Some months ago, during the Easter break, my wife and I traveled to Greece. The first three days we spent in Athens, following which we took a bus to Delphi, two and a half hours away, and spent half a day among the ruins and in a museum. Athens turned out to be yet another Western European city flaunting its historical sights to tourists, most of whom were white, and amidst those scores of tourists I found it hard to summon the interest and enthusiasm that grips me when I read about the ancient civilisation that began in this region. We skipped the Acropolis; the queues were too long. Instead we spent time walking the old part of town, absorbing the atmosphere, taking photographs and, on one morning we visited the Acropolis museum. It was a sunny day, ideal for an outdoor trek, and indeed the hordes were at the site on the Acropolis hill, but we walked inside the beautifully designed museum looking at stones culled from that site. I found moments of inspiration here, looking at the pieces that formed the Parthenon frieze and also other sculptures in a large hall bathed in light streaming from one side through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The beauty of the building (I can’t remember another one as astonishing as this one) lies in its setting and in the way this setting is exposed to someone inside the museum. Through those windows one can view the Acropolis hill and also the low-rise houses of Athens that hug the foot of the hill. On the hill a section of the Parthenon is visible too. Nowhere have I seen this proximity — spatial and visual — between an object in a museum and the place it was recovered from. In between pieces of stone in the museum and stones on the hill were stones that formed the structures of modern houses, separated from each other by three thousand years. This juxtaposition created a strange effect I was unable to shake off, and I walked around the floors in a daze, wondering, at times, how this hill and its surroundings would look three thousand years from now, how humanity itself would look like, and how that race would view this museum, or whatever remained of it, gathering, through the fact of this museum’s existence, clues about our own civilisation and the way we looked at antiquity. My reflections did not lift my spirits. Given where we are now and how we are progressing, I cannot conceive of a future in positive terms; but three thousand years is a long time.
Outside the museum the scene, like the street, was pedestrian. After a decade and half in Europe, I find myself tired of this type of travel. Every city displays the same patterns designed to stimulate consumption: the performers on the street, the touts luring you to lunch at their restaurants, the cafes and restaurants themselves, the shop windows with glossy branded consumables, the tourist as a consumer. There is a yearning for something very different (why else do we travel?), which is accompanied by the sinking realisation that globalisation has made this so much harder. When so much of what we see on the surface looks similar, seeking out subtle differences can be an interesting exercise, but what bothers me is how the act of consumption is turning every major culture into near replicas of each other. We tried to go against the tide, looking for Greek food for instance, or walking in residential areas far from the tourists, and these niches offered the pleasure of foreignness we sought.
Delphi was better. Tucked between folds of mountains, with a stunning view of the narrow valley sprinkled with column-like Italian Cypress trees, Delphi of today allows us to imagine, without effort, the Delphi of antiquity. It has the aura of a place where an Oracle would reside. The ruins — of Temple of Apollo, the treasury of Athens, the theatre, and other structures — are set on the gradual slope of a hill. Despite the weather — mostly cloudy, with spells of sunshine and rain — there were many tourists, serious ones and others who walked around taking group selfies or chatting as though on a picnic, diminishing the solemnity of the place, but we found a few moments of quiet between batches of people crossing the ruins, and those moments, when we sat on a bench and looked down at the Temple of Apollo and the valley beyond, shall remain with me for a long time.
Some months previously we had made a similar hillside trek in India, inside the medieval fort of Chitradurga. That too is a historical site, with stone structures both standing and in ruins, and it also drew many tourists, mostly batches of kids from nearby schools on an excursion, accompanied by their teachers. As I walked on that hill in Delphi I contemplated the difference between the two sites. Both places had structures made of stone; one was five hundred years old, the other three thousand. The historical significance of Delphi outstripped, by an enormous margin, that of Chitradurga. That significance is based solely on the meaning we humans have given those stones. Take away the meaning, and the difference vanishes. An alien visiting earth would find it hard to understand why some stones on this planet are worshipped more than others. The meaning we give to such stones is quasi-religious in nature — it is based on belief. We believe the scholars and the archeologists, and so we go (in a manner not dissimilar to devotees on a pilgrimage) to these sites, to see and admire and pay respects. How arbitrary this worship (of historical sites) is can be understood if we imagined, for a moment, a great new discovery from the Greek era which overturns our current understanding of these sites — then, a place that is less known today would suddenly grow in significance, and the believers would flock to that site, to look at the stones there.
Of course, some collection of “stones” are more attractive than others purely from an aesthetic point of view, and this is also a reason why they draw more visitors or tourists. In Delphi, the Athenian Treasury was the only standing building, and this 2500 year old structure, built with Parian marble, carried a beauty and presence that left me breathless. But one could say the same for some temples in Hampi (not far from Chitradurga), the seat of the great Vijayanagara kingdom that flourished in the 16th century — these temples are stunning too, but they do not enjoy (or suffer from, depending on how you see it) the hype surrounding Greek or Roman monuments. (There is a view held by some that not enough scholarship has gone into exploring the ruins of Hampi; the reasons for that could be many, but the result is that Hampi remains a destination of local, not international, renown. If new research yielded information that brought to light something of significant interest to the West, then the international media would pick it up, and the tourists will come rushing in. That is how arbitrary this form of worship is.)
It was spring when we visited Delphi. The flowers growing in the crannies between stones were more beautiful than the stones themselves. I photographed those flowers; the stones are also visible, but to me they are only the backdrop. Back in Germany, I was walking one day in an office corridor flanked by windows when I stopped to look at the astonishing beauty of a tree beginning to bloom. The tree’s bare outline, still visible, was slightly enhanced by these pink flowers, and set on the green lawn in front of a dull office building the tree looked to me, at that moment, like the most beautiful one I had ever seen. I spent a minute or so looking at it, before moving on. At the coffee machine, still under the spell of the tree, my mind for some reason flipped to a moment in a New York museum some years ago where I was trying to get a glimpse of a tree drawn by Van Gogh. The hall had the density of an Indian bazaar; amidst the jostling crowd I found little beauty in the works displayed. Walking back to my office with the coffee, I thought about that museum moment, and the one one that had just transpired. The difference seemed again to be one of belief in the beauty and importance of some object, a belief engendered by the experts — in this case of art and art history, not historians and archeologists — who had created an aura around some paintings. So people flocked to see those paintings, to (among other things) admire the beauty of trees and flowers inside those frames. Did they pause to see the beauty of the tree outside the museum? There is a social function in visiting a museum and looking at the works there that the act of looking at a real tree does not fulfil. (Unless, of course, one photographs the tree and posts it on Instagram.)
The Mona Lisa at the Louvre is an extreme but illuminating example of what a popular culture — of anything — leads to. I can only think of it as mass hypnosis, people stopping to think for themselves. And one can draw a straight line from this popular culture in the arts scene to what happens when tourists visit a destination. Guidebooks lead them in predictable directions, telling them to look at this great historical monument, or that piece of art in a museum somewhere. (There was, in Delphi, a series of comical scenes in the museum where most of the tourists had hired museum guides who led them on a tour through the halls. It is a small museum with small halls, and these groups — there were two on that day — hurried from room to room following the female guide, who offered them snippets of history and told them what to focus on — “Look at the features on the face, how dignified it looks!” “The hand, as you can see, is raised upwards” — before dragging them to the next room, allowing hardly any space for reflection by oneself. A few of us solo visitors were squeezed to the edge of a room invaded by such a group. One museum guard shook his head at this group viewing performance, and seeing me observing him he rolled his eyes and then smiled, as though saying, “Here is mass consumption of history and art — it doesn’t get any better.”) So tourism as a form of consumption has taken away the charm these historical sites once may have had. Their character has been altered, and these “great” historical sites, like popular works of art vetted by experts, now seem overrated. As a result, what I saw and found beautiful and elevating in Greece were not the sites of that great ancient civilisation, but other down to earth elements, like street art in an obscure corner, or snatches of contemporary life in a square, or the warmth of people we encountered during our stay.
This experience in Greece made me consider again a question I sometimes return to: do we give more importance than necessary to how a culture views a work — of art or literature — we experience or wish to experience? By culture I mean the dominant view, the consensus of established experts. There are a few reasons for this skepticism.
First, what a culture views as great is something that a critical mass of experts view as great — this is, in a way, arbitrary, and is driven by the world-views prevalent at that time: reputations of writers and artists, as we know, change over time. So I tell myself to be cautious about accepting this dominant view.
Second, it seems to me that the authority of cultural experts is used to drive consumption of cultural artefacts. After a while, as in the case of the Mona Lisa, the artistic value of the work gets lost in the noise around its consumption (and the mechanics that drive this consumption). The Louvre ticket has a portrait of the Mona Lisa on it, which makes you wonder what the primary intent of that museum is: a display of art, or the consumption of a capitalist product? John Berger, in “Ways of Seeing”, writing about ‘publicity’ in the last chapter says, “All publicity works upon anxiety.” Watching the lines outside museums, it seems as though there is a public anxiety around not viewing these great works of art, an anxiety created by all the publicity around it.
Thirdly, living in the West we are also susceptible to falling under the sway of opinion held by experts in these parts, which can be limiting. The West has a blinkered view on such matters, evincing interest (for instance) in a non-Western author as long as his or her themes (like post-colonialism, or third-world poverty and violence, and so on) are of interest to the West, or have a global character. A writer like Sundara Ramaswamy, who wrote in Tamil, will never be reviewed in a major literary journal in the West. Does it matter? To me he is a wonderful writer, comparable to R.K.Narayan in his ability to evoke the South Indian milieu and character, if not the volume of his output.
The Greece experience led to, in an oblique way, a personal reassessment of works labelled “great” by many. Such a personal appraisal is needed for every work of art or literature, but I am never sure if I have gotten it right. I have often been sloppy myself, accepting a culture’s judgement without thinking. It isn’t easy to develop a personal ear or eye for works of art and literature. What we need to evolve for ourselves is a framework to evaluate such a work, and the role of a critic or an expert is to guide us towards developing such a framework — for instance, by giving a context in which to place a work of art, or by challenging established notions through alternate ways to view works of art. (A good recent example of the latter is Teju’s essay on the photography of Steve McCurry and Raghubir Singh.)
We need such a framework to create works of art too, and your recent posts about Javier Marin and about “How do I really want to be?” go in that direction. They made me think about this matter, just as this Greece visit did. I do not have clarity yet, and I wonder if I ever will. But I tell myself that the point is to be aware of what one does not fully grasp — that is, those gaps in the framework — and work towards improving our understanding, while keeping our eyes and ears open.