EDITORIAL : Why Have We, The Indian Artists, Gone Irrelevant / Editor in Chief- JohnyML
1 July 2017. Technically it is the beginning of the second half of the year. Now you may wonder where the first half has gone. This editorial is all about it. Besides, this is not going to be a conventional editorial that would tell you the good things about art and how our Indian art is conquering the world, and how it is going to be the ‘biggest thing’ in the global art scene in the coming years and you should have patience. This editorial is going to tell you all what is not included in the aforementioned optimism.
By default, an editorial written on the 1st of July of any year becomes a stock-taking article of any concerned scene. So if it comes across to you as a sort of stock taking, it is not my fault but the blame would be on the date. To tell you the truth, nothing has happened so far in Indian art this year. I have been keenly observing the Page 3 part of a few Delhi based ‘national’ newspapers (English Language) to see how often our artists feature in them. Hardly five times. The Delhi edition of a Malayalam newspaper went on misspelling the name of a well known artist Jitish Kallat as ‘Johny Kallat’ throughout the running of his solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. I do not know what has been happening with the other language newspapers.
You may detest the litmus test of Page 3. But you would secretly cherish your face there. But unfortunately our newspapers do not think that you are very important, I mean you artists (critics and art historians included). This is not new. In 2008, when the Pak-trained terrorist came visiting Mumbai and wrecked havoc in around five key places there, none from the art scene was probed to give an opinion about what had happened to the city, the economic capital of India, to which then most of our artists were contributing quite a lot in terms of tax and services. The art market was booming though it would collapse soon. But none was asked for an opinion (I had written about it then itself).
Why, why, why? The answer is simple. Our country has been going through so many issues (political, cultural, economic, social, religious and so on) and the world in general is no different. There has not been a single work of art nor a single artist who could get up and talk about it either through his/her work or through his/her words or action. (I would exempt a group of artists who publicly protested against certain kind of moral policing in Kerala but I would include them for not really making any worthy works of art which would further their debates, for an artist’s job is not just to verbally protest but to express his/her views via their works of art.) Making a work of art which would open up a new channel for a cultural debate is worthy for the reason that the artist who makes it would definitely have created a new visual language that pleases a section and irritates a majority of people via his/her work of art. An artist who is incapable of hitting at the fake values of the society does not qualify to be called an artist. I may be harsh in saying so but the truth cannot be less harsh. I remember the controversy that came up with two works of art in Kerala (by Riyas Komu and Tom Vattakkuzhy ). But as the artists did not stand by their works and refused to make any comments, it made them poor conformists with the dominant ideologies. When Rollie Mukherjee, a Baroda based artist suffered a setback for responding to the Kashmir-Pellets issue through her works, apart from a few voices raised by her friends none of the artists (especially the mid-career ones) came out in support of her. Perhaps, they did not even know something of that sort happened!
Let me take an example of Subodh Gupta who nearly represents Indian contemporary art in the global art scene. Gupta had a solo exhibition in Mumbai’s famous studio in December last year. Titled ‘Anahad/Unstruck’ this was an exhibition of the major installations crafted in South Korean fabricating units, that involved sight, sound, movement, electronics and so on. Gupta was probed by many stalwarts from different walks of life including the ones like Shekhar Gupta (veteran journalist) and Germano Celant (veteran curator who had curated Gupta’s work in his NGMA show couple of years back). In these conversations Gupta comes out as a naive and ignorant personality who plays up his Bihari boy image (extremely rural, laid back and lacking in articulation) and dares to call himself as a ‘Railway Boy’ (because he was born and brought up in a railway colony as his father was a railway employee). Interestingly, this railway boy has not created a work of art that deals with railway per se till date, while railway as a theme has been an alluring one ever since the advent of steam engine and has resulted into major works of art and pieces of literature (Turner, Dickens, Zola, Bradshaw and so on). But not our Gupta. As an avid Gupta watcher I have seen him weaving yarns to the extent of them being absurd and get away unhurt by intelligent critical questions. He saves his skin only because his international reputation is partly boosted by his naive character, which today I believe is carefully cultivated for the purpose of the global market.
Is this affected innocence so palatable? Why an artist who represents the country (inadvertently) refuses to make any political or socio-cultural comments in his works or as answers to the questions put to him. Shekhar Gupta was trying to pry out some comment on politics and the artist Gupta was wriggling out of it each time. In fact, if Gupta would like to avoid all the political questions and would like to delve in detail only to the formal as well as aesthetical questions we would welcome it. But Gupta does not have any formal/aesthetical dialogue also on his works. He makes inane statements like ‘he was looking at the leftover food in the steel dinner plate and asked it ‘who are you?’. Had it not been the economic value of Gupta people would have lampooned him and ousted him long back. Let’s see someone making such naive comments when his/her literary works come out or a politician making such naive comments. Will we leave him or her unscathed? So here we are, as foolish ones listening to someone who has made wealth in the name of art in the global art scene. Each time when good old Gupta makes a new story about his childhood spent in the railway colony, the old saris sold by his sisters, the films that he watched in a C-grade hall, the roles he acted in the plays with his friends and so on, any person who reads good literature, watches good movies, listens to good speeches, attends good dance and musical recitals, would find it nauseating. Don’t get me wrong, friends.
Our country’s culture will be ruined by such artists who are non-committal to the core. To make the society get up and look up to the artists and their art works, they have to do something worthwhile. Please, I beg you, do not behave like country bumpkins in Armani suits. Stand up comedians in this country do a better job and evoke people to think in the right way than the artists in this country. I am an insider and the criticism also turns against me. When the British art critic Brian Sewell called a spade a spade, a group of artists signed a petition against him. But he held his ground. So was Mathew Collings who could lampoon the absurdity of the Young British Artists in mid 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Dave Hickey or Julian Stallabrass were also not different. But we cater to people like Hans Ulrich Obrist who does actions that are worthy of Guinness Book of World Records. Our art critics are supposed to get up and do something worthwhile so that the visual culture of this country could be taken ahead. I do not spare anyone in this country who calls himself or herself an art critic. They are all soothsayers and fare-by- weather operators. So long as they remain under the influence of money and market, no good cultural debate is going to happen in the case of visual art.
The problem lies in where everyone is looking for approval. Here let me make an interesting parallel between the legendary Ram Kinkar Baij and Subodh Gupta. Why I attempt this ‘atrocious’ parallel is because there would be some eye opening inferences towards the end of my argument. Both of them are naive, as the conventional meaning of the word goes. Gupta is naive for the market and Baij was genuinely naive. But I should agree both Baij and Gupta are intelligent. Baij had never been clever (my historical understanding tells me) but Gupta is a clever operator. Baij defied conventions, first of all by breaking away from the Nandalal Bose – Benode Behari mould of artist-scholar-philosopher. He broke away from the Santiniketan dictum of denying oil painting, took a chance and painted in oil colour while the students had to practice it at some attic in friends’ houses (as if it were as good as bomb making). The doyens of Santiniketan posed themselves as scholars; the tradition continues till the absolutely convoluted writings of K.G.Subramanyan (A.Ramachandran is rather easier to read and understand). Baij openly defied such scholarship and indulged in frolicking a bit. Gupta was rebellious when he did the initial performances and when he chose to metal cast the Bihari-ness (the objects). But later he turned into a conformist, shying away from anything that would make him responsible for the contemporary culture of the country. I do not argue for the artist to be a scholar and a political commentator. But Baij was political in his works, Gupta is not. Gupta has mythology in his works (in the Barthesean terms), Baij had living histories in his works. That’s why Baij remains and Gupta fades.
When everyone in the Indian art tries to become another Gupta, the danger is lurking around. Those who would step into the shoes of Gupta, would become big and sensational but never become small and significant. Gupta’s works get mentioned in the latest novel of Arundhati Roy (though she does not mention the name of the artist). But we should read between the lines; the works of this artist are not hailed for their aesthetic relevance but their material opulence and wealth that it could command. The catch point is this: one of the security guards gets his eyes permanently damaged by looking at the sunlight reflecting on the steel tree made by this artist. The security guard is one of the protagonists in the novel. He loses his vision by looking at a contemporary work of art. Do you need a stronger critique on Gupta’s works coming from none other than Arundhati Roy?
So friends, there is only one way to make your works relevant and render our art scene surging. That is making works that deem themselves relevant in the contemporary discourse not only of aesthetics but of all kinds. I understand that not a single act in this world could claim autonomy and cut off itself from anything around it because everything is caught in the same web of making wealth, culture and miseries. An artist and his/her work of art cannot be away from it, even if it is a landscape. Even a work of art that is spiritually tuned and turned (on) cannot escape from it. Like a doomsday prophet, let me tell you that we are heading towards a collision with time and the impact is going to be so strong that none of our works or persons would remain to see the day tomorrow unless we make something that would actually turn the course of event at some point, after millions of years when the future excavators find us out. I am not asking for eternity, but relevance. By making oneself irrelevant and demanding relevance for personal inanities is the worst thing an artist could do. So wake up friends and become intelligent, responsive, sensitive, beat your chest, cry out loud, go into silence, but please do not sneak around like bandicoots for a small crumb of bread.