Thursday, June 30, 2011
Portrait of an Art Critic as a Prostitute
These days a critic is either paid to write or inspired to write. I often write on inspiration and later on that get paid. You may wonder how. I write my blog and interested editors come to me via email or phone calls and ask me permission to reproduce them in their magazines. I give them full freedom to do edit as per their needs and they pay me. So for me blog writing at times is like displaying my wares at my window. People would see them and if they fancy for them, they come forward, pay and take it. Interesting, right? But then suddenly I think about myself as a prostitute standing inside a glass case displaying my assets to people and potential buyers come forward to choose me. Critics at times behave like prostitutes. But then that is not a problem because I respect prostitutes and their ability to dare dangers and work with all what they have (not just body but pure intelligence) and eke out a living. Prostitution is not a sin; it could be a profession by choice. Mary Anne Sprinkle was a call girl by choice and she could gain a PhD in sexology and she is now one of the most revered sex gurus in the world.
I cannot say the same thing about the women who are forced into prostitution. There are many in the world who are abducted, tortured and then pushed in prostitution. But those women too show their will to survive, dare and fight. They also expect to go back to a life that is respectable and worth living. But once you are caught into the quagmire of this world’s oldest of professions it is very difficult to go back. The best example that I remember is the case of Maria, the protagonist of Paulo Coelho’s novel, ‘Eleven Minutes’. Maria escapes the boredom of her town, goes to the city, works with a garment seller, then lured by a pimp lands up in Geneva. She becomes a prostitute and she thinks that she would go back and give a respectable life to her parents and earn one for herself. But it never happens. But in the process she realizes the finer truths of life.
But there is a fundamental difference between prostitutes who are forced into this profession and the critics in vogue. I need to clear some fog here; when I say critic, I am talking about art critics. None forces them to become critics. They become art critics by choice. Unlike the prostitutes, they have the freedom to go back at any time and start a respectable life in any other fields. Here again I go wrong. Prostitutes also could go back and live a respectable life provided if circumstances are conducive for them and some godsend people come to them by chance or by situational demands. However, critics could go back to their other fields of interests; they could become stamp collectors or they could even start an NGO (non-governmental organization) that works towards protecting the environment. The first step towards protecting the environment is withdrawing themselves from art criticism, but they don’t realize the goodness that they do to the scene.
I have great sympathy for prostitutes. But I don’t have too much sympathy for art critics because most of the art critics have come to what they do today because they thought at one point that it was the easiest thing to do in the world. You could go to a gallery, you could talk to the artist and write whatever you want and then call up your friend in the newspaper establishment and say that you have a piece on so and so artist and the friend in there would immediately tell you to send the piece to his or her desk because he is just looking for a filler. Also, any young journalist who wants to become a respectable one in his chosen profession would desist from taking up art criticism beat because none cares, he knows for sure. So in the newspaper hierarchy the job starts from police beat and art reporting. When you show prowess on both you will be send to life style stories and features, and if you are really fighter you become a political journalist. I am talking about a time when art was not a lucrative profession. So no journalist wanted to become an art critic.
That explains why we have so many art critics today who are freelancers in writing and teachers by profession. If you are ready to write art criticism you are welcome. And editors, once upon a time seriously believed that only women who wore cotton sarees and red big bindis only could understand art and most of those women who wore big bindis and cotton sarees became respectable art critics. I was a lucky one; first of all I was not a woman. I am going to tell you a serious male secret. When constant rejections pester young guys in wherever they go looking for a job, crestfallen they often proclaim to friends that they seriously wanted to do away with their male organs. They wanted to have a female organ instead and some soft looks.
You call it male chauvinistic view. But no art critic with beard and khadi kurta, minus big bindi has established themselves as art critic in India. Suneet Chopra was/is the only exception. I am talking about a time when there was no internet and mobile phones. Suneet Chopra became successful because he could understand the throb of the people as a political activist, he had better lung power than his editors, a good party back up and spoke good English. Rest of the art critics became art critics because they wrote on anything related to art not necessarily visual art. They wrote about dance, music and theatre. If they were invited to write on food, they did that too. Then when you write a good piece about one artist in one of the prominent newspapers, that artist becomes your patron. Artists in India always need an interlocutor because most of them talk nonsense and they know that they talk nonsense. As they know it they expect someone to talk one behalf of them. There comes the critic like an wolf behind a lion. So one day with a patron in tow, you leave your interest in theatre and music and involve more in writing about art.
And let me tell you the truth, you don’t have any opinion to express. In fact, if at all you have an opinion, neither the artist nor the readers (not to mention the page editor) want your opinion. So you write whatever you want in all euphemistic and flowery language and everyone is happy. You are happy because you could see your name tarnished by fine ink on the paper and you take it for an award. So tainted both by ink and lack of opinion, you walk around the city (in fact driven around) and finally someone stands up on his toes when you walk into a gallery. And be sure that day you became an art critic. It is when others recognize you as an art critic that you too start believing in it.
The problem is that you start believing in it. You print your visiting card, flaunt the title ‘art critic’ like a game trophy and tilt your head to forty five degrees upwards and become a patron of FabIndia. Once you start believe that you are an art critic, the fundamental human avarice rears its Lalach La la lap lap head in your mind. This happens because out of too much of love and affection your first patron had given you a drawing with a signature. You had never thought that this would be of any use in your life so you frame it and keep it on your wall and forget it. Then when you became aware of your avarice you look at that picture and take a vow that you are going to become an established art critic as well as an art collector. So next time when you go to an artist to do an interview with him, you metaphorically mention how the first patron was so generous in giving a singed painting for your article. The artist who is being grilled by you then gets the hint and takes out something from his collection and gives to you.
Slowly it takes the form of extortion. You start demanding a work per anything that you write on any artist, irrespective of their name and fame. I was saved from being an extortionist. Of late I too have thought of getting into this business. But I need to find new strategies to become one. Going back to my time, I was lucky because I was not a woman and my first editor was a woman (obviously so as art pages are edited by none other than women. Exceptions like Sadanand Menon are there who had turned business papers into art news papers. Salute and respect to Mr.Menon). She took me for a ‘typical’ case from Baroda; beedi smoking, beared, khadi kurta, jhola wallah and above all, someone who is struggling for the sake of art. She was kind enough and gave me a half page column and asked me to write about anything that I liked in art. She liked to smoke beedis with me and I could discuss personal problems with her. I owe part of my perseverance in the field to her.
I don’t write her name because I don’t know whether she would like to be mentioned by me as it is since a long time that I met her last. While hopping galleries, literally like a frog (with no princess around to help me to shed my skin and turn myself into a prince) I used to see this big bindi-ed art critics coming out of cars and going in and coming out of the galleries with the same tilted heads. In due course of time one could see them shedding their extra hairs on their heads and becoming more like corporate executives. After a few years the market in India literally boomed; hold on. I am not talking about the art market boom. Before that the real estate and automobile market boomed with the boom in the IT sector.
My life was taking a turn with this boom. I was about to become an automobile critic (if a dance critic could become a specialist in video art, why can’t an art critic become an automobile critic?). The newspaper where I used to contribute my columns regularly decided to reduce the space for art and devote that space for automobile advertisements. Right move, on their part, and a stab on my back, front and everywhere. My kind page editor called me and told me the story. She did not want to send me away with no money, no column and no future. So she asked me to re-organize myself a bit. Change into better clothes, go to Pragati Maidan where auto expos are conducted, write a piece on that, to begin with. I looked into her eyes. Sitting inside her cabin I took out my beedi bundle, gave one to her as usual and we smoked in silence. That was the end of my career in that newspaper as an art critic.
I am not here to tell you my story. I am talking about art criticism. Then really the art market boomed. Erstwhile critics became curators because we did not have any curators. Some journalists who hopped between galleries to do usual art reviews started taking interest in academics of art history. They went to respected universities obtained art history degrees, came back only to become art curators, experts, consultants and archivists and so on. Erstwhile red bindied women, now old but with a ‘never say die’ attitude became respectable international curators. They became specialists over a period of time. And most of them tend to cover up their past as dance and music critics and art critics. Art critic is a lesser designation today.
So we have two types of curators today- untrained art critics who became curators through experience and clout, two, trained art critics who have done not a single piece of proper art critical or historical writing and have become curators through job and by designation.
In this scenario, art critics like me stand like prostitutes inside glass cages displaying our assets.
But I respect prostitutes than the extortionists.