Every work of art eventually is a commodity provided if it is brought into the market with an intention to sell. Only those works of art escape this eventuality of becoming a commodity that are made on surfaces impossible to move around or done by those people who do not intend to bring it for monetizing in the public or private circuits of market economy. Most of the murals done in public spaces and the decorative folk and tribal art meant to be a part of beautification of the creators’ living spaces or the surroundings or purely done for the purpose of ritual could be called non-commodity works of art. A work of art also becomes a commodity when there is an economic transaction based on the particular art object and at the same time it becomes a commodity when the labor of the artist is sold for the profit of the artist him/herself or the ones who deal with it. Interestingly, the market (economy) has found out several ways to commoditize the works of art even if they are done in impossible places using impossible mediums. The famous example of converting a non-commodity art into commodity art is that of Banksy. He has been doing his graffiti for quite some time but the moment he got a celebrity status in anonymity his works were reproduced or rather created in sellable and saleable forms. The most atrocious as well as funny example is again Bansky who had made a mural in Gaza in West Bank, Palestine. After he left the place, within days the area where he did the mural was bombed by the Israeli troops. Luckily his work was saved as the surface did not collapse. But within a few days someone literally tore the surface off from there and smuggled it out to some secret place. The latest example of making non-commodity art into commodity is from India where there is an added interest for the folk and tribal art, which the artists of the folk and tribal origins has been doing with no intention to sell or consciously make it a commodity.
As an art critic and historian, I have reconciled to the fact that a work of art is a commodity when it is brought into the market. I do not have any problem with this realization as I can live with this fact peacefully without being troubled by conscience or other ideological conflicts. But I am troubled by a question, of late. Can a work of art, reproduced in another medium carry the same art status or commodity status only because it carries the name of the same artist? For example, for the last few years, especially since 2007 till date, may like in art markets elsewhere in the world, in India too there has been a flurry of activities in and around the studios of artists who do painting but eventually come out with sculptures, strangely resembling the same motifs as if deliberately culled them out from the paintings that they have done. If it is in the case of the sculptors, even the most insignificant trials have been sent to make multiples only to be introduced in the market as works of art.
(Sculpture by Paresh Maity)
A painter can paint same kind of paintings. A sculptor can sculpt same kind of sculptures. It is applicable in the case of any other artists working in any other medium. But a painter can never make the same painting seven times or nine times and call it an edition of paintings whereas a sculptor could do that. So are the printmakers. While all the other artists who can do multiples with limited editions, painters are somehow left behind in making editions. Even if one attempts to make it in editions, if there is a chance of them coming together in one place in a given time deliberately or accidently, it will considerably affect the reputation of the painter. But a sculptor or a printmaker or a photographer could escape this embarrassment. This must be a reason for why painters do a lot of similar paintings as the clients or the patrons want the ‘same’ kind of paintings from the artists if not the same painting. This also explains why in a demand driven market why artists make use of the help of the assistants in order to fulfill the supply. They keep the supply chain well-oiled and smooth by employing many assistants, making similar paintings. However, a critic or a curator tries to justify these works intellectually and contextually, end of the day it is all about justifying them as commodities with distinct identities.
As all of us understand Walter Benjamin in the right sense, we do not blame anybody who makes multiples because in the age of mechanical reproduction the very idea of the original is contested. Out of the nine sculptures coming out of the same mold, which one could be called the original? Interestingly, in the case of sculptures and print making, unlike photography and other digital mediums, the original is always non-existent physically because there is an external need to destroy the original that is the real model (clay model in the case sculpture and the surface in the case of printmaking) for keeping the work of art from further illegal replications. But in the case of photography and other digital mediums, once it is transferred to the computer, with the multiplication command the original ceases to exist unless the artist is turns out to be a purist who would like to keep the only image without letting it to be replicated at any cost. Such fundamentalists are very rare in these days. In the case of pricing too, these replications could command more or less the same price because of this emphasis on originality that is controlled by the edition method.
(sculpture by Farhad Hussain)
What I do not understand is the urgency that many of the painters feel these days to make sculptures out of the paintings. When I say this, it does not mean that these artists make sculptures out of their paintings exactly in the way an image is seen in a painting. No, that is not the way. These artists either pick out one or two defining elements or select a few figures from their paintings, and send them for replication in the foundries. These artists do not have anything to do with the outcomes or the resulting sculptures than their choosing of them from their own paintings. The works are done by crafts people who are good at making sculptures. That means the painters automatically becomes sculptors without in fact sculpting anything of their own. Perhaps, one would cite the example of A.Ramachandran or K.G.Subramnayan or even Ram Kinkar Baij or Somnath Hore who had done sculptures as well as paintings. But in their case they are artists who work in different medium with no intention to replicate their paintings into sculptors and make them commodities. If you say the sculptural works of A.Ramachandran resemble strongly with the images of his paintings, one could say that he does not reproduce them from the paintings but makes them separately in a different context in order create a different sculptural discourse within his exhibitions or displays. Definitely they have a commodity value but as they are original sculptures, they command the value of the original works.
My problem with the artists who order sculptures to be made out of their paintings is that they prefer to command the same commodity value that they would do in the case of their paintings. However, my issue is not just with the value or the money generated by such works. My problem is rather ethical and aesthetical. Ethically speaking, the sculptures that are created out of the paintings are alienated pieces of art objects that do not have the touch of the artists in whose name they would be sold once out of the factories. Aesthetically speaking, they are multiples functioning more like souvenirs than works of art. Artists tend to replicate their painterly images because they have seen the demand of these works in the market. It is not just about showing the artistic proficiency or proclivity. At the same time, the patrons have this curiosity to see the images in the paintings in three dimensional forms. The gallerist or the consultants who stand in between the artist and the patron, unethically validates these reproduced souvenirs as original works of art, taking the help of the art curators and critics. Paresh Maity, Shakti Burman, Seema Kohli, Farhad Husain and many others have been practicing this. I am not naming them with any intention to malign their name. Perhaps, they could counter argue why they are not reproductions but original works of art. For me, as they satisfy not the aesthetical demands but the curiosity for seeing something replicated that amounts to the lowering of aesthetical valuation and sublimation.
(Sculpture by Seema Kohli)
One could easily overlook sublimation when it comes to market. What makes a market tick is the value and money generated by the wares that are sold out. For the market money is the most sublime thing. A man with a lot of money or with the capacity to make a lot of money through any over ground means is a man who is spiritually sublimated. Women are also not different in the case. But I genuinely doubt the originality of these works of art and their forced efforts to make value in the market. For example, when an artist’s works are reproduced in glossy posters with his/her signature, we do not call it the original or do not give the original’s price. We take it as a keepsake in a much lower price than the original. We see artists’ works reproduced in various medium including cushion covers, coasters, mugs, book marks, stands, rugs, carpets, curtains, quilts, table tops and so on. We never call them original works of art. We do not pay the original price either as I said before. If so, why should we call those art objects which are replicated by other hands in a factory and delivered hot in the exhibitions as original works of art? Can’t they be called souvenir sculptures? And sold in much lower prices?
Then, the artists who practice this may tell me that what I would speak about artists like Subodh Gupta, Shilpa Gupta, Manjunath Kamath, G.R.Iranna and so on who do sculptures though they started off as painters. To tell you frankly, that these artists do not reproduce their paintings in sculptures. They make original sculptures or sculpture ideas and get them executed. There is no compulsion in them to make their sculptures look like their paintings. So their acts should be justified. I do not have any problem if those artists in question make their sculptural ideas and get them executed. But here what we see are the making of painterly images into sculptural images. That’s a bit dejecting. There are artists these days who let their works to be reproduced in different mediums but they never say that it is their original works of art. For example when some weaving centers ask the works of famous artists to be made into carpets or clothes, they let them do it. Though the work of art will be known in the name of the artist, it will clearly said that it is done by a weaving studio made in limited editions. But our artists claim that the sculptures that they make are their sculptures and are sold in their original prices. It is a sort of fooling the market and whoever are involved in this are doing some kind of aesthetical degradation through unethical means. A young artist named Siddharth Kararwal recently did a series of objects that are designer objects in limited editions with his signature. They are commodities as they are utility objects. But he does not charge them as he would charge his sculptures. There is an artist group in Mumbai called Po10tial, a collective of ten artists who do both designer works in multiples and original works. There should be some kind of an ethical practice in the dominant art market too where these souvenir sculptures of painters should be treated as souvenir sculptures and should be priced moderately so that everyone could have one of them (if they really want to wake up seeing them) in their bed rooms.