(Mr.Bean with Whistler's Mother)
From a friend’s facebook page, I happened to read an article written by Isaac Kaplan, dealing with the duration of time that one has to take for looking at a work of art in a museum or a gallery. There cannot be hard and fast rules for this however studies, Kaplan says, have proved that one takes fifteen to twenty seconds before a work of art in a museum. If someone asks if that is enough for understanding a work of art then he/she should be told that it is an average and in reality people do not spare even those many seconds before a work of art. He also speaks about the new movement in the west where they propagate the idea of Slow Art Viewing; that means spending at least fifteen to twenty minutes before a work of art. And if one needs more time, he also suggests that one could manipulate things so that he/she could get locked up in a museum during the closing hours. Mind you, the experience should never be that of Mr.Bean and the Whistler’s painting.
This put me into thinking about the number of seconds or minutes that an average Indian spends before a work of art. First of all we have very few museums in our country that are visitor friendly. The other day, I was going to the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi to see the Jitish Kallat Retrospective. I walked from the nearest metro station (Khan Market) and just ahead of me I saw two young White men walking fast perhaps after getting out of the same train that I was in. I did not have any clue that they too were going to the NGMA. At the ticket counter I saw the familiar face of the lady clerk who always wore an expression of disinterestedness and absolute joylessness in life. There is a huge disparity between ‘our’ ticket charge and ‘their’ ticket charge. While we pay Rs.20/- (one third of a dollar), they have to shell out Rs.500/- (almost eight dollars now) per person. They fished out a debit card and the lady said she did not have a swiping machine there. She instructed them to the nearest ATM Counter, which I was sure was off half a kilometre from the NGMA. We are talking about the digitization of Indian economy. Hold on for a second, here I am not going to criticize Mr.Narendra Modi or Mr.Arun Jaitly or Mr.Mahesh Kumar who is the cultural minister or even Aditya Gadanayak who is the Director General of the NGMA. I have something else to say.
I accept the fact that a swiping machine should be in place at the NGMA and it is the responsibility of the authorities. But the change of persons at the top posts happened recently and before that there was Mr.Rajiv Lochan who held on to the post of the Director for almost fifteen years like a monitor lizard and never thought of having the modern equipments at the ticket counter. Our prime institution for modern art has been an unfriendly place for many years and we need different strategies to bring the people into the galleries before we decide how much time they should spend before each work of art. In cities the culture or the idea of viewing art has been changed drastically. People do not really see a work of art even if they are in a gallery. They are there either to socialise or to counter check certain claims that they had heard about the displays. The people who would like to stray into the galleries are dissuaded by the general ambience of the galleries where you hardly see any lights on or some kind of an invitation hung out there for all. Now, the other category of people who would like to see the works and buy a couple of them would never look at anything else before they see the director of the gallery. They walk around with the gallerist and more than they discuss the aesthetical longevity of the works or the enduring capacity of the artists, they discuss mostly of the prospectus of these works minting gold in the future market.
Take a normal opening of any show. The people gather there often say that they are there to cheer the artist/s not really to see the show. “I would be coming back soon and will see the works at leisure,” is the standard saying. In fact these days even the artists do not expect their works to be seen by people on the opening day. For them the opening day is for basking in the projected glory, not based on the works but based on the other achievements; latest participation in an international art fair, recent land or property acquisitions, latest gadgets, last party attended, the camps that they are going to attend and so on. The most pathetic scene is seen in the page three reports. I am not against page three for once in a while I too am featured there for being in the wrong places at the wrong time. But these paid reports never publish the gallery’s name or a couple of lines about the artist/s. In the frames you wouldn’t even see a trace of the paintings or sculptures exhibited there. And still we expect our people to see art for fourteen to twenty seconds! You are asking for too much. Recently in Kolkata, some dreamy eyed lady came to me and shook hands with me only to say that she was there for the dinner not for the show, but somehow she liked the exhibits which she had cursorily seen while walking in and thought of congratulating me for ‘putting them together’. As I am completely insulated now and nothing affects me in the art scene, I could take that comment with a smile and attend the same dinner with artists and friends.
People do go to museums; it is not that Indian people are uncouth and uncultured who detest looking at the works of art. Unfortunately the people go to the museums as if they were there for taking selfies with ‘interesting’ sculptures and paintings. When they are not taking selfies they are doing the location hunting for the next selfie. I have seen gangs of youngsters walking into the museums in different parts of our country, moving like flocks of sheep herded by a team leader or taking selfies. The percentage of people going to museums on a week day would be .001% (a random calculation to show how miniscule the number is) in India. Indian museums do not attract people means the Indian museums do not create attractive programs; its that simple. Let’s now wait for the Madame Tussauds museum to start in Delhi (it is coming soon). People will throng there as they do in the historical sites like Qutub Minar or Taj Mahal. Our high brow culturists would say that the people in our country are interested in populist things. Populist things are popular because they have used populist techniques to get people there. Why can’t the museums do it? Not really populist tactics but using the same methodology but in much refined terms. I remember the Picasso show in the National Museum almost fifteen years back. It was a blockbuster show and people were queuing up for it. Picasso is famous and people know about him. Why our artists are not that famous? Why our museum machineries are not used for creating such mammoth artistic images?
Now, let us take the case of the private galleries. Recently I went to a gallery and the gallerist told me part proudly and part sadly that I was the first one there after the opening of the show which had taken place a week back. I could sympathize with the gallerist but at the same time I thought that having a gallery or having a show cannot be a reason for the people to walk in. If you want people to walk in, you need to work towards it. You need to really create some kind of vibe around it. Most of the gallerists take this holier than thou attitude; they get paid editorials in magazines and newspapers and we are not like that. When you are not like that your shows will remain abandoned. Make sure that the people who promise to come back after the opening party really doing so. Why can’t the gallerists do something more towards getting people to see the works? It is not possible because the gallerists themselves think that they are well equipped business people and curators as well. So they know what they are doing. When they know what they are doing, the result is that out of the three hundred and sixty five days you get ten people to see your shows. There is no point in complaining.
In that scenario, it is almost useless to talk about how much time one should stand before a work of art. First of all India needs people to come to the galleries and slowly they could be taught to stay back or stay before in front of a work of art. I have seen people making devoted gallery visits on a week day afternoon without making much fuss about it, catching up with shows, spending enough time before the works and even relishing it for a long time. It happens in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and in other places; but let me tell mostly this kind of people go to public galleries run by private trusts or by the government. I have seen a steady stream of people walking in to the Jehangir Gallery and a few galleries around it, in the Biral Academy and Artists centre in Kolkata, Lalit Kala Academy and Sridharani and Triveni in Delhi. In fact I have seen people spending more than two minutes before the works. They even make it a point to talk to the artists. Now, these are not the people who buy art. These are those people who would like to see good art and feel good about the art, artists and about themselves. And I believe that the artists get more satisfaction when people come to see their works than buy them (that happens if certain parameters are right for the artists).
India needs gallerists who just focus on sales and promote their artists through various strategies. First of all the gallerists have to understand that they are not equipped to validate the works of art. They could like and promote what they like. It should be limited just to that. They should not venture to decide on the aesthetical directions that a country should take. If Indian galleries are now suffering from the lack of audience, it is created by the gallerists who pose themselves as the creators of an aesthetical environment in the country. Unfortunately, such false images are created through the platforms of the Art Fairs and Biennales. Selling is a good form of art. Do sell, do not teach aesthetics, that is the only advice I could give to the gallerists to improve the attendance in their galleries. Otherwise they will be influential in their limited circles only. Why think about how much time before the work of art, let us get people first in the galleries.
(Post Script: Personally speaking, I am of the opinion that with or without galleries art will flourish for the artists happen in this world not because there are galleries but because they are innately talented. And I strongly believe that galleries are possible only when there are artists and works of art, not the other way round. Sincerely speaking, the private galleries should do the selling and the public galleries should focus on showcasing good art.)