Saturday, January 14, 2012
To Speak or Not to Speak: Is Vocalizing Necessary to be Successful in Art?
“Dear Sir, I do not speak well, nor do I write well. Would this be a hindrance in achieving success in the art scene?” Almost a month back a young woman artist wrote to me. “Recently I was talking to a few friends who are not good with words exactly like me and they too said that they were anxious about this ‘muteness’. We were discussing the success of some of our friends who are very good in expressing themselves as well as explaining their works both in public and private spaces. They have a way with words that ensures their success. I am depressed to the point of losing all my confidence. Advice me, sir, would I ever make it in the scene?” She concluded her mail.
I did not reply to her plea for two reasons; one, I was busy. Two, I thought she should find a way out on her own. Two days back she sent the same mail again, asking me to help. It was then I thought it was not her problem alone. This linguistic inability of an artist is considered to be a major stumbling block en route the social and economic success of a young artist. Today, those who dress up well, package their personalities in a spectacular fashion, speak well in social situations and vocalize the qualities and concerns of their works in an elaborate manner find easy access to the platforms that would help them to become socially and financially successful. This is the tendency of the changed and changing times. Also it reflects the changes that have been taking place in the very ‘language’ of art itself. Art turning more and more conceptual, more and more experimental and above all, more and more (new) media based, it becomes quite pertinent for the artist to become vocal not only as an artist but also as a presentable and intelligent individual in the society.
Having said that I do not intend to disown and overlook the concerns of my young friend who sent that mail to me. On the contrary, I would like to flag out the issues that have made the ‘vocalizing’ the artistic and individualistic concerns quite pivotal and central in our art scene. Also I would like to look into the kind of hypocrisy and snobbery that rules our art scene. During 1990s when Post-modernist theories and practices made their presence in the art scene, subaltern expressions that defied the notions of the ‘acceptable art’ in the gallery-museum circuits, needed to make self explanatory comments in order to justify their ‘alternative-ness’. Post-modernism allowed the space for poly-vocalism in art; in a way paintings could move out of stretchers and the sculptors could jump down from the pedestals. Art made out impermanent materials and art that came out of off the centre ideologies and ideals claimed their rightful space often through supplementary words. That’s why artists like Vivan Sundaram, in 1990s told the then art students to ‘speak up’.
That was a great move because artists thought it was a great idea to talk. Speaking about art and being vocal about one’s own concerns about art and aesthetics in the public domain fundamentally differed from the adda cultures in which artists and critics ‘debated’ art and culture in the lines of formalism and certain abstract idealism. Good, bad, ugly, right, wrong, acceptable, objectionable, original expression, copying and so on were the defining points in the adda debates. Such debates often positioned for and against the idea of ‘progressivism’ in art and society. However, with the advent of post-modern debates in the 1990s, speaking on and about art became more political and personal. These debates could interface the personal and the political in the multifarious vocalizing of concerns of the individual artists while justifying the ideology, material and form of their concerned works of art.
Today, ‘being vocal’ about one’s own art has moved away both from the adda debates and the ideological debates of post-modernism. With the conceptual art movement jumping over the gap of three decades from the west to our country, and with the works of art and artists tend to become exclusively specialized, being vocal has gained a different meaning. Artists who work in/with new media and certain exclusive issues are expected to gather ‘communication skills’ to explain their art not only to the gallerists but also to the critics and viewers. In that sense, most of the conceptual artists become specialists of their own art in their own special ways, almost debarring multiple entries into their works of art. Their words become the ‘sole clue’ and their words carry them ‘ahead’ in name, fame and fortune. Slowly these communication skills instead of being the explicatory modes became desirable ‘social skills’. The result of this transformation today is such that just by acquiring these ‘social skills’ of communication, one could become a ‘good’ artists.
This change over becomes detrimental for many because we don’t have a ‘uniformly’ ironed out art scene. Artists coming from various states with different linguistic orientations, classes and modes of expressions are not a lot that works always conceptually. Some are ‘purely’ painters, some are sculptors, some are landscape artists, some takes pleasure in painting objects and images from photographs. Internally all of them know what they are doing and why they are doing. But in the given ‘acceptable and necessary’ context of vocalizing, they find it difficult to speak in volumes about their art, interestingly or impressively. Perhaps, without jargons or ‘concepts’ they could tell you why they do their works. Even many of them work with new mediums such as video, digital imaging, clay-mation, animation, sounds and so on. And from inside they know why and how they do it. But the social skills to communicate become a hindrance and the inherent muteness or the incapability to vocalize gnaws their confidence from inside only to push them to the sidelines of the great spectacle called contemporary art.
I would say the inability to talk or the lack of social communication skills comes from a fear infused in many of the artists by different social systems. There are certain definitive socio-cultural and economic contexts that determine the linguistic skills of the people. First of all our education system of art as well as the systems in which the art operates predetermine that English is the only language in which artistic ideas could be effectively communicated. While many artists are able to express themselves and their concepts well in their mother tongues, in a different context where they feel that ‘only’ English would do the magic, they force themselves to take the backseat. They imagine that their inability to speak in English naturally makes them ‘lesser’ artists compared to those who could express well in English even if their works do not carry what they proclaim in/through English. The supremacy of English and the complex that this language imposes on the artists are so heavy that only when the artists become light with ‘spirit’ they open up. You may notice how some artists once they are ‘high’ on alcohol suddenly become very vocal in English. That means, the fear of English is so ingrained by the system that they need to shed all the inhibitions through the consumption of liquor in order to open up and talk in ‘English’.
In the class and caste ridden society of India, class predominantly determines the ‘confidence’ to speak in whichever language including English. An artist who is quite aware of his/her class naturally takes a social position through the exercise or non-exercise of his/her linguistic skills. Some artists coming from the upper class, even if their works are not ‘up to the mark’, make it a point to speak about them vehemently, imposingly and convincingly so that none could miss their works. In the case of an artist coming from regional zones, class awareness intricately mixes up with the fear of/for a particular language rendering him/her totally mute. This mainly happens because of the predetermined and politically-socially-culturally imposed idea that English is the language of the ruling class therefore it is the language of the upper class and the successful. I would say the artists who assume muteness in the urban public domain prefer to do so because they believe that even if it would not bring any success to them at least it would save them from socially embarrassing situations.
I had undertaken a research trip along the central India region in 2009 with an idea to visit the regional art colleges in order to know how they are taught art and art history. I visited around eighteen regional fine arts colleges spread across the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Maharashtra. Everywhere I found interesting students with interesting ideas but shy in coming forward only because they thought they would not be able to communicate with me in English. After much prodding, they opened up in Hindi and to my horror I found out that most of them even did not want to become ‘full time’ artists after their graduation. They either wanted to get into the local industries as designers or craftsmen. The girls told me that they would continue painting till they get married. At the BA Mehta College in Amalsad, Gujarat, I got introduced to a young man who ran an omelette shop just outside the college. He was a BFA in painting from the BA Mehta College and had an MFA in applied arts from the MSU Baroda. I asked him why he left his ‘profession’. His answer shocked me. After his MFA, he was working with an advertising firm in Baroda and was drawing a good salary. After working for six months, he realized that he was a misfit in the organization because he was not able to speak in English. He told me that even in the fine arts faculty in Baroda, he was mute throughout and his only companion was a Manipuri boy who also suffered from the lack of ‘English’.
If at all I would advice my young friend who wrote to me the mail, I would insist that one should be vocal and vocal enough to express the concepts and ideas before a larger audience and in specific contexts irrespective of the language abilities. It is not necessary to speak in English. Develop skills in one’s own mother tongue and prepare that language to be capable enough to express your complicated concepts and ideas. And make the listener to follow you as you show pride in your own language. Off late there have been concerted efforts from certain galleries, artists and intellectuals that one day the world art will be dominated by text/word based art and vocalizing will be the prime vehicle of communication. One should not get depressed by such hollow declarations. Perhaps the dominant and hegemonic forces might support the text/word based art. But it would be foolish to think that a country like ours will be filled with artists who would only work with text/word. Take pride in what you are and in your language. Look straight into the eyes of hypocrisy and smile.