Monday, January 28, 2013

Do Artists Need to Struggle?

(Vincent Van Gogh- Portrait of a quintessential struggling artist)

There is a mythology about artistic struggle. An artist should be someone who takes all responsibilities of the society. There was a time when artists were considered to be the unacknowledged legislators of the society. But then artists were seers and thinkers. They were the creators of beauty and truth. They in their works, irrespective of their mediums spoke of eternal values; the sublimation of human selfhood and the eternal Godward travelling. There were people in those days to support artists who thought for the good of the society; lived within the society like sages and experimented with their lives. People valued their presence in the society and harked to their words and deeds. The struggle then understood was the struggle of ideas; a fight against the normative. The struggle then was all about the artistic liberation and spiritual elevation. Then the great art historical adventures of early 20th century happened.

Earlier even in the 16th century itself Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ had sketched out the kind of lives that the individual artists used to lead during the Pre-Renaissance and Renaissance times. Artists, mostly the heads of artistic guilds, supported by patrons had led a life of grandeur and opulence. Their struggles were with the patrons and their changing equations with the clergy and local governance. Church was one platform for these artists to show their genius and the characteristics of their respective guilds or schools. They resorted to subtle subversions whenever their idealism was questioned or stringent directives were sent out to them by the patrons. With the Industrial Revolution in the post 17th century and the rise of the new mercantile class patronage was taken away from powerful families and the Church. Individual artists got patronage from the neo-rich and the individual lives and geniuses became a point of departure for a different art historic discourse.

(Georgio Vasari)

However, we see the transformation of western art historiography from the textual analysis vis-à-vis the lives of the artists to the glorification of the individual artists’ personal struggles along with the commodification of works of art through gallery and museum practices. A new history verging into mythology was needed and after the aesthetic movements like Realism, Impressionism and Post-impressionism, it became imperative that an artist should always take the side of the struggling masses and he was expected to struggle, a metaphorical and empathetic parallel with the struggling working classes, and live a life of perpetual penury, loss of faith, love and eventual death by disease. He wanted to be seen as a social outcast who operated from the social fringes and challenged the normative and mainstream ideologies and aesthetics. But incorporation of the individual’s struggle as a part of the museum discourse was necessary for the 20th century west to further its aesthetic causes through the publishing industry.

The western art history industry pumped in such glorified struggles of artists of the 19th and first half of the 20th century (which is continued even today) into their colonies and as Macaulay had envisioned it could produce artists in those places who were like Western artists in thinking and colonial subjects by looks. This art history helped only in brainwashing generations of artists in the colonies, in our case, in India too. The first critique of this (male) artistic struggle came out interestingly from the west itself. It was the feminist thinkers of the 1970s and 80s first questioned the male struggle, actively probing into the socio-economic and cultural and gender relationships that existed between the male and female artists of the times. Linda Nochlin’s ‘Why Have there Been No Great Women Artists’ was one of the early attempts to thwart this imaginary male struggle oriented western art history. The art history that we grew up with did not tell us that Van Gogh, Matisse, Cezanne, Gaugin and so on had comfortable family backgrounds which they could deliberately shun and live the lives of the anarchists. Until recently, critical readings of these artists came up in the art history market, the whole of Indian artists were thinking of the struggle as something to be taken up on their own shoulders for the sake of it.

(Linda Nochlin)

Poet, madman and lover are same, they say. There is no rhyme or reason in their behavior. This romantic notion in its most confusing form had facilitated the production of modern art history in the west especially produced for international consumption. While on the one hand this history highlighted the fact that most of these artists took to anarchism not only for personal reasons or non-reasons, on the other hand it also said that they did it for their added social responsibility. A clever juxtaposition of anarchy with social responsibility would yield a mutant species of artists who would neither resort to complete anarchy or would show perfect social responsibility. The consumption of western art history in countries like India produced artists who are neither anarchists in an absolute fashion nor socially responsible crusaders in a true sense. But artists lapped up this twilight zone position in India and elsewhere often finding refugee in the imported art history.

Today, artists still talk about ‘struggling’ artists. Unfortunately, the struggle has become absolutely materialistic. Today the word struggle connotes lack of money and facilities for an artist. This outlook manifested immediately after the market boom that had lasted only for three years. Those artists who were ‘struggling’ in the western art historical sense suddenly gained materialistic success and they shifted their position very cleverly arguing that art is not about ‘struggle’. One artist even declared in an interview that he was a ‘capitalist communist’. Such moronic oxymoron looked palatable because the general feel of the art market was euphoric and whatever those artists in their success induced intoxication said was taken for altruisms. ‘Capitalist Communism’, in a pragmatic sense looks an acceptable position because today communism is as capitalist as capitalism itself and capitalism has all what communism had once offered. But theoretically speaking, communism and capitalism are polar ideological opposites where the approach towards human situations differs radically.

(Jean Michel Basquiat)

So if an artist is without money and even if he or she is still not struggling with the materials but with concepts and ideas, s/he would be pushed into the zone of ‘poor’ artists. The spiritual struggle of today’s artist has become a synonym for materialistic want. Struggle equalized with poverty, fringe positioning, gender disparity and disease is the new emergence of the western art history in a new form. That’s why today many artists hesitate to express their ideas about struggling. Pressured by the success of their peers they too dress up in odd ways to appear successful in art openings. While that is pardonable, many of them try to grapple with materials that are absolutely alien in making their works of art. Styles and systems are followed because they have misunderstood the idea of struggle in a different way. For them life becomes a perpetual struggle because that struggle is accentuated by the lack of conviction about their own lives and creativity.

What do artists expect to do in order to process themselves through a spiritual as well as creative struggle and avoid materialistic struggle? In my observation, the young artists while opening their minds to the global processing of contemporary lives should root themselves to the realities and philosophies that have helped them to form their identities despite the onslaught of the homogenizing cultures. This is a primary need that would help them to understand the cultural and political systems within which they operate and also their subjectivities are shaped. Art and its struggle should be to become the legislators of a society understanding perfectly well what constitute that society. General rule of globalization and its arguments do not help an artist in India to function like his or her counterpart in the US or in Africa. To do this, artist should become a seeker devoid of selfish motives. There should be perpetual enquiries into the self so that s/he could understand what exactly is filtered through him/her of the multiplicity of experiences.

(Struggling Artist by Picasso)

My second argument is that a young artist should not get carried away by the imported art history. That does not mean that a present day artist is supposed to read shilpa shastras every day and produce art accordingly. An artist of our times should be deeply involved in the present day life with a passionate attachment and equal detachment. If that is the case, how much that does a peer group artist earn or where does he exhibit becomes absolutely immaterial.

The third and highly important point is that one should aspire for a life with dignity. Anything that brings you down from your self-esteem should not be pursued with rigor. Life of dignity is a life of self-realization. To lead a dignified life you don’t need the help of a critic, a curator or a gallerist. Any work of art that brings you down from your self esteem, or any effort to create a work of art that would nullify your self-esteem and self-love, you should not attempt to do that. Life is so vast and immense that there are several avenues to find a dignified life. That means you need not necessarily create art and say that you are struggling materialistically. It is not advisable today that you are poor and still struggling to do art because this struggle is just an illusion because when you struggle you are not doing your art but your reactions to your frustrations. The best art of you will come out when you are happy with your own dignity which is not determined by anybody else other than you. If you are not able to do art due to lack of money, do something that would not affect your dignity, earn some money to lead a life and simultaneously pursue your interests.

(The Angelus by Francois Millet)

Anything that is done with absolute concentration, perseverance, dedication, self-love and love for the universe, is bound to find patronage if not today, tomorrow. It is absolutely your choice. Inspired by the struggles of the western art history, if any one struggles today without heeding to dignity and love for oneself, s/he is bound to create depressing art which would neither help the artist himself or herself or anybody else. So don’t struggle. Be like air and water and flow. Struggling is a western myth because the west wanted Indian artists cloning anarchy and struggle. Today we are living in a changed world where terrorism, religious intolerance and gender disparity and hatred have taken upper hand. Today’s artists’ role is to address these issues through primarily self sublimation and then through art.

Rest remain a spectacle and all spectacle and events are destined to pass. 


vpbaalakrishnan said...

Hi johny,

A slightly different approach in thought and style. It speaks well about the context in discussion and notions of 'struggling artist' or the 'anarchist artist.

The sad part in our country is that, both the 'anarchist of the 60s to 80s' and the 'glamourous' of present era, lacks originality as they are developed over the notions of ' todays artist', as you rightly mentioned as 'borrowed'. Indian anarchism, to a large extent was an indulgence to things that would give them a 'high' than humanism or democratic social thinking . 'Responsibility' is something these people understood late...

I think it is time for the Art institutions to develop some sort of tie- up with galleries by which each graduating student gets at least one years contract, if they wish to have. It may help them to keep their foot a bit stable and find choices in the course of time.

One comment a got by looking at my BFA work from a Professor of a reputed art institute was ' lacks struggle'. For many, as you put clearly, 'struggle' in terms of art, was, may be still is, an error in their thinking.

There is some nuances of Eastern philosophical concepts of life, wisdom and process towards the later part of your essay, and it is this I mentioned in the beginning as a different approach in thought and style.

Thanks for the essay. I liked reading it.


Vikalp said...

A thought stirring post. you have made some interesting points that are worth analyzing.

Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.