Saturday, July 31, 2010

MisReading by a Gallerist


(Abhay Maskara)

With a lot of amusement I read a blog post by Abhay Maskara. For the beginners, Abhay Maskara is the director of Maskara Gallery, 3rd Pasta Lane, Colaba, Mumbai. It is one of those rare galleries in India that has a high ceiling and totally an unconventional space. Recently it was at the verge of a closure. Abhay, in one of his interviews in a reputed newspaper (the Times of India Crest) said that had it not been the help of some foreign collectors, he would have closed his gallery long back.

Anyway, the issue here is different. Abhay does not like my ‘takes’ on his gallery and its ideology in my article titled ‘Art, Ideology and Galleries’ in Take on Art Magazine (Vol I, Issue 2, 2010) edited by Bhavna Kakkar. Abhay speaks for himself (and against my takes) in his personal blog, which surprisingly does not have a provision to publish ‘comments’. So what I understand is that he does not want a ‘dialogue’. He wants to convince those people who are ready to be ‘convinced’ by his arguments.

At the outset of his article, Abhay says, ‘Ordinarily I would have chosen not to respond to such rash and baseless remarks but JML has trivialized our efforts as a gallery thus far and raised questions about our motive, intent and funding. Not to mention the alleged misguidance to curators, collectors and artists.’ Interestingly, he titles his article, ‘MisTake on Art.’ Hence, I would like to call my article, ‘MisReading by a Gallerist’.

Those who have gone through my article in Take on Art Magazine, know it for sure that my idea was not to implicate any particular gallery or person. My intention was/is to delineate the ideological maneuverings that take place consciously, sub-consciously and automatically within the gallery and museum structures. I could not have done it without citing certain examples, even when I know that by doing this I would be making enemies out of friends and strong enemies out of already existing enemies. Theorizing of a context and process cannot be done without examples that are strong and glaring, even if that incur disappointments and disagreements.

You may notice, the play of the subjective ‘I’ and the collective ‘We’ coming up again and again in Abhay’s accusations leveled against me. By collapsing the subjective I with the collective ‘we’, he deliberately obscures the role of the players behind his gallery. As he argues on, Abhay makes it clear that he is the sole decision maker of his gallery (so I need not worry about critics and curators) and in the same breath he talks about ‘We’ enjoying the goodwill of the collectors.

If you read between lines, you will come to know how this collapsing of I into We or vice versa helps Abhay to hide his ‘ideology’ (for details on ideology, refer my article in Take on Art). In Abhay’s article, which could be termed as a pack of contradictions, he laments how I am oblivious of his personal sacrifices by putting even the last penny from his savings to support the kind of art he believes in. The next moment, he comes up with ‘We’, saying that this ‘we’ recognize the fact that the market would take time to understand the art, which Maskara is trying to promote. At times, he says that there is no market of his kind of art (read TOI interview). At times, he complaints that my article is an effort to ‘negate the goodwill we enjoy with out collectors and community at large’. How can you have no takers and enjoy the good will of collectors at the same time? Who are this ‘We’ that Abhay is talking about?

It is in this ‘We’ that my article focuses on vis-à-vis ideological functioning of galleries, which Abhay does not understand at all. It is good that Venkanna T and Shine Sivan are going places through the efforts of Maskara Gallery. But Abhay demands that I should be talking to his artists to know their current status. Sorry Abhay. I am a cultural observer and a critic, who uses his observations to see culture as critique and critique as culture. I am not a journalist (many former journalists are fast turning into curators these days) and you cannot expect me to run around your artists and ask for their whereabouts. However, I am happy to know that your artists are doing quite well.

But I don’t understand this statement of yours in the TOI on 3rd July. “The situation became dire when six of our last shows went without a single work selling to any local buyer.” Either you are telling a lie or you are just trying to play a double game, exactly the way you are collapsing ‘I’ and ‘We’ in your statements.

Now you accusing me of having no grasp on ‘the commercial aspects of the gallery’. As an art critic and curator, it is not my job to know the commercial aspects of the galleries (the case is different when I am working within a gallery and functions as an institutional curator I am supposed to handle the funding aspects). That does not mean that I am completely unaware of what is happening in the financial front. If you had any grasp on the commercial aspects of a gallery, I don’t think you would have spent even the last penny from your pocket to support your kind of ‘art’. Who would fritter away his life savings to support art during these days of late or post capitalism? If you are agreeing with the capitalist market theories, you have made a fool out of yourself. Or if you are an anarchist and a rebel, then don’t complain that you spent your money to support art.

You quote Rekha Rodwittiya in order to endorse Shine Sivan’s show ‘Sperm Weaver’ at your gallery. Rekha is a good friend and I read all her articles. They are emotionally charged, highly subjective and she never minces her words. She writes what she feels. So if you think that her words replaces all the critical voices from Indian contemporary art scene, I would say that when she forwards critique that also should be taken in the right earnest, which I don’t think any gallerist would do. The moment Rekha becomes critical, suddenly she becomes a woman, a Sakshi artist, a modernist etc etc. Come on Abhay, I have been around for the last two decades.

Now Abhay says,’I will end by restating that the role of a gallery is not simply to cater to an existing market but to create new markets. My job as Curatorial Director is not simply to sell what is easy or fashionable but also to propose what is not easy to understand or consume. It is a great responsibility and one that we take with utmost pride and seriousness.’ If you look at Abhay’s blog you will come to know that this young aspirant gallerist has been looking ‘only’ at the mainstream market till a few a years back. Just check out his blog archives. It starts in 2006 and Abhay’s whole interest is in where Souzas, Razas, Ramkumars and so on are bought or sold or auctioned. Even ten to fifteen years before from the beginning of Abhay’s blog, in Delhi I was working with the Venkannas and Shine Sivans of that time who are huge names today. Any doubt? And tell me where were you then, Abhay?

The same Abhay who tells me that I need not worry about my contemporary curators and critics, thereby proving himself to be an absolutely private entrepreneur finally wants to get endorsement from the public (he has asked the readers to write to him if they have any questions on the funding tactics etc). Why do you need endorsement from the public, Abhay?

I stand by my statement, ‘Unless these galleries prove themselves to be commercially viable, through ideological manipulations they would be misguiding a set of artists, curators, collectors and son on towards a no win situation, where ultimately the artist are left to suffer alone.’ I can give you at least twenty five examples of those artists who were the darlings of the galleries and curators at some point of time. Anders Petterson had once observed that a selection of auction catalogues from the last ten years would tell you that majority of the artists featured in those catalogues are no more active (means, they are not in the scene or have fallen out of grace from the system).

I would like to quote Nancy Adajania from her article, ‘Probing the Khojness of Khoj’ (The Khoj Book- 1997-2007- Contemporary art practice in India. Editor. Pooja Sood): “If ours is to be a healthy art world, expressive activity must proceed in dialogue with discursive activity, and not with antagonism towards it……It must therefore also recognize that the work of the critic is a related but independent project of research and inquiry; that the critic is the artist’s fellow contributor and collaborator in the production of culture.”

Any clue, Abhay? I want to take this as a dialogue because who knows tomorrow we don’t work together in a project!


Abhay Maskara said...

I have responded in a manner that I (as in Abhay Maskara) thought fit and I have no interest in playing verbal ping pong with you Johny. You can write as you please and we (as in the Gallery) will continue to do our work to the best of our ability and for as long as we can.


JohnyML said...

dear Abhay....

As I said in the last part of the article (rather response to your blog), I consider it as a dialogue. I recognize and respect your position. And hope in future, we would engage fruitfully. My response was not just a verbal ping pong, on the contrary it was a point by point jml

: - ) said...

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” [Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonapatre, Chapter 1.]
This now popular statement is pasted above as a remark (pun intended), on the aesthetic syndromes of the European avant-garde - [as they manifested (between the 1920's to the 50's) & were institutionalized (starting late 1960's onwards in continental Europe and US america)] and it's manifestation in post Soviet Union ex-colonized nations of south Asia since the early 90's.

Often promoted under a broad category of 'experimental / radical', challenging, etc. artifacts which stake a claim to the avant-garde lineage [ of the immaterial, unconsumable (commercially), everyday, concept over material etc.] tend to neglect the root of the term 'avant-garde'. The term literally meant in an earlier time the leading pack/group which leads the attack, the avant-garde could be the dogs in a hunting trip of a feudal context or the front line of offense in a military combat context. But, the important aspect of the term is that, it needs a background of potential latent force of much higher explosiveness to have any merit. The 'avant-garde', the term, by the very virtue of it's inherent linguistic base pre-supposes a rear-guard which can capitalize on the shock and awe which it(the avant-garde) causes.

Returning to the art context, the european avant-garde definitely resulted in a healthy amount of self criticism and introspection within venues (university,festivals,museums) where it was tolerated variably, but in terms of an absolute capitalist economy dynamics, these 'avant-garde' artifacts never maintained any sustainable commercial activity. They had a significant amount of tertiary value, for those who complied to the complementary intellectual discourse surrounding the artists and the artworks, but the heavy commercial activity spinners continued to be the 'tangible' formalized aesthetic communicators.

Even in the elaborate biennial spectacles it has been the avant-garde artifacts which take the spot light, but the vigorous commercial dynamics have always been triggered by the easily consumable art-works, which could have post-modern concerns in theme, but in plastic form maintained the old medium of painting, prints or transportable/ re-assembled durable material sculpture.

It is remarkable to observe the emergence of such syndromes in rapidly emerging economies of south Asia and one wonders about the ratio of excess wealth being generated now for such avant-garde / radical / experimental compositions to be tolerated and venerated.

Connecting with Marx's quote on top, institutionalized avant-garde, in it's essence, in western Europe and US America is of course tragic, towards the sense of what it tried to achieve in demonstrating the ideas of the late-capitalist 'human condition' and the ever recursive open-ended dialogue which it trailed behind. i would claim that the emergence of these syndromes in new high speed economies are absolute 'farce', since the aesthetic progression has jumped from an erstwhile colonized one onto a contemporary vegetative state which is increasingly under question in it's place of origin and nurture.

What one could conclude from the loose rambling above, is that, it is completely pointless(intellectually and commercially) for any gallery / curator to view itself as a martyr for carrying forth this avant-garde discourse at the cost of discouraging more commercially viable displays. Of course, there is the matter of 'belief' which the gallery person mentioned in the article refers to, but that is always generated as a trivial reflexive response to maintain certain cognitive social equations in the 'art-world' context. CONTD.

: - ) said...

Often, it can be observed that such 'avant-garde art' happens at non-profit art production spaces that are always funded by an excess wealth source / funding body that is anyway not loosing money since it's assets ideally are accentuated by certain compound interests emanating from an old industrial + capitalist body.

It would be more prudent if the commercial gallery/+curators ambitious enough to locate new markets were to seek out unique 'aesthetic tendencies', specific and novel to the emerging economy space instead of claiming ethical allegiance to aesthetic syndromes which have increasingly lesser significance even in their original locations and never had any potency for sustainable commercial outcomes to start with. i do not claim a support for a retrogression into a modernist aesthetic fit for convenient sales, but a reconnaissance into the turbulent 'present' of the south Asian economies for unique solutions that can be commercially sustained.

It is not healthy any longer for any emerging commerce based on aesthetics to seek authenticity /credibility by merely being included by some display venues on either side of the Atlantic as the gallery person has noted on his blog.

Dialectically this still amounts to intellectual and aesthetic slavery, i would claim so. The proposition now ought to be for south Asian galleries to discourse between each other instead of seeking compliance with European discourses of the last century.


This is a purely pseudo-meta-level comment by a third party reader with no personal, social or commercial links to both the individuals involved in the dialog.

chintanupadhyay said...
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chintanupadhyay said...

hi guys i would see both of you opening up and talking about some really important issues. i would see it not as personal fight but a question to our own dear system where art industry is growing and looking great. I think it is the time when we/i have to welcome these kind of dialogues. I would have avoided writing a comment but felt a need to show that we/i read both of ur opinions not to judge but to understand different perspectives. I hope the discussion will continue and more people can participate not with the attitude that who is a good man and who is not but with a passion to really understand situations and complexities.
so personal is good if it gives an insight, because i am sure many issues are unresolved between galleries, artists, market, curatorial, theoretical and critical practices. I know johny ML since 15 years and i am sure he is one of the most important critic in india in the Era when critics been killed by the harshness and responses from the artists, institutions, and financial system. i know how he has survived and i am inspired also. I have heard about Abhay first time as a collector and then as a gallerist and he has really done some wonderful shows. for me it is not important about the status of artists he shows. It is interesting that he is a young gallery and has a passion to show something different but not as fashionably new.
I think ideological positions are important for any sector be it creative or financial. be it commercial or non commercial what is important that we have real dialog. many times we are victim of an image which is created or made by the system. how can we make our art scene as verbal, vocal and open which doesn't need a formal platform but alternative one. so if we keep killers attitude away and look for more dialogs more fearless communications. i am happy that you both came out of self and made your points clear to us.

LotusEater said...

Hockney said "all art finally, will be decorative" That includes cutting edge, or even bleeding edge art. ( except art that appears to be too clever by half - that will be sent back to the artist, with a blank page by way of explanation)

JohnyML said...

To the Smiling one :-),

friend, thanks for that long comment, which is quite insightful, to the point and historically informed.

Even if you claim that it is a 'psuedo meta level third party comment', I would call it a responsible engagement, which is capable of furthering the dialogue, which I believe is already on, if not in my blog, out there in the minds of people.

Thank you very much for that....



JohnyML said...

Dear Chintan,

Thanks for your very considerate comment. I am humbled as you acknowledge my efforts to hold the sense of art criticism in this coutnry.

I believe, this country is so vast and has a variety of issues and expressions. This country cannot afford to have a monolithic approach to art criticism. I look at our art scene as one with a lot of critical possibilities but somehow impaired its potence by its own handiwork.

Somewhere I find, a set of people are there to perpetuate monolithic ideas. Perhaps, it reflects our subconscious demand for monopoly and fascism.

Any person with an awakened mind cannot but forward efforts to check fascism of any kind. My dialogues are meant for that. I think I like what Osho said in one of his discourses, 'when there is a competition, then only there is a failure and a sense of defeat.'

In a dialogue, none gets defeated or failed. So let us have more dialogues....


gayatri said...

more than the issue itself there seems to be a verbal joust.the one with the stronger verbal muscle will overpower.the tendency to use we and i in indian english must aways be ignored unless legal,in india this is an english dialect,such as mallu english or bomby english.

JohnyML said...


whoever you are...your thinking has gone terribly wrong in reading this 'i' and 'we' issue....