Thursday, April 28, 2016

A New Approach to Contemporary Art Market Needed: JohnyML/Aksharananda in Conversation with Mandeep, the Gallerist


This interview could have happened in any city in India. Here is an art historian, critic and curator, that is me, JohnyML who would like also to be known as ‘Aksharananda’ meeting a gallerist who could be a man, a woman or someone who belongs to the third gender. But one needs a name, so let’s call him/her, Mandeep. I choose a Punjabi name because if you add ‘Caur’ then it becomes a female name and if you add ‘Singh’ it appears as a male name. Like many other new gallerists, Mandeep too is confused about his/her choice of art. What to showcase, what to promote and what to sell; these questions keep pestering him. So s/he has questions for me.  With more than two decades of work behind me, I have the confidence in tackling the questions of a gallerist. Excerpts from the interview:

Mandeep: You just now told me that you would like to be called ‘Aksharananda’. But we all know you as JohnyML. Why you opt for a name change?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: Recently, I was sitting in my study with my Guru and was flipping through a contemporary art journal with around thirty articles, features and snippets in it. Out of curiosity we started looking at the brief biographical details of the writers. Suddenly something struck us. We came to know that out of the thirty writers twenty eight have stated that they are art critics and ‘curators’. Sometimes, people qualify themselves as ‘cultural theorists’. But I wonder who actually gives them these titles? Is it possible to assume such titles without peer group validations? I am sure that these titles are not given by any universities or such authorizing establishments. Such claims make me very curious and amused.

Now coming to the intended change in my name, I would say, ‘JohnyML’ is the identity of Johny M.L as a person. JohnyML, which is written without space or dots is a pictogram of sorts from which people could understand the identity of the person as an art historian or art critic. ‘Aksharananda’ is a name that like because of its connotations. ‘Aksharananda’ literally means ‘Immortal Joy’. But there are various ways of interpreting the word. It could be ‘one who finds joy in immortality’ or one who revels in ‘letters’ (akshar). I am a person who finds joy in letters/writing. Hence, this name is the essence of my being and existence.

Mandeep: Let me address the first part of your answer. Why do you say that writers could not claim themselves as curators or cultural theorists?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: If you direct one film in your life, you are called a film director provided in the rest of your life you do not do anything worth reckoning. If you happened to sing a song for a movie track, you are eternally known as a playback singer even if you never sing another song for a movie and work as a bank officer. It is a boon and curse at the same time. Most of the people who claim themselves as curators have not done any curatorial practice in their lives. Arranging a show is not curatorial practice. Even this is true in the case of art historians and critics. You cannot claim to be an art historian or art critic unless and until your works have historical approach to your subject and a few critical points to forward. Today, review writers and feature writers call themselves art critics. In my view, they all should stick to the ‘art writers’ category. So is the case of ‘cultural theorists’. One could be called a cultural theorist only when his/her theories make substantial course change in the very thinking about a particular subject. We make ourselves fools by making such claims.

Mandeep: Coming to the second part of your answer, don’t you think it self-contradictory when you assume a new name? Isn’t it as good as some claiming like a cultural theorist?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: There is no self-contradiction here. The name ‘Aksharananda’ is not self-congratulatory in nature; it is more like a self-clarifying one. It is not a title and with this name I do not get more respect or fame than I am getting today.

Mandeep: But it sounds like a purely Hindu name and the qualification ‘Swamy’ invisibly precedes it. Do you have any Hindu ‘thing’ here?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: Malcolm X, the famous black power leader had assumed a new name el Hajj Mallik el-Shabbazz as he got converted to Islam. People change their names when they convert. As I said before, name is an identity and the new name is the essence of the self. There is something interesting about assuming a new name. When you get your first name, you cannot bargain for a better one as you are too small to understand the annunciation. But when you assume a new name, you have the freedom to choose the name that reflects your inner self. My existence cannot be separated from my relationship with the letters. So I choose a name ‘Aksharananda’ which reflects my joy in dealing with letters.

Obviously there is a Hindu ring to the name. I am born in a Hindu family and was brought up as a god fearing boy. Later when I could think for myself I started following other religions also. But there is nothing wrong with Hinduism (what has gone wrong is the ways in which it has been interpreted over ages) so choosing a Hindu name (ironically slightly displacing the Christian name that I carry) is quite natural to me. Our sannyasis, when they take ‘diksha’, they forfeit their ‘poorvashrama’ (the former life in the material world as a householder or whatever) and become a new entity by assuming a new name. This too is a sort of conversion. I am not converting myself into anything. I am just assuming a new name that expresses the essence of my being and existence.

Mandeep: So good to know about that. Aksharananda ji, as a new gallerist I am caught in a web of advisors. What I am supposed to do with all these advisors?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: Our art market is going through an interesting phase now. I would call it a ‘secret art market’. As popularly believed market for contemporary art is not dead and gone. It is still there but the gallerists and the artists have got into a different agreement mode. They all undersell their works without letting too many people know about it. It is a buyers’ market now. You can get good contemporary artists for the price that you want. But only the patient ones are buying. They are ready to wait for a number of years. But the real investors are only looking at the modern masters because there is quick money in there.

So the apparently feeling is that there is no market for the contemporary artists. It is true that the demand for the contemporary works have been considerably reduced. Hence, most of the contemporary artists and their supporters are waiting for some new money to come into the market. Perhaps, you are one of them. So everyone will hound you and they all want their pound of flesh from you. It is always better to seek expert opinion than to heed to unsolicited advice. You will never get good advice from a fellow gallerist as all of them keep their cards closer to their chests. This is where art historians and art critics come into play. They understand the intrinsic value of a work of art which would turn into money in the real market. Following their advice is very important. Failure of the Indian art market is also caused by the shoddy treatment it gave to its historians and critics.

Mandeep: I attend seminars and curator’s talks etc. Each time I come back with a shattered mind. First of all I feel that they do a lot of unproductive dialogues which for a business person like me is next to waste. But at the same time, I am challenged by the intellectual depth displayed by the speakers and discussants. I come back thinking that I should get into such kind of art. But my clients come and ask me the same old stuff, Raza, Souza, Gaitonde and so on.

JohnyML/Aksharananda: It is unfortunate that our seminars and critical talks have become the avenues for chewing dried cuds pushed into our mouths by the Western academic scholars. These jargon infested dialogues, to be very frank, have not helped our art market at all. Someone will come up and say that ‘we have been discussing the positional palimpsest of argumentative silences embedded in the diasporic experiences of the postcolonial subjects in the evolving material contingencies of the post-global economy and politics’. We are supposed to make out based on our brain power. If anyone believes that such kind of seminars and curators’ talks would help the general art scene, I would say they are just delusional.

A few years back, the ‘famous’ critic and curator Hans Ulrich Obrist came to Delhi and interviewed around hundred artists in a Marathon program. He did it in several countries. In my view such things would help him to get into the Guinness Book of World Records; it will never help art, artists or art market. What we need is writing of history and good criticism because good criticism is the raw material for history and good history is the raw material for an active critical practice. These two only eventually help in validating the works of art when they come to the auction circuit. These seminars and curators’ talk would never help. If anybody has a different opinion, they could come out with it.

Mandeep: As I said before, I want to exhibit young contemporaries despite knowing the fact that there is no active market for them. Some of the clients are interested. But most of them are still asking for masters? How do I run my business if that is the case?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: If you want to exhibit young contemporaries, you should do it. When you trust your own act, your clients will trust in your decision. Most of the galleries in India are like seasonal showrooms. If Gond art is the trend of the year, they will not think once to push a Subodh Gupta into the store room. That is the curse of our gallery scene. You should believe in the art that you showcase and sell. You should have the patience to give at least five years to the artists who you choose to promote. Most of the people ask for masters because they are interested in money or status.

Mandeep: How do you assess the buyers of art?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: To tell you the truth we cannot categorize art buyers or collectors into watertight compartments. Still attempts have been done to categorize them. Accordingly, there are three types of art buyers; buyers, investors and collectors. Buyers buy art because they know it as a temporary possession and in the next opportune moment they will offload it. Their interest is neither in art nor in the artist but they trust in their ability to choose the best and sell it further. You do not call them dealers because they do not scavenge the secondary market for works. They buy from the primary market and move in the premium circuits of art and culture. Next is the investor category. Investors are interested in art exactly the way a developer is interested in a piece of land. There is no serious emotional attachment here. Their advisors tell them what will appreciate and depreciate. They make parallel calculations in various investment points and choose art for investing if that proves to be better point of investment in the given time. Investors know the pulse of the market and if any investor offloads his particular collection, then one could read a lot of market implications from that act.

The third category is the most reliable category; Collectors. They collect art because they are seriously interested in collecting a few things and one of which is art. They really do not think of making money out of them after certain time. Even if they do, they do it via auction houses and never through secondary market or through dealers. Collectors are not driven by the fanciful claims of the markets. Recently I came across an art collector who buys a work of art if there is an image of a woman sitting on any surface. She has already got more than thirty paintings of such a subject, done by different known and sparely known and absolutely unknown artists. A collector is driven by an internal aesthetical logic than the external monetary logic. People who walk into a gallery looking for a trendy artist are not seriously looking for art but the trendiness of that trendy artist. A real art collector would reach the artist first before he/she reaches the gallery and makes the purchase mostly through a devoted gallery. Collectors also make it a point, in case they are collecting from a gallery, at some stage that they meet the artist whose works they have been collecting for a long time.

Mandeep: Other than selling what is the role of a gallery?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: There is a difference between a gallery and a museum. Galleries are the places to showcase the work and sell. The public is always welcome but the pitch is on sales. A museum is a place where people get a three sixty degree idea about art, through audio-visual programs, guided tours and literature. If galleries could fulfill at least a part of it, it is a welcoming change. But galleries need not necessarily take the burden of social outreach and so on. The world does not need such charities. What a gallery should do is to cultivate its clients and receive the layman with a smiling face.

Mandeep: What do you think about Khoj, Experimenter Kolkata, Sunaparanta Goa and all?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: The war of Mahabharata had started with so many rules. For example after sunset there shouldn’t be any attack. If someone had lost his weapon, he should not be killed. If someone’s chariot was broken, he should not be attacked. Also it was imperative to spare the one who runs away fearing for his life. But slowly, as days went on, the rules started getting violated. Then it was free for all. Certain sections of our art scene is like Mahabharata; a lot of rules but they get violated as we go on.

In my view, the above mentioned institutions have a very clear role to play in the current art scene. But converting rest of the galleries into their line of thinking and paving way for creating a homogenized art practice is a wrong thing to do or promote. Organizations such as Khoj plan out their programs depending on the kind of funds that they are getting. If they are getting fund for promoting ‘art and science’ they cannot syphon it to ‘art and gaming’ or vice versa. If they are getting funds for public art, they cannot use it for setting up an art lab. Due to this tremendous amount of aesthetical ad hocism has crept into their programing. Khoj has moved from a community art lab to a corporate art management set up.

The other establishments, as they organize various seminars and talks, promote a different kind of aesthetics which is neither skill-based nor absolutely knowledge based. Many of such works come out of the misunderstanding of both (skill and knowledge). This urgency to be at par with the European left over is astonishingly strange. But I would like to see it as a part of the whole cultural scene where various streams of art making and discourse take place. They too are needed though they take place in controlled environments and in the milieu of mutual agreement.

Mandeep: Can one show young contemporaries despite zero market response and at the same time do secondary market dealings of modern masters in order to make money and run the show? Is there any kind of ethical conflict there?

JohnyML/Aksharananda: There is no need to feel ethical conflict there because this is what even the most established galleries practice. They show highly experimental contemporary art and get their money from working in the secondary market. It is better to make money from the same market than doing coal mining business and putting part of the profit to promote art and culture. This is why I always say that there should not be differences amongst the galleries; they all do the same, selling. Gallerists’ job is to sell well. Aesthetics, curatorial practice, criticism and art history should be left in to the hands of the qualified experts from the respective fields.  

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