When we think of art, we think of creativity. Different people value creativity to various degrees. Some consider it unnecessary, even frivolous. To others, it is mere entertainment, a way to pass the time. But to many, especially artists, the banality of the natural world seems unendurable without it.
Despite this massive social and personal significance, the pursuit of art and creativity in modern Bangladesh is often thought of as a form of failure or disgrace. When a student decides to pursue art, they are labelled as lazy, taking the easy way out, or a lost cause. Even as we encourage children to sing and dance at events and festivities, we sneer at the idea of any of them growing up to pursue them as a career.
We are naturally social beings living in tight-knit communities. To go against the herd and chase your dreams needs incredible courage. And that is even before we consider the highs and lows of the lives of professional artists.
Zohad Reza Chowdhury, the frontman of Nemesis, recently quipped in a Facebook post about how there seemed to be inflation in everything except the artist's worth. His comments were filled with people saying that art was not important enough to be worth financial compensation. Some argued that it was unfair that labourers were not paid as much as artists.
There is a conversation to be had about the way we undervalue the difficulty of manual work, but when speaking about art, we tend to forget that it is work at all. The few artists who are adequately paid for their work are vastly outnumbered by those who aren't paid at all. And, in nearly every art form, the average pay does not match the hours or the mental strain that goes into the work.
In our capitalist society, with its cornerstone of exploitation, carving out the time and integrity necessary to create great art is overwhelmingly difficult.
Artists crave creation. Without it, they lose vitality, and the burden of their unexplored creative consciousness eats at them. But it isn't easy to make a living out of making intensely personal things that find enough of an audience to earn a living wage. After all, originality is hard to monetise.
And yet, when we look at the course of history and civilisations, the people who achieved immortality, and the museum exhibits of antiquity, it becomes clear how priceless originality is. Civilisations are built on art. What does it say about our modern Bangladeshi society that we are so reluctant to support artists?
Art can convey messages and opinions on the human condition and society and has the power to represent and create identities. Bangladesh is a young nation still bearing the scars of a tumultuous war. At this crucial stage, when art should have been weaponised, we have disregarded it. We pay artists less than we spend on lunch dates.
The difficulty of marketability constantly rears its head. The euphoria of an artist playing with form and redefining convention is constricted and stifled when success is a matter of finances instead of impact or satisfaction.
Socio-political sensitivities also serve to constrict artistic expression. Our politicians and our people are largely set in their opinions, constantly attempting to polish over the ugly realities of whichever side they root for.
In such circumstances, those artists who attempt to pioneer change are misunderstood or outright silenced as examples of nefarious entities looking to destroy tradition. But, when it comes to artistic freedom, a truce must be declared between the weight of tradition and the changing times.
However, any attempt at tackling complex topics is met with pushback. Protests of an artwork before it is even showcased are a rite of passage for modern Bangladeshi artists. The few who rise above the protestations and subsequent rumours often find it hard to maintain their artistic streak amid the constant disruption to their lives.
Nowadays, there is no longer a need to be well-informed before loudly proclaiming one's opinions. Everyone has the right to hold opinions, but the careless propagation of these ideas leads to misinformation and public hysteria. Naturally, to avoid such public hysteria, artists undercut their sensibilities and become fearful conformists. They release art that just echoes the popular trends of the time.
Let us consider the most common topic for serious art in the country. The Liberation War is the nexus around which the Bangladeshi people are defined. But the proliferation of art on the topic risks diluting the pain with unoriginal works reiterating tired tropes. Yet, the idea retains its marketability. In a way, we find it easier to tell and adapt stories of the war than the years following it. By limiting much of our serious art to this particular lens and landscape, artists have been unable to interrogate and understand the human condition while discovering their voices. If we refuse to take chances on the unconventional, we risk not only producing art that is forgettable, but also devaluing the vitality of our independence.
This trend chasing extends to the proliferation of crime thrillers and safe adaptations of popular literary material.
This creative stagnation and dulling of personality extends to our literature and music as well. Instead of carving out their own spaces, people attempt to mimic the voices of literary giants. The promising early 2000s wave of popular music has slowed, as has the interest in pushing the boundaries. Now, the most popular performers are tribute acts.
But even when artists overcome all these hurdles to create something of true, refreshing, vibrant originality and authenticity, they struggle to find a platform and the necessary public exposure.
This is, perhaps, the ultimate failure of our system. Even good art slips through the cracks. In previous decades, theatre was a vital, thrilling part of our national culture. Now, only Open Space Theatre seems to draw any audience interest and they only adapt plays. There is little to push the medium forward in a way that brings back audiences, raising fears of total extinction of the theatrical scene.
But this is true in all media. Writers have difficulty finding decent publishers and even opt into self-publishing, which leads to a glut of output that is very difficult to skim through. Lack of proper record labels leaves musicians in limbo, having to take bigger risks to raise funds for their concerts and albums.
Finally, we should turn our scrutiny to ourselves - the audience. We have become desensitised to art. The constant hits of dopamine and reaction and outrage on social media have taken their toll. When it comes to working to change things, we lag behind. If we don't continue to demand art that is genuine, innovative, and provocative, then artists will not have the resources or the inspiration to create and freely express themselves.
With the burden of limitations, art cannot be genuinely transcendental. When we put such heavy chains on it, we should realise their true impact. Without art that can truly inspire, we will become a nation that lacks a true identity and will, inevitably, seek the oblivious comfort of another culture.
This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.