up the values of the greatness of mankind. Among the five prizes mentioned in Alfred Nobel’s will, one was intended for the person who, in the literary field, had produced “the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Literature, as defined by the statutes of the committee, was “not only belles-lettres but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value”.
And it’s the “literary” value of this year’s chosen laureate, poet-lyricist Bob Dylan’s work, that has polarised reaction. The literary world’s response is rather tepid if not frosty: Lamenting the “come down” of the very definition of literature on one end and the scoffing at the prize on the other, exhorting Dylan — a generation’s voice of social protest — to not let a prize that’s founded on the wealth of armament to define him.
It’s been said Mozart never won a prize. This reminds me of a scene in the film Amadeus, where Antonio Salieri, having played two pieces of music to Father Vogel — who has not recognised either — asks, “Can you remember no melody of mine? I was the most respected composer in Europe. I wrote 40 operas alone! Here what about this one?” And he plays the first few bars of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Father Volker, admiration shining in his voice exclaims, “Yes I know that. I’m sorry, I didn’t know you wrote that.” Salieri’s cryptic yet telling dialogue “I didn’t. That was Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” It is a moment extraordinaire, never mind that it’s a fictional one. So Mozart, though a practitioner of “classical” music, frequently wrote music that was intended for the enjoyment of common folks and was considered a populist, much like Shakespeare, who wrote for popularity and profit.
The concept of high art has dominated the intellectual discourse. High art is a term that includes painting, sculpture and other works that adhere to the accepted theories and practices of art. Renaissance art, classical music, opera that is meant for the “educated”, elite and “low art” or popular culture such as that found in contemporary and newer mediums or mass media like books, movies and are meant for the “general” working-class public. So traditionally, the hallowed art world has not considered popular culture as worthy of art. A few artists protested and rebelled against these conventions, endeavouring to break down the barricades of high art and celebrate the values of everyday life and ethos around them. The belief that there is no hierarchy of culture and that art may borrow from any source has been one of the most powerful features of popular art.
This becomes even more vital when we observe that socially and politically, we are not in the feudal age but in the era of democracy, where every voice counts. The established walls between the elite and common man’s interests are now porous and permeable. And beyond the tradition of classical forms, development of industrialisation, wars, technology, newer approaches all play a role in shaping thinking and its artistic expressions in our era.
Of course, this in no way implies that popular art is to be taken as is or sans the rigorous lens that is applied to evaluate art forms by its most astute patrons. I don’t subscribe to the point of view that critics should not be paid any heed. Instead, to my mind, criticism helps chisel an art form, which is essential in this case as well. For the role of the critic is to be a reagent between a work and its audience, to educate and enlighten. Critique propels art to become better and cautions us against mediocrity. Because, yes, in popular culture there lurks the danger of something mediocre riding the wave and becoming celebrated for the not-so-right reasons. Tough standards must apply to contemporary and popular art as well. I am no advocate for audience appeasement at any cost, either. On the contrary, the belief is that there is a definite need for art for art’s sake, for it to be self-indulgent, we should be able to celebrate the condescension of creators, the arrogance of artists and protect self-expression at all times. And popular culture artists too must be subjected to similar erudite and searching critiques that push the envelope. But to decide what is great art or literature and music, there has to be an element of openness. For art is an ever-evolving process of refinement. It can’t be high-jacked by a powerful few. It has to have space to be inclusive and no body or cabal should be able to manipulate this.
Popular, elitist or any kind of label should not be allowed to limit art or to sequester it in boundaries. Take, for instance, the tendency to narrowly define and label certain works as folk or spiritual and put it outside the purview of literature. Should the works of Geerhardus Vos, who may be better known as a pioneer in Biblical theology but was also an accomplished poet, producing eight volumes of poetry, be ignored? Or for that matter the works of Rahman Jami, who wrote eloquently on the metaphysics of mercy in the context of theology.
We in India, at least, should be most sensitive to this fact. Creations by Sufi mystics as well as poets such as Surdas are branded as religious, though for me they are no less than literature. Our folk art, be it miniature paintings or Madhubani or the works of Kabir — dohas, horis, jhoolans, manglas and baramasas — are replete with philosophy laced with the zeitgeist, do they not hold artistic and literary value? Bihari Lal “Harit” was the first Dalit poet known as jan kavi (people’s poet) and brought attention to the problems of the working class. His Acchuton ka Paigambar (messenger of the untouchables), a collection of his work in the rural idiom, became the voice of the poor, oppressed. Through his expression in the language of the people, adopting popular speech and a simple, straightforward style, he owned their miseries and their ambitions as his own. He brought in an authenticity and a contemporary social philosophy to his work — should his stature stand diminished for not being a “classical” poet?
For some art is an end itself. Others believe that it’s an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in. And for some like a Swiss Dadaist sculptor Hans Ark, “Art just is.”
There is no hierarchy of art forms. It’s not blasphemy to recite “Do not go gentle into that good night” and marvel at “Every man’s conscience is vile and depraved/You cannot depend on it to be your guide when it’s you who must keep it satisfied” in the same breath, for it’s not a question of which is superior — they are just diverse. Dylan’s songs breathe life into the consciousness of both the high brow and the ordinary folk. His fan base spans my young daughter who “gets” bits of Tambourine Man to Ivy League literati. Culture and counter-culture must co-exist and so should the link of genius between both. Art and literature are ultimately created for the purpose of expressing, pontificating, mystifying and at times decoding life, to connect the art, the muse, the artist and the audience. Its real value to a people and society is the prize, the most noble of them. And it matters little whether it is bestowed or accepted or not.