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Arts through Tragedy: Perceptions of Storytelling

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Arts
Wordcount: 4359 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Research Question


Researching the interpretation of powerful illustrative arts triggered by perceptions of storytelling that connect to the tragedy of the artist, artwork and the audience, in order to comprehend the impact of ‘creation of empathy’ in storytelling.


“There isn’t anyone you could not learn to love once you have heard their story”, believed by a children’s television host Mr. Roger, gives significance to human needs for emotional, intellectual and aesthetical care. This care is further highlighted by compassion and understanding for an individual once their ‘tragic stories’ are expressed. ‘Storytelling of tragedy’ influences the perspective of an individual by gaining empathy for that individual. Contextualizing one such space where spiritual and tragic backgrounds constitute an integral part of storytelling, the Indian psyche explains tragedy; of the artwork from an ancient visual narrative, of the artist in the society, and the tragic experience of the audience from their everyday lives that interprets art.

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Some visual narratives are based on the tragic stories that have been retold over many years in certain communities. Creating aesthetic significance for these stories are well depicted in various paintings inspired by tragic Indian epics. Moreover, as we know, artists like Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec have lived very tragic life that shutters our perception of not only them but also their ways of creation of art. This reflects on the reputation of the artist’s own personal life that affects the perspective of the audience and hence influences the interpretation of the artwork.

Art as an illustrative form of representation offers itself more readily to an individual’s interpretation. From the viewers’ perspective, the audience searches across their own tragedies in life to construe a visual image. This critical search is plausibly directed by previous experiences or the expectations of the viewer. Exploring this idea of interpretation of powerful, Illustrative visual arts that are triggered by verbal/written storytelling of the tragedy of the artist, artwork and the audience, is significant when an artist demands to connect with their audience using narratives.

Keywords: Storytelling – Tragedy– Interpretation – Illustrative Arts – Perceptions

Trajectories of tragic pleasure

A reflection of introverted and troubled self, a sense of loneliness and hopelessness, she lived between worlds, often searching for a sense of belonging. Conflicted about her sexuality, she interprets the life of Indians and particularly of the poor Indians in oil and canvas, to paint those silent images of the infinite submission and patience, to depict their angular brown bodies. After all, she dies shortly, from a second, failed abortion. A tragic life and a heart touching story, Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintbrush depict the daily lives of Indian women in the 1930’s. Commiserating with the pioneer of modern Indian art, the audience addresses the tragedy and comes to terms with her suffering. The truth about her life, or the tragic story mentioned above, predominantly makes the audience curious about her artwork, which is not yet touched upon aesthetically. (Refer Figure.1)

The origin of Visual Arts begin in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance perhaps from a social configuration of class, capital, and communication. It can be said to express a view, an emotion or an opinion during a time of a political unrest and can make a difference. This does not mean that artists are revolutionaries themselves, but the presence of thoughtful acknowledgment of conflict can bring forth a change. Like money itself, art and storytelling are symbolic agents. For instance, the disappearance of the Chinese contemporary artist and activist, Ai Weiwei, inspired worldwide frustration about dearth of freedom of expression. Visual art cannot be separated from contemporary life, similar to Ai Weiwei’s and Amrita Sher-Gil’s case; it is reactionary discipline and does not exist in a vacuum. Not only politics but also everyday experiences create art that becomes powerful when presented as a tragic story. It is not to say that tragedies are disdainful, but a trigger that modifies the perspective of the audience.

According to Aristotle, the function of tragedy is to affect the catharsis of pity and fear and engender tragic pleasure for the audience. Perhaps, reasons for the nature of tragic pleasure in the stories heard or read can be explained using various theories. To start with, A.C. Bradley, an English literary scholar, describes ‘tragic experience’ as aesthetic joy where these tragedies transform sorrow into pleasure and their final effect is of peace and joy. Similarly, Abhinavagupta, a philosopher, mystic and aesthetician from India, believes the tragic world to be a mix of good and evil, of pleasure and pain that are inseparable in life but some attributes of the soul help us to enjoy the pain and suffering. However, the Theory of Universalization by a philosopher, Bhatta Nāyaka further explains that when shared, the literary tragic experience is never personal or individual. It ceases to be the experience of a particular character and becomes a shared experience of the receptive and responsive viewer. It is universalized and freed from all the limitations of time and space. When the personal experience is universalized it transforms into joy in order to minimize the pain because universality is fundamentally pleasant.

A philosophical view of tragic pleasure has been discussed in Buddhist Philosophy, where pain is one of the supreme truths of life. The realization of truth is always a positive gain and thus, a joyful experience in itself. Since tragedy deals with pain and suffering which is the supreme truth in life, according to Buddha; the tragic experience becomes a part of the wisdom of life. Similarly, ‘Schopenhauer, a German philosopher tells us that tragedy emphasizes “the serious and miserable side of life,” and helps us to understand the ultimate reality. Besides, in India where metaphysical and transcendental concerns are too prominent, the Indian thinkers believe that the experience of observing a tragic artwork is positive in nature, that builds a sense of self- fulfillment and is achieved after breaking through the hurdles of tragic experiences. In India, the tragic experience has been looked at not as a relief from pain but as a relatable and veritable enjoyment. The great Sanskrit poet and dramatist Bhavabhuti has asserted that it is a mistake to talk in terms of the nine ‘Rasas’, the Nine Sentiments, because, in essence, all the Rasas emanate from only one ‘Rasa’, that is, Karuna, meaning sympathy. “Eko ras’ah Karuna eva”; meaning sympathy is the mother sentiment that nurtures all other sentiments. Tragic pleasure is born not in relief or release from pain but in the very acceptance and enjoyment of pain. Appropriately put in words, the pleasure of tragedy is not anything distinct from its pain but inheres in the pain itself. Comparable with Cleopatra’s believes about tragic pleasure, the stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch? Which hurts, and is desired. Only when we develop the capacity to desire what hurts, to love our wounds, can we enjoy tragedy in full measure. Pity and fear are eliminated by a feeling of admiration for the tragic characters that transport us to the world of lofty thoughts and intense feelings where all painful experiences mingle into a rich aesthetic delight.

Conferring with the Indian psychology, these significant aspects of the nature of tragedy that effectively generates empathy, when expressed with verbal or written storytelling about the artist, artwork or the audience; transforms the interpretation of the audience and allows them to engage emotionally with the Visual Art. Storytelling thus, acts as a mask to penetrate the overtones of humanity’s tragic truth. It leads to a singular motive and can cross barriers of time, past, present and future, to allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves, and through others, real and imagined that ideally confirms some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings.

Storytelling beyond the actual narrative


Since the beginning of civilization, narratives have been projecting thoughts and streaming the idea of history, today, and tomorrow. Images of human life over 300 decades are communicated by the Chauvet Cave painting (See Figure 2) in Paris. Images of African memory board, like Lukasa, (See Figure 3) pass on cultural traditions from generation to generation. Over time, art history has undergone several critical revisions: renaissance, romanticism, modern art, postmodernity, visual culture, new media and currently the ambiguous ‘contemporary’. Such shifts were motivated by an evident change in the way art was being produced and theorized in a particular space and time. According to a German philosopher Gorge Hegel, once religion and art are separated in our society, art loses its social power and significance. Ernst Gombrich’s borrowed this reasoning heavily from Hegel’s Aesthetics, sees art as a sequence of styles, each belonging to a set of motivations, beliefs, religions and cultural concerns. Perhaps, storytelling can serve as a constant cultural product, invented and experienced by humans where art is subject to redefinition over time.

Journals kept regularly, roughly and alongside the journey of life, it creates a place for ideas, thoughts, articulation, research, memories, associations, feelings helps to discover our being from different directions, from other points of view and creates in-depth process stories. These stories often talk about the tragedies of the artist experience. John Berger, Josef Herman, Prashant Miranda, Frida Kahlo, Paul Klee, and many others, have used words to explain their journeys. We change and grow in several aspects of life but we always move to create our own journey. Hence our individual narrative is empathizing, challenging and remembering because it is about exploring being alive.

But looking beyond the storytelling of an experience or historical changes, when these stories are used to express a tragic emotion of the artist, artwork or the audience, the stories as symbols influence the audience’s power to empathize not with the art, but with the stories attached to them. And hence, creating an indirect but deeper understanding of the art. The history of art also taught us that art cannot exist without the elaborate conventions that register for the viewer that the experience of it is different, depending on the experience of the audience itself. For instance, the ‘Duchampian revolution’ dissociates the art object of physical meaning and turns it into a cultural artifact whose significance is conferred on the basis of a delicate web of signs and narratives. A true art experience exists when expressed as storytelling, as the relative precision of art is based on consent, ratification, or appreciation by class, race, and culture.

Tragedy from an ancient visual narrative

A French philosopher Gilles Deleuze mentions the importance of reading an image. According to him if one doesn’t understand an image, it is because they do not know how to read it appropriately.  Reading an image depends on the time the image requires, and often the era the image was created. It also relies on the medium; if a visual form is publicized by word of mouth or via social networks, the status develops and reaches a larger audience, left free to wander and rediscovering stories around it. These stories have the power to generate curiosity in the audience and create sympathy. Moreover, various clues are distributed in the situation so that the audience can begin to comprehend the meaning of the stories about that image.

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Reading such an image could be about profoundly tragic instances. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata represents almost the
 entire array of Indian philosophies as stories and together constitute a vital part of the foundation of Indian culture, are intensely and superbly tragic in spirit and in impact. There is an unmistakable tragic pattern in both the epics from start to the end. Right from the moment of Rama’s exile on the evening of his coronation down to the final moment of Sita’s descent back into the earth, the pattern of the tragic suffering is persistent in Ramayana. Rama strives nobly but often in vain. Equally tragic is the scheme of things in the Mahabharata.

One very famous depiction of Draupadi’s Vastra Haran by Raja Ravi Verma, (See Figure 4) is one of the paintings inspired by a tragic story in the Mahabharata. Here, Duryodhana, the king of Hastinapur arranged for a game of dice among his brothers, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. In the game, Pandavas lost everything, including themselves and their queen, Draupadi. Duryodhana then asked his younger brother Dushasana to bring forward the queen to the court. Dushasana brought Draupadi dragging by holding her hair to the court. To the instance, Draupadi complained that the one who was himself a slave had no authority to bet on someone who was free from any slavery. But the egoistic Duryodhana ordered his brother Dushasana to rip off the clothes from Draupadi’s body in the court since Draupadi was their slave and was not supposed to wear the dresses worn by a queen.

The meaning of the image or the story is now clear to the audience and gives direction for compassion for Draupadi, and thus the artwork itself. The painting here, gives a tragic aesthetic significance to the story. Similarly, comics are a good example to explain storytelling of tragedy in an image as comics depend on a balanced combination of words and pictures. Here, the style and the color offer sentiments such as, realism that affects our identification and interpretation with characters or scenes, the visual perspective of panels can displays specific parts of a affecting the telling of the tale and the page layout emphasizes certain scenes over others. Interestingly, a semiotic perspective defines the comic-book panel as a hybrid signifier where signified is a fictional scene or moment captured within a narrative; in each panel, text and image are inseparably bonded together in a relationship that can be subversive, complementary or reflective to the event and execution. But, comics or graphic novels are often analyzed in terms of their storyline or narrative and words can easily overpower the image as critical analysis of comics minimizes the attention to the visual elements of the text.


Tragedy of the Artist in the society

The art-making process captures the essence of the concepts of impulse, desire, and purpose. John Dewey, an American philosopher, suggested that while visualizing the number of decisions that an artist makes over time depends on these three ideas. Principally when an impulse is unsatisfied, desire becomes the conscious impulse; and when a certain desire is selected with a method and direction engenders a purpose. The purpose generated can then take the form of a finished piece of art. However, the potential for complete engagement lies in the hidden and conceptualized thinking in art. Here, the power of the artist’s own stories, when comes in contact with the audience, makes both the artwork and the artist, more powerful.

In the mid-1990’s, a well-known artist in India, M.F. Husain, also known as the “Picasso of India,” became a controversial figure for painting Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. (See Figure 5) He was charged with hurting the sentiments of the people as they felt that the works were anti-Hindu. The Supreme Court of India acquitted him and denied all the charges however, he had to escape India altogether because of the death threats he received from the people. Continuing to paint, he spent the rest of his life as a citizen of Qatar, and returned to the Indian soil upon his death in 2011. In this reference, the story of the artist’s tragedy becomes more important than the artwork itself, though it was because of the artwork created, and with the ever-growing spread of information and presence of social networking, art and the socio-political cannot be separated. And thus, these stories become the truth of the art.

Tragic experiences of the Audience


Visuals have a wider scope of representation and interpretation than that is given by verbal/text. When viewing an image, the things observed lack clearly defined ways of interpretation because both the viewer and the artist-as-creator are engaged in making ‘sense’ of visual image. To draw these lines, it is beneficial to separate visual art and verbal/textual storytelling. One of the greatest examples here is the Alphabet. It is the most sustainable and strong images in history that enabled humans to translate speech into visual symbolic form and communicate across geographic borders and cultures. But often we resort to using other types of images, such as photographs and illustrations because the image of the written word is unable to permeate the intellectual wall of illiteracy. These visuals are not to communicate the exact meaning but open a window for interpretation, which becomes a challenge particularly when the culture of the user doesn’t match with the reflected design. Communicative effectiveness of an image can change the world for better with cultural resonance being one of the criterions for the usefulness of an image. Likewise, a microscopic click of time, a photograph offers anticipation of the power of perception. It points the audience in different directions. One that reveals a slice of the world, a reflection in the mirror, a face or a building washed in shadow. But it also compels them to think about the faces they suddenly remember or homes they have left behind. This kind of interaction and playing with imagination can produce an intuitive response. Various connotations and associations from an individual’s history and understanding can disclose something new about their nature as a visual being.

In certain relationships, the artist controls the opportunities for audience interpretation and for the viewer to extract differences or similarities of a particular kind.  In others, the perception changes through time, or for different individuals, and differs when a respondent is an artist, an observer, a critic, an audience etc. The Creative Director of Ogilvy South Asia, Piyush Pandey connects with the audience’s experience and background to effectively formulate the meaning of the artwork. According to him simple communication reaches and touches many more people and when it is inspired from their everyday lives, and resonates with them better. In India, his work changed the meaning of how we perceive Indian advertisements. He used the tragedies of everyday lives as a powerful idiom to connect with the country. (See Figure 6) Once again, tragedy here is described, not as pain and despair but as an icon and is intended to provoke a particular response from the viewer. Its role is that of metaphor, while an image is observed, the viewer is called upon to produce, from memory, an image or idea that bears a particular meaning or some association. There is a conceptual relationship between the observable image and the mental image and this relationship becomes the meaning to that particular viewer. Perceptual or conceptual, in either case, connections have to be found, or, in the case of a practitioner: the artist, to be created.

Interpretation and Conclusion

Visual Arts is the beginning and end of human expression, it is an extension of our sentient and mindful being. It is the fundamental manifestation of the soul, it is everyone’s story told where nobody and nothing dies. Art possibly carries information on three different levels: First being the aesthetic which is the form seen as an image, Second is an icon, where the image stands as a metaphor to migrate into the verbal about the artist and last, is representation bringing back to mind of the audience, a mental picture of a place, thing or person. Thus, engagement with art practice and viewing these threefold aspects of visual art demonstrates a rich base for the engagement of mind. It is this multifarious and intermingle engagement that gives birth to perception, and then to conception of interpretation. Tragedy being a trigger not in technique, in beauty, or in nature, it resides deep in shadows of the psyche, where unconscious rational thought fails to shine. Tragic stories are in shock 
and disgust, in security and love, in passion and emotion, in pain and suffering and in joy and laughter.

For an artist, artwork or the audience the physicality of creation and the sensuality of interpretation in art provide alternative perceptions to become either reality or imagination. It is the antithesis of the practicality by which it is brought into being and starts the line of a reflective journey that also justifies the existence of storytelling. Storytelling will always remain an important theoretical counterpart to the everyday where tragic narratives are becoming progressively powerful and will thrive and triumph in times of struggle.

As sentient beings, we have primarily perpetual connections with things outside our bodies. Whereas the artist-as-creator has the mental and physical task of arranging the parts that make up a whole and create empathy, which becomes an offering to the prospective viewer(s), the intellectual viewer it is a process of mind and has the task of perceiving the relationships between the parts that make up the whole experience. For the audience it is a process of mind, and thus it is an intellectual activity. It is perhaps unethical to influence the audience but empathy created in the audience using storytelling of tragedy is not confined to cultural codes of interpretation but it must be admitted that cultural influences, storytelling and individual experiences bear upon perceptions many ways.



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