Experiencing the Intangible


Rajiv Trivedi

PastFutureSeveral aesthetic discussions have entailed an appropriation of the essential nature of aesthetic judgment / enjoyment. Kantian ‘disinterestedness’ has been examined in numerous possibilities and shades. Such discussion rises partly out of genuine query and partly out of a need to justify aesthetics as a proper discipline. Theorists like Derrida, Barthes – “it is the language that speaks, not the author” – (Barthes 1977, p.143) and others in one sense, side with Indian aesthetics which considers Ras-nishpatti (consummation) in the Rasika (enjoyer) as the culmination point in aesthetic cycle.

Perception defines Art. It may be the point of start or it might come at end, but point of view is an essential ingredient of artistic experience. Art in India is believed to be an aesthetic embodiment of social reality determined through canons of philosophy. As far as artiste is concerned, he loses his personality in the process of Art. While it is true that aesthetic pleasure derived depends on subjective aspects like one’s knowledge, training and involvement, there is ample objectivity in tools and techniques employed to achieve that end. Wittgengstien traces the action of language as inorganic – handling of signs — and organic – meaning creation – which takes place in ‘a queer kind of medium, mind’ (Wittgengstien 1958, p.3). The long-ensuing battle between Creationists and Evolutionists pin over the Cartesian mind, that in one sense transcends the physical, granting meaning to it. Still, it is a question about starting point of a circle. The point of creation is overwhelmed by surge of practice or meaning and may in turn appear as another starting point. The psalm 127:4 (Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth), which Khalil Gibran uses as “You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth” can well apply to creative process. This view finds support in observation of de Saussure , “Whoever creates a language controls it only so long as it is not in circulation; from the moment when it fulfils its mission and becomes the property of everyone, control is lost..” (de Saussure 1959, p.76).

It appears that a whole stream of discussion regarding aesthetics is about this control. One nurtures the essential ‘disinterest’ through conscious action implying control; else, such disinterest accompanies true aesthetic appreciation. If we limit ourselves to judgment alone, does that not make the inquiry more tenuous? It often takes one so far away that aesthetics may well be summed up as discipline meant for those delighted by knowledge. The Baconian observation, ‘crafty men contemn’ studies’ seems true and the reason is provided by artiste-philosopher Danto, who discovered, “how little the canon of aesthetics appeared to bear on what was happening in art, where the concept of taste, so central in the philosophical texts addressed to art, had nothing to do with the painting that shook the world, Abstract Expressionism”. (Danto, Arthur C., Stopping Making Art) Pushed further, the discipline of aesthetics is certain to end up as Culture Studies where determination of aesthetic values, if and when possible, would become suspect.

Do we find that change in human thought — both pattern and content – has kept pace with physical change brought in by technological progress? Is the process of creation and enjoyment of Art really free of control? Are abstractions like honesty, duty, envy, disdain more concrete than intangible? Can music or painting express them? How can an art-form be the vehicle of something it can not express?

The idea of intangible or intangibility does not surface due inadequacy of language; it predates language as essence of consciousness itself. It is that which vitalizes consciousness and propels one to know. The equation, Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram holds that conception of the divine vitality (Shiva) is truth (Satya) and its expression is beauty (Sundar). It is also held that truth is infinite, eternal.

On a practical plain, it represents that which is perceptible but defies quantification. One has to ultimately recourse to such terms as ‘essence’ and ‘spirit’, after qualification and quantification still leave a residue. Visuality, on other hand is that powerful presence within objects that strongly affects the appraiser. It is the power of the visual that dominates over other senses, controlling even intellect.

Commonly, the question of intangibility arises only when dealing with process of human comprehension. Like the recurring decimal in arithmetic, even when a phenomenon has been explained in all possible manner, there always remains a non-terminating section of sense that eludes language. This indicates that indestructibility is an essential aspect of intangibility. In other words being holistic, certain phenomena or ideas can not be divided in a linear fashion. Psychologists would theorize that this concept becomes apparent only at a certain age, but experience shows that everyone possesses this sense though its expression may vary. Thus, it is universal. Similar reasoning would also make it true in all ages and probably lead to intangibility being eternal.

If intangibility has always existed in human consciousness and motivated expansion of capabilities of human brain while remaining invisible, why should this notion be critically examined today? Why does the premiere global organization have to nourish a movement to promote preservation of Intangible Cultural Heritage? The simplicity of questions hints at complexity of human history. One school of Indian philosophy attributes creation to interaction between Prakriti and Purush – Nature and the Consciousness. While one aims towards ideal, the other pulls towards the material. For thousands of years human philosophy, expressed often through religion, placed ideal above the material. Past two centuries have turned the equation. For some time, the track of human evolution seemed inviting with the twin waves of material and intellectual progress meeting harmoniously and attaining a never-before peak, but as the downward roll starts the distance between the two looks ominous. It is the fear that solidity of matter would destroy the delicate, ethereal idea that propels us to examine the question of intangibility and determine ways to safe-guard it. This instinct for survival presumes destructibility of the ideal on one hand and graph of human progress as a permanent blueprint. However, such fear is to be respected as concern without which human history would have been in altogether a different shape.

During the past century the role of language has been usurped by other forms of expressions; till then, it was the hand-maiden of progress. That which had started merely as helping tool grew into a reality of its own. Bakhtin hails twentieth century as period of the novel. This genre of literature became popular because it offered layers of reality – it offered insight with an intensity that could never be matched by the unstoppable pace of real life. To understand life around was not enough, the reader was consumed by variety of arrangement of relationships and interactions which through a small change would render a completely different reality. In a way, this expanded the focus from a narrow individual standpoint to a broad historical one. Invention of camera liberated intellect from this absorbing exercise by presenting a clear simple version of perceived reality. The photograph has the power of evoking emotions and other responses without burdening the intellect. Technique filled this too with layers and visuality, which till now was limited to sculptures and paintings, began to broaden its base. Set of pictures presented in quick succession created a more intense reality reducing absorption time of the viewer. The visual input, which in case of script first translated the linguistic symbols into abstract concepts before they could activate adequate perception points, in a photograph did away with abstractions, appealing directly to visual perception. Several non-visual signals, apart from intangible ones that language conveyed, were lost in this direct translation. The intellect was now charged with gathering numerous simultaneous visual stimuli into coherent experience. If the photograph was interesting, film was immensely absorbing.

Films and photographs occupy a much greater space than script based documentation today. The script based communication has grown limited primarily because of lack of compression. It is difficult to compress the experience, which a photograph produces in a quick glance, in words which can be read in equivalent time. Thus film has the capacity to pack a huge amount of information within a short duration of time giving rise to intense experience. This, in turn, trains the receptors to absorb and process information at a heightened rate. As there is a limitation to mind’s absorption, quite a part of information is rejected on the first run. On viewing it within period of easy recall, the mind picks up some bits of information rejected earlier and adds to information retained by memory, thus keeping this experience from turning monotonous. The appeal and ease of visual experience has given rise to visuality – the intrinsic visual appeal in any object which renders it fit for human experience. The mind trained for direct visual processing inclines to glean information visually rather than through processing of abstractions. Intangibility is the casualty in this process. With a world filled with still and moving pictures, the mind is no longer free to mull over abstract bits of sense arranging them in random combinations to eke out maximum knowledge. Thus the century that started with hailing the linguistic abstraction — the novel – ended up being flooded by continuously streaming packages of colour and motion — the film.

While the act of abstraction flared the ideas and imagination, the glut of visual stimuli produces a paradox of experiential demand-satiety cycle. Excessive intellectual activity may cause fatigue leading to temporary cessation of all; rested, the mind craves for another such bout. The change from imaginary ideas to realistic sensuality also turns the stance from macro-consciousness to micro-consciousness. Self-centredness and narrowing of concerns result as mechanism of survival against the excessive burden of choice. The reduction in perception time also changes the perception of time. From being time-rich, one perceives himself to be time-starved. The spectator replaces the actor. He no longer thinks, he sees. It is the object’s visual appeal that has potential to draw his interest than its intangible qualities.

As the two are qualities, visuality and intangibility are both abstractions, yet diametrically placed. They both appeal to the brain but with different goals. One captivates, the other liberates. Visuality establishes the reality of here-and-now, the superiority of matter over ideas. Intangibility works when the mind desires to shed the bondage of the known and aspires for the infinite. The mind transcends the limitations of time and space and on discovering the eternal flow of life, subordinates the body to become a buoyant boat, which gently adds its momentum without disturbing the course. Through immersion one gains total possession.

It was on this principle of complete surrender of one’s self that Indian art was based. Depersonalization was achieved through sublimation of one’s ego in the art. For the Indian artist, his practice was not for any temporal, limited, material gain but for the final reward – absolution or Moksha. Never for a moment did he attempt to associate his temporal personality with his art – the words, contribution, achievement, possession, success meant little to him. In case they were within, the remnants of these ideas were impediments, which had to be cleansed out of his consciousness. Art as expression of the self never existed for him. The self or ego could be rid through art. He aspired for comprehension of the intangible; never for possession of the tangible.

If against such self-abnegation one insists on art as expression of the self, the art of such an artiste would certainly express his desire to transcend the material. If all artistes shared this desire, art of the period would gradually nurture such a belief in the people. But if everyone is moved to denial of the material, survival would be endangered. Yet, human beings have continued to exist against all threats. So, where exactly does art stand with respect to acceptance or denial of the material? One basic definition proclaims that Art is a ‘manifestation of spiritual through material’. The Indian philosophers ordained judicious admixture of three Guna-s or elemental aspects – Sat, Raj and Tam – to nurture one’s persona. An artiste who escapes the latter two following Sat or truth alone, loses connection with the material and becomes one with the truth he strived for. Dr. Lalmani Misra explains the various possibilities succinctly:

Through his art the artiste sees both the worlds and experiences both vicariously. When in the lap of truth his heart unsullied by any attraction is filled with blissful waves of content and peace; under the force of falsity the heart fills up with fascination and he is enticed into the world of desire and allure. If the artiste’s heart stumbles on to the latter, he loses sovereignty of his existence, only to create history; whereas the artiste staunch on path of truth can never create it.

As the fascination for the changing, moving world increases, so does the proportion of Raj; Tam is the essential darkness that destroys all creativity. The three Guna-s evoke three aspects of the personality; Sat leads to contemplation, Raj to appreciation and Tam to consumption. Meditation is pursuit of the intangible, consumption is immersion in the sensuous. Balance between the two is achieved through appreciation.

Evolution of human civilization balanced ideas with material achievements, to a large extent. With industrialization it seemed that balance tilted towards concrete, but technology brought abstract and the virtual back into focus. Yet, the tilt favoured the concrete, as ideas were examined on the merit of their materialization and application. Intangibility itself is studied as unutilized sales pitch for products and services (Bielen, F. & Lille Christophe). To use art for consumption cycle may not be the inherent morality of art. Says Lyas, “For a work of art cannot be immoral, as opposed to containing instances of immorality, unless the morality it contains, if only by omission, is endorsed.” (Lyas, 2002 p. 211) Art has always been a pathway to comprehension of the intangible; sensuality attempts to catch some aspects and freeze them as homage to moment of contemplation; visuality denying all else, relishes the presentation as Art. The end of visuality is annihilation of thought, excitement of passion and total consumption. All this takes place through drastically reduced time-span for attention and soon as the process completes, the mind gets involved with another such cycle. It is necessary to deny, bury and subvert the intangible in order to maintain the experiential demand-satiety cycle. Language is tolerated till the time it is fully replaced by images. This idea may sound as far-fetched as might have that of communicating through cell-phones two centuries back, but mankind shall have to work against this turning into reality. The morality in a work of art is reflected in its practice.



Barthes, R. The death of the author. In Image, music, text (London: Fontana, 1977).

Bielen, F. & Lille Christophe. The Dimensionality Of The Concept Of Intangibility: A Critical Analysis. Web link: http://www.uclouvain.be/cps/ucl/doc/iag/documents/WP_100_Sempels.pdf

de Sausseure. F. Courses in general linguistics (trans. W. Baskin) (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959)

Lyas, C. Aesthetics. (Routledge: London, 2002)

Misra, Lalmani. Contemporary Problems for Indian Music Web link: http://www.omenad.net/articles/Orchestra.htm.

Wittgengstien, L. The blue and brown books (New York: Harper and Row, 1958)

1 Comment

Filed under Again

One response to “Experiencing the Intangible

  1. A K Awasthi

    Well written, I appreciate the analytical capability of the author and conclusions drawn. But I would have moved a little farther. Tangible or intangible, language or image would lose their significance once they are reduced to ideational level- ultimately they have to become so when they settle in the mind and understood. Then it is the space that is left still unexplored, wherein exist all reality- real, virtual, material or abstract. The artist who is able to sublimate himself realizes this space, which is capable of unimaginable expansion or contraction. The interesting thing is that there are no boundaries; it begins anywhere/everywhere and goes in any direction.The critic/ reader habitually tries to discover such space and also demarcate the same. In fact, human approach has been based on systemic errors and the same has been systematically imbibed and validated through the ages.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s