The National Value of Art; Sri Aurobindo

It is not necessary that every man should be an artist. It is necessary that every man should have his artistic faculty developed, his taste trained, his sense of beauty and insight into form and colour and that which is expressed in form and colour, made habitually active, correct and sensitive.

photoMore often than not, when I have mentioned art to someone, they have always replied with, “Oh, I don’t understand art.” I’ve always struggled with this response, though I’ve accepted it. When the same people buy a new mobile phone, I’ve never heard them say, “Oh, I don’t understand this new interface.” They’ve experimented, asked friends, Googled for information and how-to videos, and have become comfortable, if not experts, in using it. Perhaps, this is a weak analogy, but I am sure I’ve made my point.

I may have an advantage that my best friend is an artist, and my understanding of art has been shallow at times, and cynical, when not shallow. Yet, I’ve taken time to refine my own understanding of art. I’ve been careful not to borrow an opinion and make it my own, and that is what’s taking so much time. Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author has been an all-time favourite, partly because it is excellent, but more so because it resonates with what I have always felt about art. Our understanding of art has to be our own, we can always refine, define, or deduct by what others have to say.

And then I read this very small 27-page book about the National Value of Art, by Sri Aurobindo. The title is misleading, to an extent, I must say – only two-and-a-half pages discuss the context of the national value of art. And, that, somehow is what’s most fascinating about the book. Because before understanding the national value of art, it is important to know the value of art, the meaning of art, and the sense of art. And that, is what this book is really about. For example, this felt like a description of the purposeful nature of the art aesthetic:

But the aesthetic faculties entering into the enjoyment of the world and the satisfaction of the vital instincts, the love of the beautiful in men and women, in food, in things, in articles of use and articles of pleasure, have done more than anything else to raise man from the beast, to refine and purge his passions, to ennoble his emotions and to lead him up through the heart and the imagination to the state of the intellectual man.

This is the first time I’ve read any of Sri Aurobindo’s works, and while I’ll admit it has been difficult reading, I am excited and looking forward to reading much more of what he has said. The difficulty of course, is not about the written word or the construction itself, it is the sad habit of over-simplifying things that matter. We are keen to make meaning in an instant and when something that was written about ninety years ago prods you into mulling over every word, you are out of your comfort zone. That’s how a small, 27-page book can beat you. But if you choose well, it can enrich you.

Mankind is apt to bind itself by attachment to the means of its past progress forgetful of the aim. The bondage to formulas has to be outgrown, and in this again it is the sense of a higher beauty and fitness which will be most powerful to correct the lower. The art of life must be understood in more magnificent terms and must subordinate its more formal elements to the service of the master civilisers, Love and Thought.

It is one thing not to understand art. It is another not to want to understand art. It is yet another not to care. But if you do care, I strongly recommend this book.

Finally, I ask that you buy the book, so that you can support the work of the Ashram, however, The National Value of Art is also available as a part of “Early Cultural Writings” (starting at page 433) which is available a free download [PDF 3.9MB]


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