Saturday, May 29, 2010

Art Writing and Regional Newspapers: Findings from a Writing Workshop

(JohnyML with Art Writers at Suryakanti Art Gallery, Trivandrum)

(JohnyML at Suryakanti Art Gallery, Trivandrum)

Have you noticed how the journalists working in regional language newspapers write about art? They all write with a lot of confidence and the language used in these articles looks like a garden in spring time. You see the flowers named ‘existentialism’, tender shoots named ‘Vincent Van Gogh’, buds named ‘Picasso’ and memories of the last spring named ‘Raja Ravi Varma’.

This is a spring in stock. They use it any time to describe any artist. I call this stencil art writing. You put the stencil on any artist and it looks quite suitable. When a work of art or the personality of an artist is translated in to this language, what you loose is the sense of art. You get the flourish of your language; its ability to make you nostalgic.

The major drawback of regional art writing has been this, perhaps throughout the history of our art writing. There were and are great regional writers, but they are as sparse as islands in a rough sea.

Why is it so? What explains the dearth of good art writers in regional languages? From my experience with regional art writing, I have deduced the following reasons:

1) Art as a subject does not demand any special attention. Anybody could write a few paragraphs about art, especially when you have a press release in hand or the artist present for giving you an interview.
2) The other extreme of this argument is that art is something so special that a journalist cannot handle it. So better avoid writing about it or if you are forced to write, embellish your ignorance with the flourish of language.
3) Art does not demand any public attention so push it to the feature pages, whose reading is always optional.
4) An assumption that the nuances of art cannot be explained in a regional language because the whole of our art writing tradition revolves around English language and its specialized jargons. Regional languages are incapable of translating these jargons for its homegrown audience.
5) Art is elitist and the elites read only English language newspapers. Hence, reserving space for art writing is a waste.
6) Art can never become popular because people don’t understand it. And art does not have entertainment value like film or music.
7) Art is intellectual and intellectual topics are to be discussed only in academic journals.
8) All the artists don’t have an interesting life that demands public perusal.
9) Art does not have much economic value. If at all it has, a box item could be written about it using a language tone verging up to cynicism and wonder.
10) As art does not need any special scholarship, crime reporters and city page reporters could do it.

You can add a lot to this list from your experience.

Each time I listen that art is an obscure thing/subject which obstructs public access, I come to this conclusion that this generic opinion is the result of journalistic apathy and callousness.

What is the remedy?

1) Those art writers who have made their mark in the mainstream art scene could impart their expertise to the respective regional language journalists through workshops and symposiums. I think, most of our mainstream art writers (English) are bi-lingual and they do have a mother tongue. If they are not handicapped by the view that regional languages are less capable and they do not have proficiency in both the languages, they can definitely do it through the regional agencies.
2) Regional academies (LKAs) should take the responsibility to conduct such workshops regularly.
3) Galleries functioning from the regional centers could take up this task as their outreach programs.
4) Each regional newspaper organization should select young scribes from their teams and send them for intense training in art and art history.
5) Visual mediums also should do the same.

This is possible.

I have been debating this possibility with many agencies for a long time. Artist friend Somu Desai and myself had approached several organizations with a proposal for doing writers’ workshop, but in vain.

In Trivandrum, Suryakanti Art Gallery led by the former bureaucrat and artist, Ms.Lizzie Jacob has been interested in this project and finally this time I could conduct this workshop for regional art writers at the Suryakanti Art Gallery.

Six students from the Trivandrum Press Academy attended the two days workshop along with the senior art writer in the Hindu newspaper, Ms.Bhavani Theerath.

The approach was simple. On the first day, I lectured them on the developments of art both in the West and East since late 19th century to now. Also I analyzed how different types of art writing is possible.

On the second day, I gave them assignments to do spontaneous reviews on certain works exhibited in the Suryakanti Gallery. And to my surprise, they came out with good pieces of writing, though limited at times by the set patterns of writing that they are familiar with.

It was a small but significant step. I am not here in an ego trip. It is a humble way of telling you, ‘Yes We Can’.

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