Sunday, May 2, 2010
Art, Deal, Radical and….
It has been there in the air for sometime. ‘Radical: Possibilities/Ruptures’, the thirty first edition of Art and Deal Magazine, was announced almost a month back by publishing its cover page and the editorial piece in the Face Book. One could say that the readers were anticipating the release of this journal as the thematic was built around the term, ‘Radical’ and this word and its embedded notions seem to be the ‘in thing’ in our contemporary art scene now.
You may wonder why this much maligned word till a few months back, suddenly gained currency amongst the intellectuals and survivors of erstwhile radical tremors and traumas. Before we get into that, let me explain the origin of the word, radical. It comes from Latin and connotes ‘roots’. Hence, Radical is someone who goes back to the roots. It also connotes how one wants fundamental changes. A radical aspires for and tries to facilitate thorough changes. In 18th century, this word was used in political discourse, which demanded total changes in the socio-political systems. Radicalism also gave birth to political liberalism. It was inevitable that the word ‘radical’ also came to have the meanings of ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘extremism’. When boundary lines of connotative meanings are collapsed in the process, radical or radicalism comes to have negative meanings. Hence, a radical became someone who worked against the ‘mainstream’ society and its conventions.
This negative connotation of the word was one of the reasons why the radicals were looked down upon as trouble shooters. But trouble shooting has its own charm; it destabilizes the generic thinking. In the social sphere a radical assumes a different personality. This ‘difference’ is something that makes a radical charming in the long run. Che Guevara, one time radical became the darling of international market mainly because of his ‘different’ personality. Any market works and thrives on ‘difference’. What they market is this ‘difference’. We produce difference, the market seems to say and ‘once you consume our products, you too become different’. Though it takes a long time for the radical to get mainstream acceptance, even if they don’t aspire for it, it is inevitable that they get absorbed into the system of consumption as their ‘difference’ engenders desire amongst the consumers.
A market, which has been thriving on the contemporary and the spectacular, after consuming the possible differences that it could create, now looks for the ‘available but not yet consumed differences’ in the aesthetic realm. This could be one of the reasons why there is a sudden spate of interest for the radical(s) or radicalism in Indian contemporary art. There is a bit of romanticism and nostalgia involved in this, but art historically speaking ‘radicals’ have always been romantics. But how do we locate the radicals and radicalism within our discourse on contemporary art practice? And how do we locate the difference that they had generated at one point of time? And how do we re-load the radicals and package them for the potential consumers?
Answers to these questions would not be historically justifiable if we seek them only in the generic notions pertaining to the words radical or radicalism. The attention should be trained at the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors Association, which for the first time used the word Radical as an adjective to the social roles of its members (artists) without hiding their scorn for mainstream art practice prevalent during the 1980s and the nascent market structure that supported such practices. In that sense, it was an extreme form of art activism fired by both personal convictions and collective responsibility towards the field of aesthetics and its operational and operative society.
The major folly, if at all we could call it a folly, of the Radical Group was this that they questioned a market, which was absolutely nascent and protectionist in nature. The radicals sought their support base amongst the people (like the fisher folk in Trivandrum and the left sympathizers in the street in general and bureaucracy in particular) and thought that such support base would be sufficient enough to prolong their art and art activism. This romantic idea was proved wrong and fatal within a few years of existence (1989). Most of the associates in the movement when into hibernation and a few of them re-surfaced in the scene after almost a decade.
To gain social acceptance, these resurfaced artists either had to eschew their association with the Radical Group or they had to overtly forward critiques on the follies and foibles of the movement. This apparently guilt ridden process was painful for many but the carnival art that followed after such resurfacing was so glamorous and mind-numbing that many chose to shun any discourse pertaining to the Radical Group. But after a decade of celebration, it became imperative that such avoidances were anti-historical and a re-assessment of the same became necessary.
Whatever be the agency, the celebration of the works by the artists like Anita Dube, Alex Mathew, E.H.Pushkin (though it was short lived in his case) and K.M.Madhusudhanan (both curated and facilitated by JohnyML), Anshuman Dasgupta-Grant Watson’s collaborative effort on Ram Kinkar Baij and the Radicals, a seminar on the Radical Group, keeping K.P.Krishankumar’s works as the point of departure at the JNU and a projected intention of the BMB Gallery, Mumbai to have a curated show on the Radical facilitated and necessitated a situation for recognizing the ‘difference’ of the radicals, which was too alluring to be rejected by the market. That means, the market now pines for a ‘radical difference initiated by the Radicals’. Now they just want to know how to package the radical thinking for profit making. Also, the reassessment on the Radicals is an act of atonement by many and they want to draw the lines of linkages, affiliations and associations through reclamations and forged links as seen in the cover page of the KHOJ volume, which is published recently in Delhi.
Let me come back to the latest issue of the Art and Deal (issue 31). The cover page of it screams Radical: Possibilities/Ruptures. Rahul Bhattacharya, the editor of the magazine, has done a good job in initiating a dialogue on….Yes that is the problem. His intention is to see how the notion of ‘radical’ is perpetuated in our contemporary art practice by the young and upcoming artists’ generation. But as a person who has done some studies on the Radical Group, Rahul knows it for sure that it is very difficult to forge linkages between the kind of radical notions cherished by the Radical Group and the present generation of artists who are not too close to the rigor of the Radical’s radicalism. Also, Rahul understands negotiating the guilt factor of the post-Radical radicals cannot be done through a lose collection of articles.
However, giving a preamble of the recent Telengana uprising, Rahul attempts to see how the radical thoughts are still prevalent in a society, which is forced to wear party dresses perpetually in the name of contemporary art. He rightly suggests that the Marxian notion of profit, which has to be embraced at every point of production, dissemination and consumption, somehow gets diluted when it comes to the actual practice of art vis-à-vis radical art practice. It is a historical folly, first acted out by some members of the Radical Group and later by many. Rahul observes, “.. the mainstream has always excluded the market and its workings from its pedagogic structure. As a result of which an average artist or a critic enters the domain of praxis having no knowledge of the market, its structures and their operations.” One has to see what Rahul suggests as mainstream is nothing ‘radical’ mainstream that excludes the practitioners from the functioning of the market.
The magazine could have probed the actual identity of this ‘radical’ mainstream because all who are out of it and work within the circuit of the mainstream galleries are well aware of the workings of the market. As young people if they don’t know, once they get into this structure, they naturally learn the nuances of it. Instead of the proposed radical mainstream, the magazine suddenly shifts its focus to (art) ‘activism’. In my opinion the thematic of the magazine could have been something like, ‘Art Activism: Possibilities and Ruptures”.
I stand vindicated in my observation (as a person who has read the magazine cover to cover) mainly because the ensuing pages after Rahul’s editorial definitely focus on ‘art activism’ or a bit more euphemistically, ‘alternative art practices’. This hard nut of ‘alternative’ is still not cracked in our art discourse. When we assume that we are doing alternative practices, we also establish and recognize the fact that there is a mainstream. When mainstream has its on ‘Marxian’ profit theories intact with them, what are we aspiring to gain in the ‘alternative’ platforms? Are we considering alternative art platforms as the testing grounds for the mainstream art systems? Or alternative platforms are the recruiting fields for the mainstream by default? If we look at our recent history of alternative platforms, I will not be accused of twisting history, they function as preparing grounds for the mainstream galleries.
Hence, we have an issue here: we are not talking about ‘radical’ notions involved in our art practice, but we are talking about the activist-ic and performative qualities of art, which are not waiting to be absorbed into the mainstream systems. H.A.Anil Kumar’s lead essay focuses on activism directly and he is right in saying that often art activism reduces itself into self-referential acts, which leads to the birth of individual heroes. And as you know, individual heroes, whether they want it or not, end up in the mainstream (of whatever).
This aspect of activism, which could have been read it in the right context had the thematic of the magazine was a bit more clear and spelt out, is recurrent in most of the articles. Samudra Kajal Saikia’s documentation on the theatrical practices in and around Santiniketan is a strong example for my observation. Saikia documents a series of art activism but never debate what is ‘radical’ in all these practices. Sandhya Bordewekar traces the ‘radical’ scenario in the Fine Arts Faculty, MS University. Sandhya says that it is important to discuss the radical possibilities of the current scene there. But then, what was this article written for? The articles that follow instead of generating a debate become just documentations, which I find quite unfortunate. When you expect the writer to debate and detail the thematic by citing the concerned documentation as an example, what you get is just an elaboration of the example.
At times I am thrown into a pit of doubt as I see a few ‘alternative research’ and social activists’ platforms turning into artists or art projects in themselves. Raques Media Collective is one example. Perhaps, it is the most self-evident example how radical activism can become mainstream art practice. An article on Blank Noise Project written by Lina Vincent Sunish tells the reader that this group was started by a girl who was harassed by eve teasers. Slowly, she found liked minded people and founded the Blank Nose Project. It is an ongoing social project. But of late I have heard about them exhibiting in galleries. The question I would like to ask myself is this; where do you differentiate social activism from art or vice versa? The photo feature on Art Karavan and the article on Khoj Bihar also do not give me answer for this question. But then you may ask, why shouldn’t social activism enter in the art scene? Of course it can. Hans Haacke has done it. Christo has done it. I expect the Pink Panty Movement also would soon turn into an art project very soon.
What makes this edition of Art and Deal palatable and loveable is the section of interviews. Designed in a reader-friendly way, the two interviews run parallel, thereby making them mutually referential, at times they supplement and at times they complement and at times they give an opportunity to see the historical incidents narrated in one interview against a critical light thrown by the other interview.
Jayaram Poduval’s interview with K.G.Subramanyan is one of the best interviews that I read recently. K.G.S revisits the Gandhian views on art and social activism vis-à-vis Santiniketan’s role in articulating the ‘national’ through visual projects. Throughout the interview, Jayaram holds on to the focus of Gandhian nationalism and pokes the veteran artists to comment on the Gandhian ideology inspired works by contemporary artists. Rahul and Abhiram Poduval interview Rajeev Patel, who has been campaigning against prohibition in Gujarat. And this interview runs parallel with the KGS interview. Rajeev in bold in his statements and clearly says that art is one of the ways that he uses for the revocation of the prohibition law in Gujarat. It is a pleasure to read these interviews together in one go.
Akansha Rastogi, a young art critic based in Delhi, after a keeping silence for couple of years, has come out with a strong sense of critical responsibility in her interviews with Ram Rahman and Vivan Sundaram. Akansha grills them as if she were an art police officer (no negativism intended) and ekes out the ideological, sociological, political and cultural affiliations and agendas of the organization SAHMAT. She makes both Ram and Vivan to re-visit their creative lives and political indebtedness to the party. Through their objective and subjective observations, the history of SAHMAT and the art history of alternative curatorial efforts come out clear before the reader. These interviews also run parallel and are mutually critical and complementary. Vivan ends up his conversation in a self critical mode and tells that SAHMAT also has become a routine stuff. Akansha, also a poet in making, is existential, skeptical and sharply objective in her questions; something to be appreciated.
Gopika Nath’s interview with Anupam Poddar is simple and Anupam does not complicate his collection of Pakistan art using high sounding theories. What I like in this interview is that his vocal support for the traditional and modern art. This aspect of his collection and attitude towards art had been deliberately obfuscated by many who wanted to portray him as the only ‘cutting edge’ collector. In this interview he has proven himself to be an ardent art collector rather than a classified collector of reject(ed) art. Sunil Gupta’s conversation with Vidish Saini is also sincere and direct.
A few things to improve Art and Deal:
1. Select pictures that in some way illustrate the ideas discussed in the articles. The pictures in the lead essay by H.A.Anil Kumar are just ornaments.
2. Art and Deal is not Lalit Kala Contemporary. It need not justify its democratic nature with publishing too many reviews.
3. There is some sort of clumsiness in this issue. Try to identify this and try to avoid in the next time.
4. Justify the Deal section again. It is not clear yet.
5. Ask the writes to avoid too many footnotes. Seriously speaking, the footnotes do not help. They could be incorporated in the articles.