Art for Engineers—Jayalath Manorathna

This is a guest post by the eminent Sri Lankan artist and scholar Dr. Jayalath Manorathna. One of the most consummate actors the country has ever produced, he is the recipient of numerous national and international awards for his work spanning the stage, television and cinema. Dr. Manorathna is also the creator of dozens of stage and television dramas that have captured the hearts of millions. It is an honour for us to feature his article on our blog.

Scene from Sellam Niridu, a drama by Jayalath Manorathna

When trying to manage our lives successfully, we draw inspiration primarily from what we’ve studied and experienced and what we believe in: our religion or philosophy. Most of you readers of the Vesess blog have an engineering background, and this probably enables you to see life’s various problems rationally and analytically.

There is, however, another very important source from which we can draw inspiration to live meaningful lives: art and literature.

What is art? How did it come to be? What is its purpose? Is art only for the sake of entertainment, or is it for human development as well? These are some of the questions we can ask in order to better understand the role played by art in shaping our lives.

Like engineering, art is not a simple process. It is an intricate, deep and vast discipline. Art evolves, its purpose and definitions being subject to revision from time to time. To understand art, therefore, we should understand its beginnings.

Jayalath Manorathna, “History”, a scene from the drama “Suddek Oba Amathai”

Seeds of Art

In the very beginning, humans performed activity solely for survival—for satisfying the primary needs of food, accommodation and clothing. However, it can be assumed that as we evolved, we used imitation to fulfil our various non-material needs. This was especially true regarding our reactions to the uncontrollable forces in the physical world, or the various mishaps, ailments, fears and terrors posed by the metaphysical world. For example, we may have resorted to imitation as a means of communicating to our fellow tribesmen the fearsome encounters we had with wild beasts on hunting expeditions.

Naturally, human thought has also played a major role in the origin of art. The beauty of nature surrounding us has inspired and evoked aesthetic thoughts in us since the dawn of humanity. Our capacity for thinking and our language and communication skills distinguish us from other living beings, and these distinctive qualities of the human brain have been instrumental in producing artistic expressions.

Many believe that if anything exists other than what was created by nature, it is invariably the result of human activity and thought. Various forms of imitation used by one human to project his or her feelings and experiences to another laid the foundation for art to be born.

Some classic examples of this are the 25,000-year-old paintings at the Cave of Altamira in Spain, the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave art in Southeast France and various other forms of ancient folk art.

A painting of a bison from the cave of Altamira
Reproduction of a painting from the cave of Altamira in Deutsches Museum, Munich.

The Purpose of Art

If art exists as a result of evolution, does it serve any purpose?

An entire gamut of views on art has been put forth at various stages of human history. Let’s examine some of them.

Bharata Muni—representing an Eastern perspective—believed that art is for evoking emotions (rasa). Aristotle—representing a Western viewpoint—saw art, especially the theatre, to be the imitation of a task in progress.

Marxist aestheticians described art as a symbolic expression of culture. According to Marx, art is a socio-realistic expression of the physical world. If the same view is analysed from a different angle, art can be defined as the aesthetic reflection of nature in the human mind.

According to the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, art is a human process by which a man affects others by evoking in them feelings he himself has experienced, with the use of certain external indications: “To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art.”

I. A. Richards, the prominent Western critic of the twentieth century, states that art is the pinnacle of communication. Painter Pablo Picasso indirectly expresses his view of art in his famous quote: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” Ingmar Bergman, the world-renowned film director implies his view on art as follows: “To shoot a film is to organise an entire universe.”

Mahagama Sekara, Sri Lanka’s greatest twentieth-century poet, presents his impression of art in his collection of poems titled Prabuddha:

O, Lord Buddha,
why did you desert art?

Art is truth and illusion.

Truth is nature.
Man can never create anything as beautiful
as nature.

Art is for the novices
who cannot see that beauty . . .

All these expressions are based on one specific concept: art is intrinsically woven into life.

The Science of Art

As programmers, designers and entrepreneurs, you have close links with art as well as science. I would like to share with you an important quote by Leo Tolstoy on the relationship between them: “Science and art are as closely bound together as the lungs and the heart, so that if one organ is vitiated the other cannot act rightly.”

Like the various forms of science and engineering, art also has its classifications. These include painting, sculpture, carving, photography and architecture under the broad category of “visual arts”, dancing, music, theatre and cinema under the broad category of “performance arts”, and various forms of literature such as novels, short stories and poetry.

Nor is this an exhaustive list. With the advent of computer and mobile technology, art is produced today in many new forms and formats. In fact, some of you are probably artists working in these new formats!

All these artistic media involve a communication process through which one’s experiences are shared with others. These experiences may not necessarily be one’s own; they could be someone else’s too. They could even be imagined experiences.

It is quite natural for human beings to share their experiences with others. We do it all the time, at home, at work and at various social gatherings. In a connected world, we also do it online with people from around the globe. Such sharing is a critical factor in the smooth functioning of society.

Banksy graffiti on social media

Though the same communication process takes place in art, there’s a key difference: communication in art does not take the form of direct reporting.

Human experiences are presented to others through art in an implied or indirect manner, in a different form than that of the experience itself, by translating emotions to sentiments imbued with aesthetic delight. Experience, when presented through art, is given a new shape.

In the absence of directness of expression, this shape may vary according to the medium through which it is presented. The receiver of such shapes is affected by the shock produced by the arousal of feelings and sensations in him or her. This is the moment when an ordinary spectator, reader or listener is transformed into an ardent fan.

Therefore, the experience presented by the artist should by no means be an ordinary one.

Jayalath Manorathna in a scene from Debiddo
Jayalath Manorathna in a scene from “Debiddo”

Experiences Worthy of Art

We acquire experiences throughout our lives. But not all will be of interest to others. Hence, the artist should carefully select only the exceptional, acute, sensitive and singular ones out of the multitude of his or her experiences.

An acute experience, one that is received through the five senses and synthesised by the mind into a piece of self-expression, is given a new shape by the imagination of the artist who creates an original piece of artistic expression.

“Original” here means unprecedented. A person who sees or hears an unprecedented thing is first amazed; then seized by powerful sentiments of delight, horror, humour or compassion. The essence of all these sentiments is aesthetic delight. As my guru Prof. Ediriweera Sarachchandra says in his book Kalpana Lokaya, “Aesthetic delight is nothing but the overwhelming feeling of wonder.”

Any play, film, song, poem, novel or short story takes an experience as its subject matter. Thus, in all art, something is told (the content) in a certain way (the form).

Content contains meaning, while form contains sentiments. Meaning addresses our intelligence, and sentiments arouse our feelings. A person who takes in a great work of art indulges in both meaning and sentiments.

Experience is mostly a reality or a truth about society or life, and the format in which this truth is conveyed is adorned with beauty. Thus we have truth and beauty collaborating in art!

Therefore, some believe that the truth presented by the realist or naturalist artist is more beautiful and complete. Others, however, believe that art and truth need not have any collaboration, on the premise that truth too is relative. For example, one person may hold a particular religion or a belief as true, while someone else may think otherwise. Something upheld as true at one time may also be proven false later.

However, as far as art is concerned, the truth of a work very much depends on the respect and recognition accorded to its creator.

Jayalath Manorathna in a scene from the drama Suddek Oba Amathai

All of this context may give rise to a number of questions relating to art and its role. Is art merely for the sake of entertainment? What is our objective in seeing a play or a movie? Why do we read a short story or a poem? What need do we fulfil by listening to music?

Why Art?

The simple answers to this question are: entertainment, joy, happiness and delight. There is nothing wrong with these answers and one must not doubt their sincerity. Entertainment, of course, is essential for art. But its most important purpose is the imparting of new experiences, new knowledge and new vision through that entertainment.

In other words, art is for broadening the horizons of wisdom.

A work of art imparts wisdom in an implicit, indirect and almost unconscious way. A great piece of art achieves its greatness by transforming its readers, spectators or listeners, helping them gain a better understanding of life, with aesthetic delight serving as a catalyst.

Art comes naturally to us humans. It is intrinsically woven into our lives. I hope your next engineering venture will be as much an exercise in art as in science!