Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When the Artists Graduate into Stupidity

In the party, he looks so excited. Someone who just had a huge exhibition in one of the major galleries in an important city should look elated for these days such opportunities do not come so easy and fast the way it used to be half a decade back. The opportunities for the mid-career artists these days do not flow; they trickle in as if the power that disburses opportunities to the artists were the stingiest thing on the earth or heavens. Hence, I could accept his bravado, back patting and all those concerned and animated conversations with ‘raga patronize’ as the predominant tune. He was thanking me profusely for ‘coming back’ to the art scene. I have been tired of singing back the song of ‘for that I hadn’t gone anywhere’ so I kept quiet and returned the grace with a very humble smile. One good thing about me is this: I could be very humble and at the same time look absolutely disdainful. Two decades in Delhi have taught me enough histrionics to survive in the polite society (and as we all know polite societies are the most pretentious societies in the world. Politeness here does not come naturally. As Oscar Wild would have put it; when two polite people meet in a party, a third one’s dignity is ravaged).

Our friend, swigging red wine which the maker of it was making every polite member of the society drink with some persuasive force on shoulders and elbows, came back to me with a swagger in his walk and obviously he was feeling he was on cloud nine. Something has really happened to him, I tell myself. He once again throws his hand across my shoulder, takes a patronizing look at my face with a smirk on his lips and tells me, ‘I missed you a lot.’ I know that he is talking about the opening of his exhibition which I have failed to attend. ‘You see, you should not have gone back to Kerala,’ he tells me. Man, Yes, I was in Kerala for six months and for the last five months I have been back in Delhi, a fact definitely my friend has missed to notice. In polite societies it is a fad to say, ‘it has been ages that we met last’. There is some amount of sadism in saying this. One may be away from the polite society because of many reasons including health issues, which none wants to discuss in public. But those who rush into you with ‘it has been ages…’ statement want to derive a lot of sadistic pleasure at your discomfiture. ‘Look at your new wig. You look so cute in it. How is your chemo going?’ That’s the level of concern.

 (Pablo Picasso in front of Guernica)

‘You are one of the most important art historians in India,’ my friend says. I could do nothing but nod in affirmation. ‘I would have asked you to curate my show but you were doing politics in Kerala. And you left art history for politics,’ he continues. I smile at him this time thinking whether I should punch on his nose or maintain my saintly act for some more time and I decide for the latter. ‘You see,’ my patronizing friend continues, ‘what is there in art and politics? How can you tie these two things together at the same yoke? You were foolish to have left art. We lost a great art historian,’ he concludes. So here we are; the scene is established like this. I am dead and gone. My corpse is on a mat and people stream in. My friend comes in with a wreath which has a note saying, ‘You were great but You left us so early.’ Now in the memorial service he would give a very flowery speech that would make my decaying body turn inside the grave out of shame and embarrassment.

I wake myself up from my reverie. He has gone to other groups with his wine and patronizing smile. I could see him bobbing in and out of the groups depending on his own acceptability within those groups. He is not the only one who thinks that art and politics are two different things. They all understand art as something exclusive and politics, another exclusive entity. That means they have neither understood art nor politics. In fact they have not understood Picasso or Andy Warhol, to take two examples from the modern world art history which are oft quoted to prove anybody’s point in art. For artists like my friend, politics is something that has a uniform, an ideology, a flag, a few leaders, lot of followers, power, money, corruption and all other paraphernalia that accompanies political power. They are those people who could see only the two dimensions of life and society. They are the people who have not developed the sixth sense. They think that politics is corruption or something ‘dirty’ which all the polite people should shun. For them art is something exclusive, done in studios, discussed between peer groups, presented in high society, sold and bought by the rich and affluent. For them artists are perennial strugglers of spirit and the great creators who stand apart from the vulgar society and live a good and comfortable life.

(Andy Warhol in front of his work)

I come back to Picasso and Andy Warhol. You like it or not, Picasso was a Communist. When we say the word ‘communist’, we think about the emaciated farmer and laborer in the rural or urban places. We imagine the people who carry bags full of books and complaints and work amongst the downtrodden. True, the communists have done all these and they still do. But a communist does not need to be an emaciated person himself. A film maker could be a communist, a musician could be one, an artist, a writer, a poet, a playwright, an actor- anybody could be a communist. His or her wealth is not what defines him as a communist but his politics. John Milton, the great British poet had once said, ‘those who also serve who stand and stare’. A communist could join the force of the people’s movement through his works without jeopardizing his wealth or creativity. But his activities should not be in conflict with his own conscience. Leo Tolstoy was a baron. But he left everything to become a people’s writer. Rabindranath Tagore could have been a successful businessman. But he decided to become a creator. He too was a communist. Picasso was a communist because he shared the communist ideals and he worked for the people. Take the great triumvirate of Mexico- Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros; they too were communists. They were political. Their party affiliation never stopped them from being great artists.

Now let’s take the case of Andy Warhol. He was a capitalist. Capitalism is another political and economic ideology that seeks world supremacy through accumulation of wealth and distribution of war. Andy Warhol represented this ideology and in turn he represented the politics of capitalism and his artistic greatness was in that he satirized all those symbolisms that catered to the proliferation of the capitalist and the counter capitalist ideologies. Warhol knew the great power of money making. But at the same time he did not attached much importance to money. He said, business was a great form of art. It was another way of look at art. If business is art and how can it be away from politics? Andy Warhol made serigraphy prints of world famous vamps and internationally acclaimed political leaders. He treated with the same reverence as he would treat a Campbell soup can or peas can or a dollar bill. He moved around with unknown beauties drunken high in the spirit of fame and money and their growing object status. Andy Warhol was a politician amongst the existentialists and an existentialist amongst the politicians.


Closer to home we have artists like Chittoprasad, Zainul Abdeen and Somnath Hore who were declared communist sympathizers. So was the case of the photographer Sunil Janah. Most of the artists during first half of the 20th century were overtly political. Nandlal Bose was a Congress sympathizer. K.G.Subramanyan started off as a communist and became a Gandhian. He involved himself in the rural crafts movement in India just like any other policy maker would do. J.Swaminathan was a communist and he lived the life of a revolutionary; and in their attempt to find an alternative India, they went in search of the rural realities of the country only to land on an egalitarian abstraction, a trap perhaps K.G.S did not fall into. Francis Newton Souza was a communist and that’s why his group was called the ‘Progressive Artists Group’ or the Bombay Progressives. All those progressive movements in India were political in nature. Even today most of the creative people maintain political ideology and when they get a chance they come down to the fields of action and work. It is not necessary for them to behave like a stereotypical politician. Somehow, in the visual arts in India, many of the contemporary artists like my friend think that politics is something that should be kept outside. Outside where?

My friend thinks that my activism in my village for six months has ‘finished’ the art historian and critic in me. He in his patronizing self emphasizes that he would have ‘asked’ me to curate his show and write his book had I not been involved in politics. I have never had a chance of meeting the embodiment of ignorance in my life so far till he gave me one. I read it in this way; either my affiliation with a political party would have proved detrimental for his ‘show’ if he had invited me to curate it or my political activism, in his eyes, had rendered me a non-art historian or non-art critic. In short, he believes that anybody of my ‘talent’ if gets into political activism ceases to be ‘talented’ therefore useless. I did not try to explain any of these to him because I had stopped debating with the ignoramus since my Kochi Biennale debate met with abuses than logical arguments. I have stopped explaining myself to people. However, when I decided to join a political party and work in the rural area, I had clearly stated that it was a part of my efforts to see ‘art and aesthetical’ components within the ground level political activism. I had also stated that it was my response to the contemporary artists’ apathy towards the socio-political developments in our country. My political work was/is a part of my personal research into the lives of people and I believe without which an art historian or any kind of historian in this world cannot survive. If I am not working on ground that does not mean that I stopped to be an activist. If I am working there that does not mean that I ceased to be an art historian either. Only a fool like my friend could tell me at my face that my political activism has marred my ‘chances’ to be there in the ‘thriving’ art scene in India. I do not have any qualms to call such artists and their works ‘stupid’. And they remain that.  

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