Friday, April 20, 2018

Why a Kerala Girl Pretended that She is Pregnant: Illness of an ‘Educated’ Society

This may sound a story of betrayal; of love, loyalty and family values. The story goes like this. A young married woman in Kerala made her husband and his family believe that she was pregnant and in the 9thmonth she went to hospital accompanied by them and from there she went missing. The panicking family filed a missing person case with the police and in a couple of days she was found in another town. She broke down before her husband and family and revealed that she had an abortion by the third month and fearing the anger of the family she went on pretending that she was pregnant till the ‘due date’. The young woman is all of 20 years old. Any family would be agitated to know such a thing done to them by their daughter in law. However, she should be congratulated for the illusions and acts that she had put up throughout the nine months to fool the concerned eyes of her husband and relatives. 
An apparent story of deception and cunning, it has something poignant behind it that often we refuse to address. What makes a young woman to go to such extent in order to make her husband’s family believe that she is fertile and is capable of making a baby? She was pregnant and there was an abortion. One could easily say that the things that she did since the abortion are because of her lack of awareness about pregnancy and its risks. One could also believe that had she been informed of the possibility of abortion in any pregnancy she wouldn’t have done such a drastic act of deception. I hope she has been forgiven by her family by now and is reconciled with her husband with a promise of no insulting based on this one incident. But the question remains; why her own family and the nuptial family (at least the women in those families) failed her and failed themselves by not preparing her for pregnancy and child birth?

It is not just a case of lack of awareness of the pregnant girl nor is a question of callousness by her families. It has happened because of a major social fear. She might have acted in this way because of the possible torture and ostracism that she would face upon undergoing a pregnancy which is highly valued by the families. Kerala is hailed to be a hundred per cent literate society where women, compared to other states enjoy social and familial freedom. A twenty year old woman is a person born in 1998 by the time India had entered internet era. All these factors do not seem to have helped this young woman in understanding her pregnancy and a possible abortion. Even if she has understood, she couldn’t have withstood the social as well as familial pressure that she would undergo due to an abortion.
Let us ask this simple question: why did she feign pregnancy after an abortion? My conjecture is that she must have had undergone a sex determination test of the baby by the third month of her pregnancy and must have found out that it was a baby boy. This news must have brought a lot of happiness to both the families and the sudden abortion would have put her into disgrace. Or her husband’s family must have given over importance to a male/female heir and in the conversations must have filled the would-be mother with the horrors of having an abortion. Another possibility is that there must have been adjustments problems between the girl and the in-laws and the pregnancy must have turned out to be a thing of contention. They must have been chiding her on her lack of care and so on. A fall of fetus in this condition would have been seen as a major crime committed by the girl. There could be a dowry related scuffle at home, which she thought would have been subsided for the time being if she was bringing a bundle of happiness to the family. There could be a hundred of social issues pertaining to the pregnancy than it being a normal reproductive health occurrence. Pregnancy is not an illness, says the medical expert but its ramifications are just symptoms of our social illness. 

A young woman’s fear of the possible torture from the society for not being able to keep a ‘healthy’ baby in her womb has to be a thing of concern for all the families that want to keep a healthy relationship with the married girls and the possible mental and physical changes happen to them during early days of marriage, initial symptoms of pregnancy, pregnancy related healthcare during the trimesters. The importance of child birth in most of the families even in the internet age has grown to alarming proportions. While there is a cantankerous desire to have a baby boy in most of the households for the perpetuation of family values (most of these values are degenerated and needed to be imperiled in fact), even the arrival of a baby girl has become a thing of joy and concern at once.
The act of deception done by a Kerala woman in order to hide her abortion (which in my knowledge is not a new thing in the state) is nothing but a result of implementation of the patriarchal values in the life of a young woman. Her pregnancy is no longer her decision; it has become a ‘choice’ of the family of her husband and at times the choice of her own family. Indian patriarchy almost abandons a girl child once she is married ‘off’ to another family as if a burden is handed over to someone else’s shoulders who in turn does not see it as a happy burden but an unavoidable burden that has to be borne for socio-familial reasons but definitely with a price attached to it. Hence, a girl’s life is still treated not as her own life but as a currency of the male values. In this, a girl loses her real life value and enters into a symbolic order in which she does not have any power or agency to alter those values. 

The deceptive young woman in Kerala is not a betrayer of family values but a victim in captivity who wanted desperately to escape the possible punishments of patriarchy for having failed to bring forth a child from her womb. This woman’s case may be exceptional only when we come to know that she has been reconciled with the family without much damage but rest of the girls in our society may not be that lucky. Pregnancy and child birth has always been an extension and reflection of patriarchal values in Indian society and to our shock we realize that its ugly grip has not loosened up a bit from around the throats of the girls who happily and dreamily enter into marriages only to face an absolutely different tune. For the healthcare section of our society, the corporatization of healthcare has made pregnancy is a thing of worry to be paid through insurance, compensated and reimbursed. None cares what happens to a girl and her pregnancy in the process; it is just a reason not for medical transaction but finance transaction. The burden is further weighed down upon the girls when they are made to fulfill the male value not only through their daily toiling but also through their ability to reproduce a healthy baby boy (and at times girl). The focus has to be now shifted; to call ourselves modern human beings, we need to be much more careful and concerned and sympathetic to our girls who are pregnant and no pressure should be imposed on them at all. 

(Images for representational purposes only taken from the internet)

Monday, April 16, 2018

A Strong Political Artist with a Masterpiece: Watch out artist Sumeshan K

Artist Sumeshan K
Some artists make one masterpiece and the rest from their studios would be assessed by that one particular work. Some other artists keep on making works to reach that moment of making a masterpiece. Rare are those artists who make many masterpieces and still remain fresh in their other creative works. Masterpieces take place in an artist’s life when he is at the peak of his creativity and many more masterpieces follow in his career when that peaking of creativity refuses to fall. Remain there at the peak of creativity demands either a constant sense of elation or the persistence of primordial oppressions. While the permanent state of joy takes the artist makes the artists levitate than fathom deeper, the permanent awareness of historical oppression helps the artists to dig deep and find the reasons for such oppression. This is a sort of scientific search tinged with an emotional fervour  it is a clarion call for liberation with a heightened sense of justice. Those artists who lack in both or oscillate between these two poles do make ‘good’ art but they never ‘lift’ or ‘hurt’ the sensibilities of the onlookers and the fellow artists. That’s why I say, in an artist a masterpiece happens when he is at the peak of his creative sensibility. He turns out to be a medium to manifest for it is at that moment of creation that he channelizes the awareness imparted to him by the history into the work of art. 
If you know this truth you wouldn’t miss the works of Sumeshan K, an artist from north Kerala, currently living and working in Chennai. This twenty eight year old artist has a Degree in Painting from the Fine Arts College, Thrissur and a Post Graduation in the same from the SN School of Arts and Communication, University of Hyderabad. Sumeshan has already taken the paths that the other artists of his age would choose in their formative years. He had already had his stint in the Kanoria Arts Centre in Ahmedabad and a scholarship has brought him now to Chennai where he spends his time creating paintings and drawings at the Lalithakala Academy Regional Centre Studios. What makes Sumeshan stands out from the artists of his age is the fact that he has already done his masterpiece. It may be a tall claim from my side but looking at an ‘untitled’ work done by Sumeshan which sits broodingly at his studio in Chennai stands evidence to my claim. All the visitors in the studio have noticed that work and must have thought about it as a masterpiece but may be for the first time I would like to articulate it for the studio is not frequented by many art critics and writers these days. 

A masterpiece generally should have a title; a name. But some masterpieces do not have a name to begin with and in due course of time it gets different names from different people and one of them, which is strong enough to compete with the other names would stick and the future would know the work with that name; interestingly that name which is an attribution than an original appellation may go just the opposite direction to what had been thought by the artist during the time of its making. But masterpieces have this tendency to withstand not only time but also misnomers and bad interpretations. Hence, let me make the first attempt to name this work which I think should stick: ‘Goddess as a Flagellator Accompanied by her Snakes and Dog Resisting the Feudal Demon’. This explanatory title has the meaning of the work embedded in it. Sumeshan comes from a tribal family and the historical injustice inflicted on to his own people through thousands of years has condensed in him as a very special awareness about his existence in this society and as an artist he has understood the need for resisting all such injustices. May be as a educated young man Sumeshan himself has not undergone such socio-cultural discriminations; I cannot be sure on this because even in the egalitarian educational institutions in India we find caste oppressions, which obviously comes as a result of one’s physical appearance, linguistic abilities, economics status, family position, geographical locations from one hails and so on. 
‘Goddess as a Flagellator Accompanied by her Snakes and Dog Resisting the Feudal Demon’ has a female character in the middle of the painting whose body is bend and her hands (more than two in number emphasizing her ‘divine’ nature) are in a motion suggesting a self flagellation, whose impact is highlighted by the reddening of her own back. The reddened circled looks like a dark pool of thick blood or the color change of her dark skin because of the never ending spanking. The blood spilled from the pool seems to have spread all over her thick and curly hair that has fallen forward covering her face. This redness could also be interpreted as the rise of a red moon whose red light spilling over the cascade of her hairs turning the pain into something eerily romantic. She stands in a special circle (as circles show demarcated spaces or boundaries, the transgressions of which could be detrimental to the existence of the one who is destined to stand inside the circle) full of venomous snakes hissing aggressively at something/someone outside the pictorial frame. Just ahead of that we could see a dog agitated and barking at an invisible presence. There is a dramatic light falling over the protagonist and makes the circle precisely a yellow moon. It looks like a night ritual but a very poignant one. The painting means more than it appears. Sumeshan says that it is a ritual of resistance of his own people or rather a ritual that he has devised artistically for his people who have been oppressed by the feudal lords for many centuries. There used to be custom that a tribal youth had to present his newly-wed bride to the feudal lord before he could consummate his marriage. In the case of agriculture the yield was to go to the feudal master and the tiller had to go with meager portions. Such gross injustice has resulted into socio-political resistance which unfortunately gets curbed by the state machineries that collude with the feudal lords. Therefore, Sumeshan’s painting imagines a ‘bride’ who beats herself up as a ritual of resistance and all her anger along with that of her people and society turns into a pack of hissing snakes and a howling dog that move like a military contingent towards a common oppressor who by default becomes the focus of the painting. The more I look at this painting the more I understand its masterpiece quality and you may find it too.

What intrigues me is the red color that has come very deliberately in this masterpiece work of Sumeshan. The red could have been just seen as the redness that spills out from the bruised back of the bride. But in Sumeshan’s work titled ‘Korathi and Comrade’ (An Outcaste Woman and the Comrade), even without a trace of red, I see red; in fact this work is a black and white one done out of charcoal, watercolor and dry pastel. But I would call it a ‘RED’ painting. Only thing that I want to clarify is that how critical or appreciative is the artist of this ‘red’ for it is not a simple red but the political red, the Communist red. This work , Korathi and Comrade has everything that leads to a visual critique of Communist (Marxist) movement in Kerala especially among the backward and tribal people. Started off as the redeemers of these sets of people, the Communist parties slowly moved away from their causes and started self feudalizing themselves. In the process, the extreme leftists got their foothold amongst the tribal people and such forces are called ‘Maoists’ today. Sumeshan is not a Maoist but an artist. But he sees the failure of ‘red’ of all kinds including the Maoists. Let me explain how it is etched in this particular work.
Korathi is a traditional field worker woman and her name gets smudged as she is often called by her caste/tribe name. But in 1930s and 40s during the political strengthening of the left in Kerala and elsewhere the working class was taken as a unified lot by overlooking their tribal/caste wise varieties and differences. Caste, a defining social ill was overlooked by the leftists and it was replaced by the Class Struggle. In the process, the (lower) castes got romanticized in the propagandist literature and theatre as they were shown as the right owners of land and the rightful heirs of a possible revolution. Symbolism of a sanitized, energized, muscled working class was borrowed from the Stalinist Russia and we could see the same symbolism in Sumeshan’s painting with a major alteration. In the place of the well muscled factory workers, we see emaciated field workers and on their sickle and hammer we could see an owl perched precariously. The meaning is at once cynical and ominous; owl is a symbol of darkness as well as a potent symbol of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Sumeshan puns these two meanings (how the life of the tilling class has turned dark and how the hope of richness still remains a ludicrous possibility). On the left side of the painting we see a stylized ‘Korathi’ raising her sickle to the sky where a dark moon is seen ‘shining’. The woman’s farm laborer status is highlighted with ‘tools’ and the presence of a stack of paddy. The ritualistic headgear and the dramatic costume take us directly to the famous song from a KPAC Drama (that is the counterpart of IPTA) that says ‘Ponnarivaalambiliyil kanneriyunnole’ (Oh girl, who glances at the golden sickle of a moon). The romanticizing of the farm workers and their integration with the upper castes, we understand from this painting, ironically remains a romantic dream and the possibility of such integration seems to be absolutely elusive. This tableau like painting has a centrally positioned coconut tree (which is a stand in for the Kerala state) and we see a dog urinating on it; I need not elaborate further on this. The choice of the artist to remove the red color from this painting is a great choice in itself; the red revolution seems to have lost its color! But the artist has taken that red to the tribal people and their self punishment for upholding their dignity. 

Sumeshan is a wonderful artist and he has to be seen and understood by the people who have a leftist thinking because it is through this aesthetical criticism that the left could correct itself. The chances are not remote that Sumeshan becomes a cynosure of the right wing people simply for criticizing the left for its failures. But that would be simply a hijacking. Sumeshan should be seen, critiqued and celebrated by the people who still believe in democracy and the people’s right to land and justice. Sumeshan is an artist who thinks a lot about the people’s right to have land for living and farming. In one of his untitled works we see the upper portion of a skeleton lying horizontally in a buried position. A closer look reveals that the skeleton is embellished by landscapes and farms. It looks like a skeleton dreaming its land; it is the dream of a farmer who died without owning a piece of land but tilled others’ lands for nothing, for torture and shame only. No political party could redeem them. Their red has lost its color and has become dark. If you are talking about political art, it is high time that you look at the works of Sumeshan and artists like him.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Some Thoughts about Art Viewers

Any talk regarding art viewers beckons a series of questions. Who is an art viewer or the spectator of art? Should she be an informed person or a casual enthusiast? Where does he reside and how far does he travel to see art? Which are the places that she expects to see art? Why all those people who look at the works of art are not qualified as art viewers? What is the minimum qualification that one needs to become an art viewer? These questions may sound a bit outlandish because most of us think that viewing art does not need any special qualification and one could be an art viewer at any given point of time. Also the post modernists amongst us would argue that anything and everything around us is a work of art therefore we are constantly watching art works. While all these answers are valid in their own contexts, the most feasible answer could be sought from the living and lived examples that we see in the context of art production and proliferation. For the time being let us forget that the works of art happen or take place everywhere around us and we are constantly watching them. And let us pitch our argument in the fact that the works of art are produced in certain places and are exhibited in certain specified places. Some may hugely offended by reading this for them art is no longer a ‘special’ thing produced somewhere and shown elsewhere. But we will come to that a bit later. To begin with let us say, an artist creates a work of art in his studio and the works thus produced are exhibited in a gallery or a museum.

In one of the earlier essays I had explained how artists seek recognition and appreciation more than money when it comes to the exhibition context. Money is an outcome but appreciation and recognition are the direct impacting that an artist seeks when she exhibits her works. While money as an outcome could remain elusive and tentative (till the actual dealings are done and money is transacted) within the gallery space till the last moment of the exhibition, appreciation by the viewers is something pre-assured in an exhibition space. Once the exhibition is formally opened and the viewers/patrons flow in, what the artist craves for is some words of recognition; it could be a cursory enquiry about the textures, forms or about the theme. It could be an enthusiastic conversation on the school of style that the viewer wants you to be an associate. You could agree with his point of view or dispute it; however, the engagement is all the more satisfactory for the artist. Some viewers do not talk at all. They don’t even look at the face of the artist. But they do spend a lot of time before each work of art on display. Looking at them is the real pleasure for the artist; a complicated pleasure that is eked out of the thought about the viewers’ reflections. Viewers are a difficult lot, if you have sit in a gallery while your exhibition is on, you would know it. Many are very stingy with appreciative words; many are stingy in expressions; many try to ignore the artist; many often hang an enigmatic smile on their lips which could put the artist into depression at times. Some viewers play too pricey to be neglected. An artist during her exhibition is more mentally troubled than her gallerist because of these ‘viewers’.

Who are these viewers? Where do they come from? Why do they play pricey? They do because they are very valuable people in the art scene though nobody openly accepts this fact. There are different types of viewers. First of all, there are adamant art lovers. They can’t even explain their love for art. They like to look at the works of art and be happy about it. Such people are like the eclectic readers. They just love reading books so they keep on reading. Secondly, there are art fraternity viewers. This set shows a tribal behavior. These viewers have well demarcated roles within the art scene as (fellow) artists, critics, art writers, art historians, art friends, small time collectors, big time collectors, art dealers, gallerist’s friends, party goers, celebrities and so on. Then we have exclusive artists as viewers. When one artist exhibits it becomes a family necessity that the other artists go and see his works. The artist who is currently exhibiting definitely thinks that only her fellow artists understand her better than anybody else. The artist may say the same thing to the critic and the art writers. Here I would like to avoid the collectors’ lot as devoted viewers for their viewing has got a different purpose; the purpose to collect or not to collect. The last but not the least set of viewers is comprised of people who just walk into see an exhibition. They are not compulsive exhibition goers as we have seen with the first lot. But they are people who actually decide to get out of their homes and catch up a show in the town. They may not have any previous experiences in looking at works of art or they may not be regular in galleries. But they do come out of their homes and enter the galleries once in a while. And I would say these are the people who make an exhibition ‘successful.’ If anywhere in the world, an art show becomes a blockbuster show, it is because of these people who ‘decide’ to go and ‘have a look’.  

Their decision to go and take a look at the works of art on display may not be directed or driven by an expert opinion or the public opinion. Sometimes these could be the reasons for such a decision. But one cannot say it for sure whether their visit to a gallery at a given moment is decided by an expert opinion seen in a public forum or it was just a compulsion to catch up with something that would perhaps become something historical in their life time. Such viewers, I would say are created by the dynamics of history. Such dynamics of history could be seen only in a society whose members are cosmopolitan in outlook and derive some pleasure and pride in looking at something that is ‘framed’ and ‘displayed’ in a demarcated space. This lot may be looking at film posters, theatre posters, public sculptures, graffiti and many such public art pieces in their daily commuting. But they don’t spend a few minutes to delve deep into them. The daily visual might become a part of their visual memory or cultural understanding about the places and spaces where they live but such etching in memories may not be indelible as the grooves of such etching could be facile and shallow, which could be replaced by another set of daily visuals. But if they take some time to go into a gallery or a specially demarcated place for art and look at the displayed art pieces, then it is a conscious act, a choice which could change their attitude towards life forever. 

A viewer is created by the dynamics of history and his/her ability to feel that dynamics in the air. When a political movement happens, many people who have been apolitical in all their lives suddenly make a decision to come out and join the demonstrations in the streets. They are the people who have felt the dynamics of history in the air. At the same time there are millions of people in the same city who remain in their homes or work places, pretty much aware of the goings on but are unaffected by the force of the events. In the case of the making of a viewer also these factors work. Hence, if a person walks into a gallery, we should understand that he could become a ‘real’ viewer for his decision to come there must be a choice and for him it must be a life changing experience. Once he is hooked to the experience he would like to replicate it in different times and in different situations. In this context we could also say that a viewer is a person who volunteers to walk into a gallery. She is one of the people from the public who make that crucial choice of being a volunteer for looking at art. This person may not have seen any review of the show, she may not have any friendship with the artist, she may not have even heard of the artist, it may be her first visit to a gallery; but there is something that goads her into the gallery and she would become a permanent art admirer provided her first visit has generated some life changing experience in her. 

Taking these into consideration I would say an art viewer is always in the making and he need not necessarily be an art insider. He/she could be a member of the public who makes a choice to visit an exhibition. This person cannot be taken for granted because in our society there are many such people who are waiting in wings for the right time to make an entry. If they were not there the art scene would have been a very boring one with the same people (friends, family and fellow artists) exhibiting and viewing the works of art. A viewer is a person who is there to give you a strange but memorable encounter. This is the meeting of two hearts and brains. That viewer in her decision to look at your work of art has made a historical decision to be under the influence of your art. For that person to the works of art may offer a chance encounter with revolution and beauty. Such things rarely happen; a meeting of beauty and revolution. A bloodless revolution that would make two people fall in love with the same idea and would remain in an invisible relationship without even communicating about it. I do not mean to say that a set of people who just get hoarded inside a gallery or a museum for the purpose of ‘visit’ or ‘selfie’ qualify as ‘viewers’ in the same sense. 

How do that historical dynamics take place vis-à-vis an exhibition? The presence of a set of works of art in a gallery could create a ripple in its surroundings. It gets mediated to the public by word of mouth or by active publicity and critical mediations. But these do not assure the arrival of the viewers in the gallery. An invisible rapport should be created between the people of the city and information about the work of art. The strength of such information should be so strong that it does not miss the antenna of the sensitive among the public. Once this transmission is done the people make the ‘choice/decision’ to walk into the gallery. They do not know what brought them there; was it mere curiosity or their deep seated interest to see the works of art. Nobody can say anything. Only that encounter could reveal it. Hence the arrogance of the artists and the gallerists that the general public does not understand art should be nipped in the bud itself. If one removes all the mystery around the art and the critical mediation that at times confuses than explains, viewers would automatically enjoy what they see. Often the viewers say that the symbolism (private symbolism created by the artists) that they witness in the works of art is too difficult to crack. I do not say that a work of art should be an easy give away but it could have explanatory tools so that the viewer gets into the core of it. But unfortunately to ward off such historical viewers, the galleries and artists mystify works of art as much as they could. But there are demystified art with lot of mundane symbolism which is an absolute give away. In my view such simplification of art and resorting to easy and stereotypical symbolism would not help to create a historical viewer, rather it would push a potential viewer into the rut of habit and familiarity. That is one of the biggest traps that the viewers have to escape while looking at the works of art. But what are these works with stereotypical symbolism? Also what are these works with desirable symbolism that helps the viewers remain on their track to glory? Perhaps, another essay would explain the difference between mundane symbolism and exceptionally fresh ones. 

(Images for illustrative purposes only taken from the Internet)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Art Patrons and Viewers as Patrons

The question that I raised in the last essay was regarding the nature of the (art) patrons/clients/consumers. In this essay, my intention is to elaborate on that subject and see the conventional understanding about it could help in any way in a changed scenario where the artists have almost become obsessed with the idea of patronage; or rather seem to do so. There may be some voices that would come up to dispute this aspect of artistic obsession with patronage and such voices would definitely argue that the primary intention of the artist is not the existence of a patron but creativity itself. In this front I cannot raise a counter argument for the voice of earnestness is true beyond any doubt. Almost all the artists who are not doing ‘commissioned’ works at any given time and are involved in their studio practice, while working on their works of art do not really think about the possible patrons. But at the same time I would add that the moment an artist finishes a work of art, from somewhere or nowhere this thought about the possible patrons somehow creeps into the mind of the artist. That is not a wrong thing to happen. On the contrary that is the right thing to happen because the moment a work of art is finished within the four walls of a studio (I am still thinking of an artist working from a conventional studio) even the artist cannot predict its possible trajectories of journey and the encounters that it might experience. While certain amount of predictions are possible about the possible patrons along the way, beyond a point it is impossible to conceive the nature of the patrons in whose hands or homes the work of art is going to find a permanent or a temporary home. 

Here again the concern seems to be overtly of a patron who would shell out money to possess the work of art in concern. But does a patron mean only a buyer or a collector? Who is a patron and what exactly is his/her nature? The Latin origin of the word ‘Patron’ is ‘Pater’ which means ‘father’. This very definition should tell us the ideology of a patron in any field though the nature of a patron has been undergone various evolutionary processes and currently the word has been used in many other contexts without its original underpinnings. The etymological meaning of the word tells us that a patron is always a male and a father figure. During the early days of social organization under religious and royalty, religious establishments were the patrons (fathers) and an equal role was played by the royal kings and emperors. In a polite society an artist was a person who was supposed to obey the wishes of the father and create according to His needs. Thinking of a female patron (then it should be matron) was an impossible task as women were kept not only out of decision making but also out of money making. Deprived of both power of discretion and power of transaction women more or less remained outside the parlance of art patronage and it was always the Father who took all the decisions regarding art. It took many years that had seen the separation of religion from state, industrial revolution, evolution of the modern individual self and feminist activisms, for facilitating a change in the idea of patronage. Today, patron is also a matron and a patron need not necessarily be someone who always ‘buys’ or ‘collects’. He/she could simply be a promoter of the art and artist simply by frequenting the art shows and artists’ studios.

Today’s patron is also a viewer; a spectator. He/she frequents the places where an artist presents his/her works. He would follow the artist very closely both physically and intellectually. When it is needed he would write about him in the magazines and journals and also would introduce him and his works in the cultural circles that he frequents. By doing this he makes a contribution to the life and works of the artist/s. And in rare chances, this viewer could become a patron in the conventional sense too. That means, he could buy an odd work of art for the sheer pleasure of it. To put these observations in differently, I would say, a patron is a person who is a fellow traveler of the artist; this travel could involve collecting works of art from the artist or even becoming a frequenter in his art shows. Out of these patrons, an artist would definitely like the former one for the financial input that he/she is able to make but at the same time the artist cannot just do away with the patrons who come simply to look at the works of art on display. An artist is a hungry person who looks for appreciations by words of praise, criticism and consolation. Perhaps, someone who gives a lot of value to appreciation by the patrons wouldn’t even mind if his works are not sold at all. Human beings are suckers for appreciation and recognition. Even a hungry person’s face would shine up if someone tells him/her that he looks beautiful even when he is tired. Give him a free meal, he would satisfy his hunger but would forget you immediately. The face and words of a person who says good words about an artist gets etched in his/her memory than the face of a benefactor who has made a cursory buying. But yes, the artists do remember the names and faces of the patrons who makes substantial buying.  

In an art scene where collection of works of art for sheer pride has been replaced by the idea of investment the idea of patronage also has changed considerably. Today’s buyer is not a loyal buyer though there are a few still around as the last specimens of an extinct species. Today’s buyer is a person with an eye on profit. He knows what he is investing in and the possible benefits that he would reap from such investment in art. This works against the meanings of the word ‘patron’ which come closer to ‘charity’, ‘philanthropy’ and ‘benefactor’. The buyer is not a person who would give much stress on these ideas of philanthropy and charity. He is not out here to help an artist or promote his aesthetics. His idea is to invest money in a particular product which has a speculative price in the future markets. In this matter he is advised by art consultants and galleries. Therefore these art consultants and galleries are not really the patrons either. They no longer want their galleries and viewing rooms are to be visited and frequented by the people who just come for aesthetical appreciation alone. They want potential buyers to walk in and make the investment. They know how to coax them to do that. Hence, the patron in the form of an appreciator has more or less lost the value in the eyes of the gallerists, dealers and art consultants. They believe that an art establishment could be functioned without the presence of patrons as viewers and fans of aesthetics. This has started reflecting in the art scene ever since the art market became global collapsing the regional boundaries though much of the patrons still have parental affiliations with the artists due to their specified citizenships. However, the global superstars in art investment and patronage have transcended the geographical affiliations and citizenship and have become real global market players but their number is very limited and remains inaccessible to a large contingent of artists from all over the world. Or to put it in other words, this large contingent of artists remains invisible to these global patrons due to their provinciality and immobility. 

 I do not mean to say that there are no art patrons in the provinces and regions. They are there but unfortunately they keep emulating the bigger players in the market in all the possible ways, at times almost making their acts farcical and pathetic. However, they do play a role in keeping the local market active but again the problem is that the model that they replicate is insular in many ways and within that insularity they are able to promote only a very few artists and slowly they become patrons and middlemen at once. While they behave as local patrons to the local artists, in the next level they become the middlemen for the bigger players elsewhere. This chain continues creating a very impenetrable hierarchy because as the hierarchy strengthens itself, the aesthetical decisions get homogenized and the plurality that is a prerequisite for the flourishing of cultures in any country slowly fades off either by the conversion of the artists into this new homogenized mode or by the gradual withdrawal of many artists into marginal areas of art activities. That means erstwhile patrons become dealers and a sort of feudalism comes to get reestablished in the art market. Today we see the adverse effects of this feudal set up in the market and it would take a total revolution to make any difference to it. Interestingly, in the present scenario nobody knows what could be the right way to create an alternative patronage in order to facilitate that revolution. Most of the people in the art scene know for sure that the survival is assured only by accepting the existing terms and conditions of the homogenized market or perish. 

In such a scenario, artists can survive only one kind of patronage; that is the patronage of the viewers and the critics and historians even if their opinion on the works of art could be severely critical and at times detrimental to the positive thinking of the artists. But it is important have someone to speak about the art. Many viewers who frequent the galleries (therefore worthy of being called as patrons of art) generally try to speak to the artists and get some inspiration. In fact, it is the other way round. If you talk to an artist whose works are on display, your kind words would make him/her happy than a wad of currency notes offered to him as charity (there are some crazy rich people who would walk into a gallery, offer some money to the artist as a booking advance for a particular work and never turns up to collect the work). In my view, the first step towards change in patronage is to create more viewers for the art than to create more buyers for the art. When there is an increase in viewership, there would be a chain of reactions happening around it. A flurry of economic activities would follow this crowd which in turn would bring the attention of the media. Here you may ask me whether it is all once again going back to the economic aspect. Yes, patronage is eventually to help artists financially also. But my point is that today the patronage has become quite insular, exclusive and partial. It has created an economic hegemony within the art scene. This can be broken down provided different levels of economic patronage are created within the art scene. This is possible only when more and more people take interest in works of art and visit the galleries and say a few words of critique or appreciation to the artists. History happens with people. Market is only an addition to the history. History could be fashioned by market only when people involve in markets. Otherwise it would remain as a vintage section raising only curiosity and anxiety but never interest and love for the objects of art and their creators.

It is easier said than done; the creation of viewers. The first question is why there should be viewers at all? As one of the seminar respondents in Kochi asked, why someone insists that people should come and see their art. If you have the right to create a work of art and put it in public, the public has the right to see it as well as avoid it. There are a number of books being published every day and the reality is that we do not read all what is published. Still there is a flourishing book market and that is not concentrated in one place. But the difference is that there are readers for the books even if they are not a united lot and are seen dispersed all over the place. Compared to them art viewers are very less in number. If the numbers are increased, even if they are not a united lot, there would be a market generated around them. All the books are not collectibles; they are multiples and easily affordable. Similarly, all the works of art need not necessarily be strictly collector’s choices; they could be multiples and be targeting a plural patronage and of course in an affordable price. The possibility of an alternative market could be created only through the creation of mainstream viewership. That may sound a bit ironic but that is the reality. You create mainstream viewers for the art, then you see the magic of alternative markets sprouting up around them. All the markets need not necessarily driven by products; it could be driven by consumers also. In the art scene, there is still a chance for the creation of an alternative market through the creation of viewers; which means a consumer driven market than a product and capital driven one. Seen against this scenario, we understand how difficult it is to find viewers for works of art. And the question is who is the art viewer? May be that demands another essay. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Art Market and the Realities

In a seminar held in Kochi recently, a heated debate was initiated logically and ‘naturally’ by the keynote speaker, Prof.Ajayakumar on the topic of ‘art market’. Though the topic was not straight away placed for debate, before anything could be done to control the outcome, it was cascaded into a flood of observations, recounting of personal experiences regarding market, a total rejection of the very idea of market and the insistence on an ideal space for producing and consuming art and the need for finding an alternative market. Two people, namely artist Lakshmanan and Prof.C.B.Sudhakaran, from the audience categorically said that if you were in the market, you should be prepared to live up to its rules. ‘If not better do your art and revel in the very idea of ‘creation for self expression and satisfaction.’ Though such assertion sounded fatalistic and overtly capitalistic, everyone could feel the sense of freedom such a statement could impart through its acceptance. I was personally asked by some audience members whether I had accepted market as a reality or not. ‘All for it’ was my answer; yes, I accept market but the rider to go with it is the ethical practices that a market could uphold. If I put it in other words it has to be in the form of a question unto myself and to all; do such ethical practices exist in the market? This small essay is an attempt to narrate the arguments that I had placed before the audience in this matter of art market and also to vivify certain points that I thought were not pushed across well.
First of all, (the general) market and art market cannot be equated or discussed using the same parameters or methods. What makes them be the part of the same family is their adherence to the idea of market where commodities are transacted for monitory benefits. There are two ways of creating a market and the resultant profit making: one, a need of the consuming populace is identified and later a product is introduced in the market to satisfy that demand/need. Two, a need for the consuming populace is artificially created and later a product is introduced in the market to satisfy that ‘created’ demand/need. The most interesting aspect in both these is their interdependence; they have this very special ability to mutually reproduce the future markets. The fulfillment of an existing demand/need creates another need not just because of human desire but the introduction of a product to satisfy any demand automatically creates another space with an imaginary need where the artificially created demand would fit in perfectly. I could explain it with an example of a kitchen-equipment. You need cooking gas for cooking (for what else it could be!). So you have a gas connection and a gas stove with multiple burners. Suddenly you find your ventilation system is poor and the kitchen gets hot air and smoke. Or you are told so by the companies that make electric chimneys. They tell you the adverse health implications and how the new chimney could save you from all those troubles. So you have an electric chimney fitted above your stove and before long you find that the whole kitchen design is inadequate to function in a modern way. So you have either get the kitchen redesigned or you breakdown the whole house and redesign the house in order to fit a new kitchen inside it! This is a chain reaction. (You make a house with a car porch. As you have a car porch now you buy a car. As you work from a different city your car remain parked in the porch for almost major part of the month till you come back and take your family for a drive that lasts a few hours). 

Art market is entirely different from the market that we have seen just above. First of all art market is not a general need based one as in the case of cooking gas. While every house needs a cooking gas module, it is not necessary to have a work of art in every house (though that is the ultimate aim of the artists who seriously deliberate on alternative art markets). That means, while the general market rests its claims on human needs and desires, the logic of art market rests totally on desires, not on needs. However, when the desire takes a different turn other than satisfying the aesthetical needs (including keeping the home atmosphere sophisticated, cultured and peer-reviewed(!)) and arrives at somewhere near profit making, then it too becomes a need based one. In this case, we could say beyond any doubts that art market is one of the ultimate by-products of the general market, which unfortunately does not reproduce the general markets the way other products do. Even the behavior of a work of art in the art market is completely different from the behavior of a use-based product in the general market. The former behaves in an elitist manner while the latter has the possibility of behaving both in an elitist fashion and a pedestrian one for the end users of the latter are often coming from different strata of the society. The end users of the former (means, art market) come from an exclusive class that has created its own desire for acquiring a work of art. That’s why even if a work of art is temporarily lodged in the collection of a dealer and has gone into the collection of a collector, the provenance of it mentions only its final abode, not its temporary lodgings. Art product needs a mansion, not an inn. 
We have seen here how art market is different from the general market. The natural question that could be asked here is this; why these two markets behave differently. According to my studies, this difference manifests because of two to three reasons. The first and foremost reason is art’s speculative value itself. The second reason is the logic of consumption of an art buyer and third reason could be the possible elevation of the end user/consumer/buyer into an elite or executive club, which could be translated into the elevation in the social hierarchy which may not be otherwise assured by mere consumption of costly food, clothes, vacations, foreign trips, acquisition of properties, vehicles etc. Let me explain it one by one. In a general market, any product has certain parameters within which we assess our need/desire quotient, which includes ingredients that have gone into its making, its positive results on consumption, the social value that gets add to the consumer, expiry date and the price. If the parameters of the product and the consumer are matched then there is nothing to stop the consumption. That means, general consumption of a product is triggered within controlled atmosphere and its eventualities could be determined beforehand. In the case of art market, the parameters that make a product worthy of a potential buyer’s attention is not controlled and not even triggered by the mutually identifiable and agreeable norms. There is an absolute abstraction about the price and quality of the works. This is where the speculative price comes in. However, even speculation needs some kind of identifiable parameters and they lie in the name and fame of the artist, the vintage quality of the work of art, the previous track record of it (or of the similar products) in the market. While the chances of rigging of prices of a general product in the general market are very less (unless it is a war situation or ironically in a very speculative situation as in the recent case of a speculation/rumor on the price of salt in the northern part of India where people panicked and started stocking salt on exorbitant prices), if a few people involved in the art market decide to rig the price of any work of art, they could do it within minutes. History of art market tells us that spurious products of an artist (with suspected authenticity and certificate etc) never fail the speculative prices of the artist on a long term basis (though temporary aspersion could be casted against such artists and their works as in the case of M.F.Husain, Souza and Jamini Roy).

For the time being, let us forget the dealers of art who play in the secondary market and cause all the price riggings. This is for the convenience of explaining the second point that I have placed in the paragraph above. The point is the ‘logic of consumption’ of a buyer/collector of a work of art. Why does he or she decide to buy a work of art? Let’s say that he/she does not have any interest in art as an investment point. First of all such people come to the art market with the money they have earmarked for the ‘purchase of culture’ from their general budget or profit. That means, such buyers are those people who have satisfied all other desires or have given primacy to the desire for collecting art. That is the result of complete satisfaction or a choice towards satisfaction. So what do they purchase when they buy works of art? A careful look at their attitude towards this purchase reveals that what they buy is not only beauty and the values related to aesthetics but also a ‘share’ in the culture of their country or the countries that they love to call theirs. So this is as good as possessing a piece of prime property in a beautiful city or having a special membership in an elite club or even having a passport of a country that hardly gives out passports to rarest of rare citizens (may be a platinum passport of a country where rest of the lot have only work permits and ration cards!). This is like sharing the richness, heritage, cultural primacy and even antiquity of a country. The logic is this; while one could assess any other item with tangible quality, with a price accordingly, art is something that in its essence carries an intangible value, which is called culture. That’s why while the really ‘cultured’ ones make their vacations to art fairs, biennales and museums while the common mortals throng beaches and hills. 
 Through the acquisition of art people partake in the wealth of a country’s culture and while having a country’s culture on their walls they generate a speculative value to their own collection, which in turn would add value to the speculative market elsewhere whether they are interested to put their fingers into it for profit or not. Often devoted collectors rarely go out into the auction market for they find it condescending to their status for items from a collection are often find their ways to auction houses only when the estate falls to wrong hands or it faces bankruptcy or the estate has disinterested heirs. In this sense, these solid collections behave like gold reserve in the central banks which assures value to the currency notes; the art collections with solid estates become gold reserves that help increasing the speculative values the works that come to the auction houses. This is the only place where we could see the logic of general market comes closer to the logic of art market as both general market and art market needs currency with a reserved value. That’s why Paul Helguvera while describing the contemporary art market/art scene as a pyramid where the artists are just workers and the museum director/s become gods, envisions another scenario of a work of art reaching the highest price possible and entering in one of the biggest collections or top museum collections and turns ‘dead’. A dead piece of work is the work that has surpassed all the values that currency notes can fetch and become a reserve asset, like a dead grandfather’s photograph that gives a strong sense of grounding to a living business family. 

The third category of people in the art market is the one that is constituted by the people who have earned enough or well enough to satisfy all their other desires and partake in culture. But they are different from the second category that creates ‘dead works’ and makes them assets of assurance for the other markets. The third category of the people has money but lacks in class. So acquisition of works of art becomes the logic of elevating themselves into the executive club. The third category behaves almost like the second category that partakes in the country’s culture but they differ from the second in identifying their desire not as partaking in the country’s culture but partaking in the country’s cultural elite. This is a way of climbing up the social rungs but they never want to make their assets dead though they would turn assurance for the rest of the market. In their enthusiasm to participate in the desire to reproduce wealth through speculation they too get into the games of secondary as well as auction markets. This aspect of the third category makes them less of cultural elite and underlines them as cultural aspirants with an added taste for wealth. While the aesthetical partaking in history and culture is replaced by the taste for wealth, the third category demotes itself from being and becoming the second category. Even if they vouch for the indebtedness that they feel for the aesthetical fineness of a work of art, when it comes to wealth creation they would push it into the market without any prick of conscience. This cusp set in fact contributes a lot to the existence of the art market therefore we cannot just write them off. 
 As we understand that these are the factors that lead and govern the art market, it is fair to think that a work of art as a product cannot survive or assure its perpetuation without a market for itself. The crass logic of the general market is that of withdrawing a product that had once been patronized by many consumers but no longer in the choice of that consumer segment. In the case of mass production and general consumer market, a producer does not suffer much due to this loyalty shifting and even he could fill up the lacuna caused by withdrawing a product through the introduction of a new product designed to cater the new demands of that particular consumer segment. Hence, so much of ethical fallacy cannot be attributed here because none suffers through the withdrawal of a product. But in the case of art market, the sudden withdrawal of artists and art works from the market causes a great collapse in many fronts. Losing of patronage causes the pedestrian-ization of art and artists, and it takes many years for the artist to find patrons once again in the market, in the meanwhile he/she would have completely lost out to the external factors of life. Losing of patronage also causes the rupture in mutual faith that has been the operative lubricant between many components in the art scene including gallerists, dealers, investors and collectors. Art as an organic expression of human life even if a lot of technology is involved in the making of art these days, collapse of its sustaining systems would cause a series of invisible damage to a country’s cultural fabric which would reflect in all the fronts of life. That’s why I insist that there should be ethical practices in the art market for it is more prone to ethical fallacies that the general market.

To conclude the essay, let me just put some light on the idea of alternative market. What is an alternative market? As the word suggests, alternative market is a market that stands beside in parallel with the existing dominant market. Second question is whether the two words, alternative and market go hand in hand or not? Alternative can be possible in the case of product but how market can be different in its governing rules? In a shop that sells alternative clothes, foods and medicine could be patronized but can that market be patronized for in the newly created situation only the products are different but the market remains the same. May be pricing is the only adjustment point and a difference in assurance on quality and durability. Similarly, those who argue for an alternative art market, in my views, in fact are asking for a market with different art products or rather the same products with differently marked prices, quality assurances and different avenues. In fact if you look at it realistically we could see that the art fairs, biennales, art expos, book fairs and so on have become alternative markets in their own rights. When the consumer flow thinned in the usual markets, the stake holders created new avenues where the consumers/clients/patrons could converge in ‘ideal’ places and spaces where they could check, test, taste, evaluate, haggle on and strike business deals and collect without the pressures and regularities (ordinariness) of the traditional art and publishing markets. Against this backdrop how are we going to realize the demand for alternative art markets? As I said before, it is not the market that is going to change but the products, their appearance, their value, their cultural and economic implications and above all the new avenues for such newly created market operations. Still the question remains, who could be the consumers/patrons/clients of such newly created alternative markets? I think I need another essay to delve into that question.