Essay as Art


Essay, a piece of writing, is often written from the author’s personal point of view.


Can essay be art? Isn’t art but an artist’s point of view?


This series is helmed by Paul Smith.


Before the “essay” called out to Paul, he was and still is a performance artist by choice. He was hesitant about embracing the form of the “essay;” until he walked unknowingly into the art that lies hidden in the everyday.


Paul prefers to walk into his art, using everyday life as canvas and everyday objects to paint his essays.


He walks around in the same ‘everyday” of today’s world, just like the rest of us, of strip malls and streets with no space for pedestrians, an everyday world which seemingly gives us lots of choices; albeit with very little control.


The sphere of control, which firmly lay in the social spaces in an earlier, more ordered version of modern society, has now firmly been pushed into the internal spaces of the individual.


Self-help manuals teach us how to reach happiness by controlling our own thoughts and feelings; rather than do anything about the disordered arrangements of society. Surely we can all attain the highest form of happiness; in fact happiness is waiting to come into our lives, if only we will let our minds allow it. Forget society, create your own utopia. (see Zygmunt Bauman interview)


We remember walking into a bookstore with Paul, and his immediate comment on seeing the best-sellers stack of books was: “The non-fiction genre (especially self-help) may be the fiction of our times.


The truth is that despite all the consumer choices and attempts at self-talk, we have no choice but to walk through social spaces. We may cut ourselves off by using i-pod earplugs and engaging in useless mobile phone conversation; and we are all privy to situations where individuals using mobile phones have laid bare their most private interactions in the loudest possible manner in the most public of spaces. But then how do we disconnect from the jostling and the pushing of the sweaty crowds in Mumbai’s public transport, the traffic congestion on the roads of Shanghai, the corruption scandals screaming from every country’s newspaper-tops and TV screens.


And most of all, there is the struggle, and not that of Oscar Wilde's "poet” who can “survive anything but a misprint."


Here and everywhere, it is just a struggle to survive; in all of the North and South American cities, and in all the other continents. Struggle to survive in what most self-anointed management experts like to call a dog-eat-dog world. The struggle to survive in a world of intense competition; where if I do not run faster than the others, I will simply get eaten up by the next wave of hunters.


Who has time to appreciate, examine or simply experience beauty?


Everyone’s running…


…No one’s going anywhere!


We are all angry, frustrated. Trying to recollect what the latest self-help guru said about all this.


And most of us end up asking: What do I do about it?


Paul Smith says the question we asked, in the first place, is wrong. Instead we should be asking:


What do we do WITH it?


Paul suggests we resort to art and aesthetics.


It is also Paul’s interest in Abhinavagupta’s aesthetics for over 15 years and in the non-linear essay forms outside of the Western canon such as the Japanese zuihitsu which means “following the brush” so that the essay itself becomes an act of flaneurship, meandering through both inner and outer landscapes allowing for more complex experiential and suggestive aspects over strict linear expository writing.


One need not separate these everyday struggles of the weekdays with the fun of the weekends. One need not struggle on a Monday by keeping a picture of Saturday night in front of their minds.


Instead, Paul Smith says, one should stop the act of separation and should try to seek union. After all, Smith is also a certified yoga instructor.


This exploration is akin to what tribal societies would do with their everyday life and objects; where the concept of art does not exist unlike our society where art unless high-art is not considered meaningful. In most tribal societies, art is an everyday thing. It is not something that one goes to on a weekend inside a cold museum – a painting hanging on a wall behind layers of security. Art is in the everyday – the drawings and decorations that instil deeper meaning to the everyday objects of utility. The tribal drawings and motifs do not make the object valuable because it fetches a better price in the market; but because it connects that beautified everyday object with something higher, something beyond the material world. These decorative symbols connect the everyday to the sacred and the spiritual; and these drawings and motifs gather immense symbolic value and connect across generations.


American artist, Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008), called a "Neo Dadaist" was supposed to have said that he wanted to work "in the gap between art and life," challenging the distinction between art objects and everyday objects.


So did the pioneer of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp (1887 – 1968), who challenged conventional thought about artistic processes and art marketing, through subversive actions of works such as the “Fountain” which was essentially a porcelain urinal.


Duchamp said: "The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act."


“Essay as Art” aspires to highlight that intricate connection between the beauty and the beasts of everyday living. It attempts to transmit experience rather than mere description - the experience becoming art.



By the Editorial Team, The Essayist