On the permanence of the arts: myths and realities

Despite repeating the proverb for ages, humans tend to forget it over and over again. It’s an old adage: permanence is a myth. Nothing lasts in the world after all. In fact, it is the ephemeral that remains true to humanity at different times. Humans are discovering the relevance of time-tested words with the wear and tear of many apparently immortal artificial works. They could be a magnificent thousand-year-old palace, a spectacular monument, works of art and printed books. Before machine-produced books, hundreds and thousands of hand-written flat plant leaves, bark, dried-up pieces of leather, etc. have disappeared over time. Today only specimens of a few books of this type can be found in renowned museums. Those who do not visit museums can read about them in books on these ancient manuscripts.

Nothing is permanent in this world. Ironically, like humans and other living things, inanimate objects are also doomed to extinction. The works of authors and painters acclaimed as immortals are victims of wear and tear over time. The Renaissance works of art “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” (Leonardo Da Vinci) and the last “Sistine Chapel” (Michelangelo) were made 600 to 500 years ago. If internationally renowned museums had not taken over these three World Heritage works, they would have long since disappeared. Half a thousand years have already passed. Their future is becoming more and more vulnerable. After all, they are more prone to onslaught from the elements than sculptures carved out of pieces of stone.

As part of this universal rule of erosion and, finally, disappearance of many other immortal paintings are underway. Humans could not stop the disappearance of the many contemporary works of the cave paintings of Altamira or the prehistoric wonders preserved inside the hills in the deep forests of the ancient lands. They have disappeared, with the exception of photographs of a few contained in books by art historians.

A sad aspect of the impermanence of the arts is that none can remain immune from its assaults. Not even the great moderns like Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse or Van Gogh. In the 20th century, the methods of preserving paintings underwent a series of revolutions. In addition, the restoration of damaged parts of works of art has adopted many modern techniques. A generation of “art correctors” has emerged in developed countries. Despite this and other developments, art critics remain alert to the feared nature-induced damage to canvases. Few can say for sure how long Picasso’s “Guernica” or Matisse’s “Blue Nudes” will survive in the days to come.

Books written with words are much more vulnerable than the visual arts. Being based on pages of paper in the post-medieval and relatively modern era, the books are considered a small format containing the messages of aesthetics and knowledge. At the time of Egyptian civilization, the medium was that of the papyrus sheet. Ancient China invented paper and used it for writing. The poets of early India used palm leaves and those of many now extinct trees to write poetry and religious texts. Specimens of these bound together leaves are on display in museums, as well as papyrus pages. Palm fronds eventually faded from public life, especially with the advent of relatively user-friendly “paper” during the Mughal and Late British Periods. Native hand-made coarse paper and machine-produced fine paper were once in popular use simultaneously in India. The colonial British ruler began printing books on paper imported from Britain.

One dark aspect of the episode is that it didn’t take long for the paper books to become quite vulnerable. None of the early editions of famous books of the time were available in recent years. The paper used in the books has become too weak to touch and turn over. The middle threads that bound the pages together in the form of books began to loosen and come off with a simply soft touch.

Ironically, the similar condition of the books prevailed in later periods, proving the inherent vulnerability of the books. The state of the physical appearance of books has prompted the compelling question of how long can a well-produced book survive. After a series of research by experts on finished books, it was discovered that a superbly “solid book” can handle longevities of 150 to 200 years –— at most. The average books today are barely 80 years old. This is depressing news for writers. Hundreds of authors thus got lost in the abyss of time, the main reason being that the authors of the books could not manage the printing of new editions of their books. Critics didn’t notice them either. Few could be a more miserable ending for a potential writer. This scenario is not unique to the subcontinent. It is a universal phenomenon. Bankimchandra, Tagore, Nazrul, Jibanananda Das can emerge from the ruthless ordeal of remaining in favor of readers, critics and editors. What about the hundreds more — many of whom belong to the major author class? The art world, in a sense, is cruel. Unless you are under the constant attention of readers or admirers, you risk being forgotten as the days go by. Being present in front of readers and critics with publications is a prerequisite for staying alive among readers. Unfortunately, many otherwise literary geniuses are denied this opportunity. As a result, they are ultimately erased from the history of a country’s literature.

In the digital age, book preservation experts advocate keeping all kinds of writing on online sites. Unless local, regional, and international servers are embroiled in large-scale wars or sabotage by earthlings terrorists or so-called “aliens,” these materials are in little risk of disappearing. Late uploading of literary works, research, documents, photographs and even feature films has become common practice around the world. Like paper books, films are also susceptible to celluloid erasure and therefore from people’s memories. The world has lost hundreds of remarkable silent era films, as well as those classics made in the 1930s and 1940s shot on now-abandoned celluloid tape. Many films have been recovered from dilapidated audiovisual footage. New prints have been made after corrective patches. Film reels were attacked by layers of dust and fungus, some lying in damp and damp conditions for decades. They were beyond renovations. As a corollary, making movies online has become a dominant trend. Like digital books, younger generations are increasingly turning to online movie watching. Movies made in this format can be viewed on desktops, laptops, etc.

Many viewers watch feature films on their smartphones. If the movies can be seen online, there might not be much downside to watching movies, listening to favorite music and songs on digital media. So, thanks to science, art professionals may have found an easy and convenient way to immortalize their creations. In a technologically promising context, concerns about the sustainability of works of art created by modern man have apparently largely disappeared. Rabindranath Tagore was bleeding profusely in his subconscious over the puzzling question of the permanence of his poetry and other works. Similar thoughts may have gnawed at Satyajit Ray. Almost all creative people still fall prey to this disturbing thought.

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