Friday, August 12, 2011

An Art Critic- A Pain in the Art?

(Venus Williams- Beauty, Form and Balance)

My beloved reader Manghat Radhakrishnan Menon, after reading my take on ‘male art critics’ in Delhi sent me a few questions regarding the ‘relevance’ of art critics. I think it is pertinent to answer his genuine questions through another blog post so that anybody who has similar doubts would also be benefitted.

M.R.Menon asked me the following: As a layman I would love to know one thing. Art in any form is connected to beauty, form and balance. In my opinion there are only two evaluations for an art work or art form. Either we love it or we don’t. In such a scenario why do we need a Critic and what is the critic going to contribute to.

First of all M.R.Menon is not a layman. For me, anybody who could raise these questions is an informed man. Or in other words, a layman is not a dumb man but a thinking man. If a work of art is capable enough to send a layman into thinking mode, both the work of art and the layman could be said to have entered in a relationship between each other. A layman, in that case, any man approaches a work of art with his/her own parameters created by his own acquired knowledge and sensibilities. And no person approaches a work of art with an uncorrupted mind. There is no notion of ‘clean slate’ in appreciating a work of art. In fact, the very notion of ‘clean slate’ is a false notion.

Before going to talk about the relevance of an art critic in an art scenario, let me split M.R.Menon’s questions into three distinct parts: 1) Art is connected to beauty, form and balance. 2) There are two evaluations possible- like or dislike and 3) If that is the case do we need a critic and what is his contribution?

Case I

(Is an art critic a pain in the ass?)

When Menon says Art is connected to beauty, form and balance, he, unknowingly assumes the garb of a critic, who has found out his parameters of judging a work of art. According to him, art is beauty, form and balance. Though we say, beauty is something that lies in the beholder’s eyes, we have come to acknowledge the fact that beauty is that intrinsic quality of something that with its external appearance soothes the eyes of the beholder.

But this statement also could be disputed as per the changes in the context within which an object or person is adjudged to be beautiful or ugly. For example, most of the people consider fair skin or white complexion is good therefore it is right. So, it has been taken for granted that the black must be bad and ugly. Where does this come from? Does it come from a socially and culturally conditioned mind that perceives white as good and black as ugly? Suppose, if we reverse the context in which the black is considered to be beautiful (as in the case of many African countries and amongst the Afro-race all over the world), what could be the ugly thing?

These ideas are not just culturally or sociologically created. They are also created by political hierarchies. Had the Chinese colonized the world in a big way, the way the Europeans and the British did during the last few centuries, what could have been the beauty concept of the world? Could we have considered the people Mongoloid physiognomy beautiful? Definitely, yes.

Hence, perception of beauty is not just about the soothing of eyes. Beauty is a conditioned state of perception; and this is conditioned by all kinds of invisible social dynamics that together constitute the collective unconscious of a society.

Now about, form and balance. We assume that a form that has balance, often symmetrical balance, is a beautiful form. But what about the forms that are non-symmetrical and do not follow any rules as such? What would be the idea of beauty amongst the amoeba? I would therefore say that form and balance are relative when it comes to the sense of perception. Amongst an accepted set of values and life situations, a given form is considered to have balance in it, therefore we call it beautiful.

(painting from Bimbedka caves)

Let us take any pre-historic cave paintings. We cannot claim too much of beauty or form or balance in those paintings. What makes us perceive them as expressive works of art is our collective knowledge about the whole history of human evolution. Once seen through this prism of perception, we come to realize and recognize the form, balance, rhythm and beauty of those expressions. In this sense one could say that there is a great amount of viewer’s attribution in deriving sense out of a work of art. A work of art is a sort of bouncing board for the viewer who could in fact throw ideas at it and get responses.

A critic organizes his responses in a much more focused way than a casual viewer with less attention span and verbalizes it for further intellectual consumption that makes the relevance of a work of art pertinent in the years to come. Hence, critic is a person who gives expression to one amongst the many collective readings. Each critic comes up with his or her way of reading it and each critical piece helps a work of art survive the vandalism of Time and apathy.

So in that sense one could say art critics are the unacknowledged legislators of the art world. P.B.Shelly said it for the poets. I am saying it for the artists and art critics.

Case II

There are two possible evaluations- Liking or disliking. Yes, liking and disliking are the two ways in which a human being negotiate his immediate surroundings, his sense of history, his sense of life and so on . His liking and disliking are the quick responses of his brain and heart to the world of happenings.

Let’s say someone likes a particular smell. But he need to use a parameter to tell the others that he likes a particular smell that ‘feels’ like say, jasmine. The moment he affiliates the smell of a chemical with that of a jasmine his culturally embedded awareness about the jasmine flower and its fragrance takes over his sense of judgement and makes him say that ‘I like this smell because it is like the fragrance of jasmine’.

Hence, we could deduce that liking or disliking a thing or a person or an event or anything is also a relative response to the respective thing. A person’s liking for a particular singer must be conditioned by listening and this listening is triggered by all its associated things like the music director, lyricist, film, actor, situation in the film, director, the day the person first listened to that song by that singer and so on. Then it assumes to have a pattern and this pattern works as the parameter of judging other songs and singers. All those supplementary factors actually constitute the person’s critical ability to judge other songs and singers. This might be the same factors working for another person for another singer. Hence, we could say that the liking and disliking are absolutely relative and all depends on the acquired collective unconsciousness.


Now, I would like to explain this with the example of Guernica by Picasso. Guernica is one of the paintings by Picasso that has been discussed in several volumes of books, articles, documentaries, reproductions and so on. Today, when we say ‘Guernica’ we imagine the picture of Guernica in our mind. How does it happen? If Guernica remained in a museum in Madrid after being discussed a bit in the local newspapers, it would not have been the same Guernica as we know it today. The work has been discussed in various contexts- right from the context of World War II to the context of Picasso’s autobiographical details. The innumerable sketches that Picasso had done for preparing the large mural Guernica were published and studied in detail. Guernica slowly became a part of the world’s collective unconscious. Guernica became a by word for resistance, anti-war stance and peace.

Had there been a scenario where there was no critical mediation about this particular work, what could have been its stance today?

Let us take another example. As a young student in Baroda, when I was asked to prepare for a dissertation topic, I asked my friend and artist, Shibu Natesan, why shouldn’t I opt for a topic which was extremely challenging and new? He asked me to explain: I told him that I wanted to do a thesis on those artists who were not discussed in history. Shibu smiled at me and asked: Where do you find them?

That was one moment of revelation for me. No history, no artist and no art work. Imagine the number of artists lived and worked all these years. And how many of them are known to us? Only those who are familiar to us, who have been written about widely, published widely and shown widely. Rest are out there but in obscurity. So history is a very important factor in art or anything that constitute the collective culture of the human beings.


Now how do I connect history with criticism? Often it is said that art history is semi-history and semi-fiction. The reason for this collapsing of boundaries is this that the artists’ lives are intricately connected with their works. And their lives are intricately connected with what they recount not only in their works but also in other narratives. When these written, visual, non-written, verbal sources are collected and used as material for writing a history, several fictitious elements naturally creep into them, making it semi-fiction and semi-history.

But what are these written and verbal sources, or what are these visual and non-visual sources in themselves? Aren’t they the critical readings of the context in which the particular work of art or artist in question was originated? In this sense, history is a collection of critical documents, verified, validated and arranged logically vis-a-vis several other parameters that make this collection of documents relevant and sustaining.

Critics are the mines from where historians dig out ore for writing history. But it is not necessary that we call those mines ‘critics’. They could be anybody but when someone who devotedly creates a mine of critical materials for the future use of historians as well as for the contemporary use of value generation, we could call him or her a critic. And without their contribution art cannot survive time, however irrelevant and objectionable their works may look and sound when seen and heard from proximate time and space.

Case III

(Subodh Gupta)

Do we need a critic and if so what is his/her contribution?

We do need a critic. Not a critic but many critics. If we don’t have one, create one and if we don’t have many, create many. His/her contributions are immense. Why? Let me explain.

Subodh Gupta is a contemporary artist in India who is real and an illusion at the same time. Subodh Gupta is an artist who has been created by his works of art and simultaneously created by the imagination of a set of people who promote him. Subodh Gupta is a real man as conceived by the man himself and Subodh Gupta is an artist as conceived by himself. Suboth Gupta is a work of art for many and for many others he is just another person. For the investor Subodh Gupta is a share market document in the form of a human being and for the buyer Subodh Gupta is a set of works. For Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta is a husband, father of her children, her parent’s son-in-law and a fellow artist. For a journalist, Subodh Gupta is success story and for an art journalist Subodh Gupta is a market barometer. For a gallerist he is covetable artist. For a curator he is a desirable inclusion. For the fellow artists he is a worth mentioning company. For a page three photographer, he is a photo opportunity. For a young artist, Subodh Gupta is a pursuable model. For a young artist from Patna College of Art, Subodh Gupta could be an ultimate form of success. For the Government of Bihar, he must be the son of the soil. For the international journalist Subodh Gupta may be Indian Damien Hirst.

So, in this way, Subodh Gupta is a product of several imaginations and imaginaries. Amongst the cacophony of such imaginations, where does exactly Subodh Gupta stand? What is his works all about? Who is the interlocutor between his works and the public? All those aforementioned parties are interlocutors of his works in their own capacities. But the majority in that category does not communicate or translate Subodh Gupta for the purpose of history or for a general art loving community. They articulate him or translate him as a presence, money, power, success, glamour and so on. Where does his art go?

(A Very Hungry God by Subodh Gupta)

This is where the critic pitches in. The critic speaks of his works vis-a-vis their thematic orientation, material history and personal history. They acknowledge its ‘beauty, form and balance’ in terms of their acquired awareness of history and culture, economics and politics. The critics create materials for the historians and academics to work on. The critics speak of the various trajectories that Subodh Gupta’s metaphors move in. If one of his works speaks of the issue of migration, the critic comes forth with the notion of migration from various points of departures and constitutes a basic justification for that particular metaphor. If a work of art is a torch, critic and critical writings are various kinds of fuels that help the torch remain lit.

Now, who is a critic and what is his/her contribution? A critic, as I mentioned before, is a person who speaks for himself, for the artist/work of art and for an audience whose complexion and textures are visible/palpable and invisible at the same time. He mediates while disputing or substantiating the fundamentals of the works of art in question. He creates values both contextual and financial, for a work of art not through the ways in which a financial manager works but through the ways of creating critical literature around a work of art and also by providing materials to the academician and historian.

A critic is not a monolithic person. Today an art critic is a person who comes up with multiple trajectories of knowledge. That means, a critic is many critics rolled into one, or many interests manifested in one person. Also a critic today could be a group of critics approaching a work of art from various streams of collective and acquired knowledge. Criticism is a cauldron of various knowledge systems and sensibilities. An architect could be an art critic provided his set of knowledge systems helps to re-interpret, re-read and re-establish certain intrinsic values of a work of art. A critique is a collection of perspectives either created by one person or created by a group of people. Art criticism is an inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary performative act. And without which art’s value is never appreciated.


sidharth said...

thought provoking, thanks johny

Fingertree said...

Full blown response to lingering memory of Inder Salim's performance in KNMA? Now explain why Venus Williams was more important than Venus De Milo?

Fingertree said...

But also, thanks...

JohnyML said...

@finger tree...I follow the google analytics data of my blog. I have noticed one thing, whenever there is a provocative title or a picture, the visit rates go very high. I have an average daily readership of 500. On these days I get almost 1000 unique visits. So you may call it my marketing tactics. :-)

bhamini subramaniam said...

Thanks!explained with such clarity!
Bhamini Subramaniam

Hari said...

good writing appropriate examples. must read by all related to art.

keep it up Mr.Johny ML