One day a young artist was showing some of his works to me. Well versed in Kangra miniature style, this artist held out some future promises though his answer to one of my questions made me doubtful about his future promise. It was not really his answer but the way he answered had put me off for my question was as simple as a query about the medium of his works. Externalizing his hesitation and moral trepidation by scratching the back of his head and by shuttling his eyes restively around my face he said, “Poster colours on mount board.” I was sad, to say the least. I told him, “Never hesitate in answering a question regarding your work. Do not be apologetic about your work at all. The moment you are apologetic about your own creation people grow suspicious about your intentions. If you know what you are doing or rather what you have done, and also if you know the medium that you have chosen to do the work, be confident and say it straight for no medium is a bad medium for an artist. And above all, doing a work of art never amounts to committing a crime.”
This chance encounter on a discussion table in an art promoter’s office forced me wear my thinking cap for a while. I thought of the other extreme of this young artist; the ‘over confident’ young artist. Such artists are aplenty and in the market place they are seen as happening and successful. These artists say whatever comes to their tongues. Sometimes they know their answers for sure and they do not have any hesitation to say it out. They know their subject matter and also they know their mediums. Ironically, such overconfidence of the artists also has put me into a state of inexplicable grief. Experience has taught me that those young artists too sure of their works have somehow matured before time and their works appear as close ended. There is a feeling of ‘that’s it’. And when you have that feeling it is followed by this line, ‘so, let’s look somewhere else for something interesting.’ Early bloomers have always presented this sense of dejection amongst the viewers. Each time they make an extremely confident and conclusive work of art, they are posed with another gigantic challenge either to maintain the present momentum or to go beyond it to present something new. Slowly, such artists give us dettol washed, sanitized works of art with predictable or predicated narratives around it. The smarter ones amongst these overconfident early bloomers, when they face with far more intelligent questions or even confront their own weak moments in public spaces of presentation, they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘well, I don’t know.’ Call it height of arrogance or height of ignorance, I think such artists sell their confidence, definitely not their art for their art fail to impress seasoned minds like mine.
Why does this happen? Or how does it happen? What makes a young artist mumble incoherently and sound apologetic about his or her works? What makes another young artist say things confidently by tying up the loose ends or just leave the ends completely opened so that anybody could say anything without holding the artist responsible for their conclusions? Till recently we used to think that the disparity was created by the language. English being the language of political as well as economic power, being conversant in that language gives an artist a natural passport to recognition if not stardom. If both evade the artist then he/she could at least float in the right kind of circles and make right kind of connections which would eventually take him/her to materialistic success. Those who do not speak English (who are known amongst the English speaking crowd as vernies, a condescending abbreviation for vernacular) are destined to be second class citizens in the hierarchic structure of the art scene in India. However, I have come to understand that it is not the language alone that determines the confidence level of the artist. For an artist, say from Tamil Nadu does not need fluency in English to tell someone that his medium is either ‘oil on canvas’ or ‘poster colour on paper’. He/she just needs to understand what is being asked. If someone wants to know further about the works or about the artist who is not conversant in English, he would definitely find an interlocutor; that’s the way we watch movies with subtitles and read international literature in translation.
The confidence level of an artist lies in elsewhere; his/her understanding of the world. The smarter ones use a lot of art historical name droppings. The more you drop names from contemporary art scene of certain countries or from remote art historical annals which are not regularly visited even by the art people, the more security rings will be created around you. People use art history as a weapon to intimidate the inquisitive minds, which perhaps is a legitimate way because a scientist upon questioning would definitely drop theorems beyond our grasping power to save his skin or a pandit would drop some Sanskrit or Arabic couplets to floor the opponent or the general enthusiast. But the smarter ones amongst the young contemporary artists function not really based on art history, which is too academic for them to handle. Selecting a special area of knowledge and information which are currently in parlance but not among the generic crowds but only in the specialized groups of people helps these artists to remain special and invincible for the time being. Look at those artists including the Raqs Media group and the artists who are enamoured by such art or artists collective. They operate in special intellectuals zones and claim that only those people who are intellectually at the same wave length could understand their art. It is almost like saying that only a botanist could understand a flower. A poet is a fool because what he says about a flower is not ‘the flower’.
Seeing such kind of art and artists flourishing or getting recognition and fortune, many youngsters who are still using conventional mediums like painting, sculpting, print making , photography with focus and so on think that they are some kind of sinners who are simply gate crashers in an elite scene and any act of theirs caught under the light should be explained apologetically and talked about with a lot of hesitation. To remove this disparity and injustice from the art scene, I would suggest that there should be a fundamental change in the art curriculum of our fine arts academies. With periodical syllabus revisions and academic assessment and so on, the fine arts faculties in India try to be abreast with the times but they are not seeing the truth yet. We have a vertically divided teaching practice; on the one side we have practical training (polishing skills) and the other side we have art history and theory. As they say, East and West never meet, skills, history and theory never gel, however the teachers try to create bridges between these two or three disciplines. Another interesting factor is that there is also a horizontal division in our art teaching systems. In this horizontal division theory tries to cut across both conventional practices and conventional art history, and tries to bring them in the same line without emphasising either practice or history. Such hybrid educational systems are followed by the prime institutions like Arts and Aesthetics Department of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University and so on.
It is important to take stock of the output of these institutions. UGC is the only constitutional agency to which these institutions are accountable and answerable. They cannot be made accountable to any other agency for their academic nature. But when we check the output we understand that these institutions have not produced neither artists nor art historians or art experts. These institutions do not give any course curatorial practices; but the graduates from these schools become automatically curators. This alchemy happens because of the horizontal entry of theory into the art scene in India. A majority of the teachers who teach in these institutions are not qualified to teach contemporary art for their specializations are in ancient arts. Does anyone sign a consent form for heart surgery if the doctor is an MD in Orthopaedics? We don’t But in art we do. That’s why someone who is a doctorate in Mughal miniatures could give lectures on performance art. It happens only in India.
Unfortunately, in India we have created a Brahminical division among the students of art by these vertical and horizontal divisions. We have students who call Sri Rama Pattabhishekam or Coronation of Rama by Raja Ravi Varma as the ‘wedding photo of Rama’ when their visual sense is tested during the entrance interview. We also have students who have just spent a couple of summers in Paris visiting museums and have come back to join a course in art. So who is going to survive in this? Students with artistic determination mostly come from middle and lower middle classes. Their confidence to survive is shattered either by this imbalances in the educational system or by the disparities that they face later on in their practical lives. In my view, these disparities could be done away with to a large extent provided if we change the way we teach art history and theory to students. We have just changed some cosmetic changes; JNU does not call art history, art history. They call it something else because art history is old fashioned. We have incorporated film studies, theatre studies, Dalit studies, Feminism and so on in the curriculum, but I say to no effect. Students are not to be taught or informed. They are to be made live art history, theory and other branches of knowledge.
How is it possible? Let me introduce my way of looking at it and suggest certain changes in the academic learning. First of all, we need to weed out all confusions pertaining to the art teaching and practicing within the academies. No art faculty in this country should tell their students that they could become artists if they have a knowledge base but no skills. The post-modern liberalism has approved that anybody is an artist. It is a false theory. This false theory is created by the capitalists in the world so that they could make the rich and powerful to do things the way they want. A singer is a singer when he sings well. Anybody is not a singer only because one has some theoretical know how of singing. Also our academic curriculum for artists should give a lot of stress to skill, imagination and design. These sessions should be soulful than mechanical. Art history teaching should create links between what is taught and what is practiced. The theories, if not leading students anywhere should be discarded. Art should be taught with professional precision. Art history should break its linear tendencies and should go for reverse methodologies, leading students from contemporary history to the histories of yester years. And above all, the students should be given lectures on socio-political and cultural histories of India. Academies that call their fine arts as liberal arts these days create courses and produce graduates with specializations that none needs particularly for any use. Instead, the liberal histories should be incorporated as an integral part of art course. When a student comes of the college as a fresh graduate, he or she should be ready to face the world like an artist who is unapologetic about what he or she does. To face this world, one needs not just artistic skills but the knowledge of politics, economics, ecology, society and the ways in which it works and culture. They should be prepared to understand that art does not happen in vacuum. They also should be made to learn that artists are the last people standing even when the world goes down on its knees before avarice and philistinism. Artists should be taught to become the greatest humanitarians in the world. When artist learns to stands for the universe, he gains all the confidence and to stand for the universe needs to the backing of an integrated understanding of his or her world. Today our academies are incapable of producing such graduates. It is high time that they change their course.