EDITORIAL: Debating the False Notions about Failure in Art and Poverty of the Artist / Johny ML
Hochimin PH, a Kochi based artist posts the pictures of one of his granite sculptures in the Facebook and many people like it. The artist makes it amply clear that it is not an ‘independent’ work but an ‘ornamental’ piece that he has been making for a new house built by his friend. The work of art that I could see in those images is not aesthetically exceptional or capable of bringing about a revolution in the art scene. I thought about the reasons for many artists and friends ‘liking’ this particular work. This artist is a known polemicist and has been initiating so many ethical as well as aesthetical debates in Kerala. But a polemicist gathers more enemies than friends. However, each polemicist reserves equal number of supporters in various guises elsewhere; though that is a different matter. The more I looked at the number of people liking this work the more I understood that the ‘likes’ were not just for the work but for the sincerity with which the artist had boldly pointed out its ‘commissioned’ nature. Very few artists say that they do commissioned works even when they do ‘only’ such works especially during these days of absolute absence of art market.
Here is a lesson to be learnt from this artist: Be absolutely truthful and sincere in your life and art because in this world of strategies, manipulations and nepotism, what people like is truthfulness. Most of the people take this virtue as a sort of weakness or lack of determination to succeed. And remember, success is always temporal; it changes its nature as the time changes. In any culture we see the historical reclamation happens only in those places where the traces of dignity, aesthetical integrity and sophistication of expression and execution are found. Success is making everything apparent and palpable, and leaving nothing for history to ruminate about where as creation despite the absence of success is something ambiguous therefore enigmatic which often evokes the curiosity of the future historians. Art is a way to immortality as that is what human beings strive in their lives whatever they do with it. Immortality is an imaginary concept but very soothing one and let me assure you that immortality via aesthetics is never temporal. What is apparent is bound to vanish and its place be filled with reclamations for the truth lies in what is hidden at a particular time. Truth is always hidden by a golden lid. What history does is the removal of it.
Many may think that I am a prophet of failure and poverty, which is absolutely false. The binaries are created only when there is a need for hegemony and power structures. The natural binaries exists as creative complimentary entities (as male-female, sunny-rainy, green-brown, life-death and so on) while the artificial binaries establish hierarchies (notions of white-black, rich-poor, success-failure). Artistic failure has nothing to do with the ‘success-failure’ binary. An artist could become rich by doing bad art provided the market and the consumers resort to bad aesthetics (Damien Hirst is the best example from the last three decades whose fame as an artist today is questionable) while a good artist who does good works could remain poor therefore a ‘failed’ artist for a long time for the adverse nature of the market. These are not permanent facts and are bound to change in due course of time. Hence my prophesying (if that is how contemptuously you prefer to call it) is about the false notions about success and failure (and whatever be the results of it) for they are not permanent in any case.
It is ironic that even in the twenty first century many people equate the financial poverty of the artist with his failure as an artist, which I find atrocious, retrogressive, archaic and anachronistic. Financial failure of an artist could happen for various reasons; he could be coming from a financially poor background, his mismanagement of funds, his lack of direction, the market’s aversion for his works, his lack of talent, his strong convictions, his lack of interest in marketing his works, him being in the wrong place at the wrong time, him being archaic or well ahead of his time, for He being a She. There could be hundreds of such reasons for poverty. But it cannot be connected to his art. There are two major reasons why the artistic poverty is still a thing of ‘substance’ in critical debates about art. One, most of the famous artists were poor at some point of time in their lives. Two, poverty is the absence of artistic success. Both these are false notions and it is high time that we shed these notions.
The first reason, ‘artists as poverty stricken people before their success’ is a historical construct as well as a romantic notion. It is a historical construct because most of the ‘poor’ but later established artists were unable to find patrons for their works in a given time. This lack of patronage could be the result of a general lack of interest in art or the then prevailing decadent tastes of the patrons. Their later success proves only two things, one, the times improved and two, the aesthetical outlook of the society changed. But art historical writings, especially those from the west romanticised this poverty perhaps as a counter strategy of the capitalistic forces to equate the bourgeoisie artists with the proletarian artists (who were poor and pro-people) and this history was imported to the then third world countries and was well lapped up by the struggling artists as exceptional models of art and artists, without considering the materialistic conditions which gave birth to that kind of art history.
Now the second reason, ‘poverty as the absence of artistic success’: This is one of the outcomes of the 20th century notion of ‘professional’ artists. History tells us that the artists were either obscure people who worked as itinerant workers for royal or religious patrons or artisans worked in guilds under a master artist. Individual artist working from an isolated studio was a result of the industrial revolution. And the artists of erstwhile ages were thrown to the streets or to their cold studio without any financial anchor or security of a guild. This slowly led to the birth of ‘professional’ artists; artists who worked and earned from their art. This idea was overlapped with many layers of artistic qualities such as artist as a loner, artist as a philosopher, artist as a womaniser, artist as a lover, artist as an ill person, artist as a social outcast, artist as an anarchist, artist as a stranger, artist as a nonconformist and so on. So we have this 20th century artist who is a professional with all these qualities, which gives him all the liberties to be (to put it bluntly) irresponsible. The surety of art bringing him money to live made him avoid all what is related to life and its sustenance. He became a lonely traveller in the world of art. And I would say, this is a false notion of being an artist today because considering the materialistic conditions (including the political, economic, ethical and aesthetical conditions) an artist should find ways to survive in a society first as a human being with a lot of dignity and then as an artist though I find it is an inseparable existence (an artist is an artist and human being at once who demands dignity). Doing commissioned work or any other work that would fetch him money and dignity without losing his sincerity is very important.
My hailing of Hochimin’s works as something important comes from these ideas. It is not simply a way of saying that, hey look here, he is a struggling artist and he needs your sympathy. No. He does not need anybody’s sympathy. What I say is this, hey look here, here is an artist who has a lot of dignity and sincerity. And he is successful in his own ways. I value his attitude and salute his dignity though I could differ in many points with him as he is a polemicist. And it is very important to know this especially when galleries are artificially created and art atmosphere is created in the same city, like a film set, in order to endorse certain art practices in that place. About that later.
Editor-in-Chief, Art Tehelka
(All images courtesy artist Hochimin PH )