Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Who Killed Indian Art History and Critical Writings?

(Art India Magazine)

A young artist friend asks me who could be the right documenters or right carriers of the new art that would come out as a result of finding a fine balance between craft and concept or rather skill and idea. In different contexts I have answered this question previously, however let me approach the issue afresh. Recently in the Indian Express daily, I happened to read a piece of art promotional writing based on an exhibition which is currently on in one of the Laddo Sarai galleries in Delhi. What struck me was the theme of the exhibition: Partition of Indian sub-continent in 1947. There is private joke among us, a few friends that in North India artists are still hung up with partition blues. In South, which is comparatively unaffected by the woes of partition artists fall back to the Second World War and dig up some distant connection that their family members had with the notorious war. In East, especially in Bengal, it is all about colonialism. The contemporary artists there, like termites just hit the family albums and yarn stories out of those fading black and white pictures. In Mumbai, it’s all about the retrieval of land from the seven islands and the kinds of riots and natural calamities that the city has survived. To put it in nutshell, Mumbai artists’ works are Hemingway-esque; the perennial struggle of man and his ultimate victory. Unfortunately, the artists who came from Jammu a couple of years back to the mainland due to the flash floods that disrupted human life in the state, somehow displayed their extreme desire to discard anything historical and traditional and indulged in heavy duty performance art. This is an interesting aspect to be studied in detail taking the psychological impact of the prolonged political, social, cultural and religious unrest in the state on the young artists, who by default become the unacknowledged legislators of their own human constituencies. But alas, we do not have enough art critics or historians who share such angst.

Before we go into the question that my young friend has raised, let me continue with the Laddo Sarai artist story. The insistence of the young woman artist on partition issues made me curious to read further. In one of the earlier paragraphs the artist claims that her parents migrated to India from the newly formed Pakistan (obviously in 1947). I just got into a simple calculation. If the parents of the artist were ten years old then they must be 80 years old now. The artist is 31 years old. The average age of the parents whose kids are now in their thirties must be maximum 60. If they are sixty or even 70 now, they must have been either one year old or must not have even taken birth. I felt that the artist was telling lies or making up a story to create some effect. Definitely, her parents might have come from Pakistan but they were not her parents then. And I doubt someone who is born in mid 1980s and grew up mostly in 1990s is deeply disturbed by the partition issues. Partition, unfortunately has become a part of the cultural industry today. In the last India Art Fair (January 2016), I found a booth where people were invited to speak about partition in camera. I too was invited and I refused to contribute to the project because my experiences of partition are minimal and if at all I have any they are cultural in nature imparted to me by the works of various films, documentaries, writers and historians including Sadat Hasan Manto, Khushwant Singh, Ajeet Caur and lately Saeed Naqvi. Hence, if a young artist with all her democratic rights to pursue any subject of her interest anywhere in the world still pursues partition as an issue in her art, I cannot technically question it. But I would say that it is the creation of false history/histories, which is superficial and sentimental to certain extent.

 (Partition blues)

Why such falsities are circulated in the visual cultural scene of India, which otherwise has a very vibrant cultural scene? Often it is said that we do not have the right kind of art critics and historians in our country who could create an adequate discourse on visual culture in India. Partly it is true. We heavily depend on the journalists and art writers for knowing about art. In fact, we cannot and should not blame the art journalists and art writers for percolating bad ideas or wrong ideas about art. Most of the journalists write what they are told to write. With a variety of subjects that they have to handle on a daily basis (in art itself) they do not get enough time to research or understand what they are dealing with. That does not mean that they do not do their homework. Journalists before meeting the artists, definitely do certain homework including running a Google search before they meet the artist and his/her show. However, journalists are those people who look for a ‘story idea’ or an ‘interesting angle’ or ‘something that captures the readers’ mind’. Hence, unless there is something politically important in the subject, they quiz the artists to eke out ‘stories’ and we should know that artists are also full of stories. Out of the many ‘stories’ that the artist gives to the journalist, he/she picks up one and pegs the whole exhibition narrative in it. The report then remains ‘true’ as far as the artist is concerned but ‘false’ in the case of the real intention of the art works or the show itself. When it comes to the mainstream artists whose histories and stories are already in the public domain, journalists focus more on the present body of works and details them by giving ample amount of first person narrative by the artist himself/herself. Art writers in various magazines too do the same but as they are magazine writers, they give personal twists and turns to the work of art depending on their imaginative prowess.

In such a scenario we cannot depend on newspaper writing for historical or critical assessment of the works. They at the most serve the purpose of provenance creation for the future market. For a historian or a critic, these newspaper writings could serve only the purpose of partial documentation; either they take the time and place of the exhibition and a little of first person narratives. I have never heard in the recent times that a historian or a critic ever quoting a journalist while writing about an artist. When it comes to the art magazines, especially in the Indian art scene, we have different standards for different magazines. Let me take two prominent art magazines in India; Art India Magazine and Take on Art. There used to be a time when getting noticed by the Art India Magazine was considered to be some sort of national and international recognition for the artist. But the Art India Magazine degenerated on two counts; one, it set a benchmark for the Brahminical practice in Indian art. It vertically and horizontally divided the Indian art scene into culturally elite and low brow art and catered both in different terms, by giving intellectual prominence to the former and business presence to the latter. Two, it standardised the critical language into a sort of whispering and assumed a sort of Victorian Puritanism. Art India Magazine played a psychological war with the Indian art scene by introducing international writers with long list of credentials (may be Art India Magazine found out that India does not have such writers with white skin and long list of credentials) but with partial understanding of Indian contemporary art. But their half baked ideas set the benchmark for Indian art writing, which has been heavily followed by the late entrant Take on Art Magazine. Take on Art Magazine, in the long run may be considered to be one of the strangely mutated cultural products in the world because of its lack of direction. Apparently, Take on Art Magazine brings out curated/thematic issues depending on where it gets released but the unfortunate thing is that this magazine has absolutely failed to create any cultural discourse in India. In this mutual admiration club, Take on Art magazine plays a second fiddle to Art India Magazine. The condition of the other magazines like Art and Deal, Creative Minds and the Mumbai Art Journal are further pathetic as they cater to anything and everything.

 (Take on Art)

When we discuss art writing and documentation, we need to look at a couple of other avenues where we could see intelligent writing or art documentation. At present I could say that only the Asia Art Archives is doing a diligent job by documenting and categorizing historical as well as critical writing on Indian art and most importantly leaving it as an open source. Critical Collective is another avenue came up recently but unfortunately it is a business venture than an art historical support structure in India. Though the people behind the Critical Collective make sincere attempts to gather critical and historical writings from various sources, by making it a closed source and open only against an annual subscription, it has moved against the spirit of our times where services of various kinds are offered freely in the market. Art history cannot be a closed source.

Noted film maker Karan Johar in the recently held Express Adda opined that the film writers should be paid at par with the directors and other technicians involved. The same view could be applied to the Indian art scene. There is a complaint that most of the Indian art history and criticism graduates look for better jobs in galleries or museums or similar institutions elsewhere mainly because being independent art historian or critic does not pay enough to make a decent living. It is true to certain extent. Art history does not pay nor does art criticism. If people are not reading art criticism and history the reason is it is not a glamorous field. People would read art history and criticism when art has something interesting to say and the historians and critics have something interesting talk about it. There should be more avenues and there should be enough money from some sources so that the art historians and critics could write about the newer forms of art which balance both skills and ideas and craft and concept. In the present scenario, I do not think that the galleries and museums would ever support art history or critical writing. When that is the case, there should be volunteering efforts from the art history and criticism graduates to embark on a very difficult journey. They should take up their interest areas and start documenting on their own for the larger good of art and also the larger culture of our country. If they are making their money to lead a decent life from elsewhere, they need not please anybody and they could write their minds in the avenues that they themselves could create. If artists could initiate their own art works, why shouldn’t the art critics and historians initiate their own kinds of art history and criticism? It is a creative job and it has its own risks.

 (Karan Johar)

Before concluding this essay, I would like to flag out one more issue that I have noticed in the field of cultural writing in India. We have excellent poets, novelists, political historians, musicians, filmmakers and geniuses in all other fields. They all interact well with their works and make critical assessments on each other. But these stalwarts, when they talk about visual arts (fine arts) they go by the standard views on it. Even the best feminists would celebrate the worst of feminist art when they turn their eyes to the visual scenario. The best of poets and writers would blindly speak good of the most retrogressive kinds of art. Those who take up cudgels against imperialism in other fields go and toast for the imperialist art. This also should change. The interdisciplinary approach in culture should be more discerning and decisive than casual praising and mutual embracing. We live in a time of degeneration in art and culture. It is high time that people wake up and write their own histories and criticisms. 

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