Wednesday, May 9, 2018

How Can I Become a Political Artist?: Answering that Million Dollar Question

(Work by Riyas Komu. Pic courtesy Vadehra Gallery)

After reading my article on political art in India, a few artists came forward to ask me this question: How does one do political art? Though the wordings are not exactly the same in those questions differently put to me, they all wanted to know how one could really do political art. This question stems from the basic understanding that they are not doing ‘political’ art or whatever they create are not ‘political enough’. They look around and wonder why some artists are hailed as political artists and some are not. They are further confused when they see the kind of market success that these political artists gain despite their ‘strong political social critique’. They wonder why despite their concerted efforts in raising voice against the social discriminations, growing fascist tendencies and religious bigotry in this country, through varied visual means, they are not considered as political artists and never favoured by the market. True, there is an interesting irony in this matter, perhaps I have to replace the word ‘irony’ with ‘hypocrisy’.

The clearest of reasons that I can find out for such disparate treatment of the artists and their art by the market and the so called critical community is largely depended on the sophistication of the artist as a person and the work of art produced by him or her. Twentieth Century art history had created a picture about the artist as an uncouth, plain talking bohemian with a lot of wild sexual drive or madness. Even if they were politically inclined and at times were part of a large political party, somehow they were exempted from being loyal to the prescribed ideologies. Artists therefore come to have seen as people who could live their lives in their own terms, go mad, fall in and out of love, abuse women and children, criticise politics as well as the polite society but still be the darlings of the rich and powerful class. This happened mainly because artists were treated as an exclusive tribe that performed things that the gentile and polite society couldn’t have taken much pains to perform. But the polite society members and the rich and powerful patronizing class wanted the products created by these Bohemians for they considered them as the creators of culture and possessing their works of art was the easiest way to partake in the cultural process of a country and belong to the ‘cultural heritage’ of the land and also to be a part of the ongoing cultural discourse. Though the acceptance of such Bohemian acts had taken much time and deliberations, the artists were always treated as a class apart.

(work by Savi Savarkar)

This framework through which art history had been presenting the artists and their works of art throughout the twentieth century has now been considerably altered, unfortunately our general and the academic societies refuse to accept this shift. Hence our artists who come out of the academies or those artists who come in the art scene via some other routes thinking of making their name and fame in the existing market still carry forward the old ‘image’ of the artist who is a Bohemian, a rebel, uncouth and plain speaking. Their art also show such ‘material’ and ‘medium’ based rigour and vigour at times taking the works of art to the level of abstraction. They somehow fail to see that the artists’ image has undergone a sea change mainly because of the economic changes that happened in the cultural market world over, the free flow of capital across the borders, the homogeneity inculcated in the cultural products deliberately by the market players in order to create a more or less unified market where same value works could be transacted without thinking much about the provincial financial value denominations.

Such a scenario also changed the art historical perspective regarding the presentation of the artists and their works. First of all a corporate driven market, which is a global market always uses a language which is common to all players in the global market. This language finds its manifestations in different levels; it starts with the dress codes of the artists and the art players. It need not necessarily be the three piece suits that we often seen in the high end art dos and in the auction houses. It could be anything from the ethnic chic to the universally identifiable brand products. These dress codes could be seasonal and absolutely brand and theme based. So we have a scenario where artists and the art players including the dealers and the end buyers operate/dress up in the same way which creates a class identity of its own. The art openings happen in the galleries and in these days there are opening previews and then the regular days for the common viewer. As we know that the opening previews with grand parties in the presence of stars and celebrities further add up to this class formation and even if the artist does not belong to this class is forced to upgrade himself to this class simply for survival if not for anything else. Right from the locations that one chooses to live, the mobile handsets that one uses, the places that one chooses for the family holidays, the hairstylist that one prefers, the airline carrier that one chooses to fly and what not- everything becomes a part of this class making. So we have artists today whether they make political art or apolitical art, they all belong to a new class, which is an auto-cannibalizing class which resists the intake of many just for keeping the exclusivity.

(man in the chalk circle by NN Rimzon)

The works of art produced by those artists who have just upgraded themselves to this new class at once transcend their social class on the one hand and do the same with their castes on the other. So here they become a casteless class and they are compelled to create their works in such a fashion that do not show any affiliation to their former caste or class. That means the surfaces of their works get completely polished, the materials used for producing their works become expensive, their studio spaces expand, their living conditions improve and their social dealings would get limited to the same class circles. Along with the sophistication of the lives of the artists, to put it in other words, their art works also become sophisticated catering completely to the tastes of the new class that they have of late started identifying with. So let’s think about the artists who belong to this class and yet call themselves as political artists. They can do only that kind of a political art which has political references but without all the political, theoretical and practical nuances that those references would generated in a different situation or expressed differently. So it is a different sort of packaging; like a bitter medicine covered by glossy, attractive and palatable capsules but made expensive for the use of a selected set of patients.

Here is an invisible agreement of the artists with the buying class or the ‘class’ where all the art players belong to. This agreement is simply this: Don’t topple the applecart. Let the things run smoothly. As we know that in every third world there is a first world and vice versa, for the corporate class in every political and administrative organisation there is a comfort zone and vice versa for these days political organizations are run like corporate houses. That means the artists could bring up a politically sensitive issue through their works of art but to that extent where it does not hurt any ‘parties’ involved in that particular issue. So the severest of a political critique surprisingly finds state patronage at time especially when the corporate houses and the corporate class that work in tandem with such governments and political organizations come forward to patronize such works of art only because it caters to the tastes of this corporate class. That means the works of art that are hailed as political in the present scenario are political to certain extent and beyond that it becomes a text that does not intend to hurt any of the perpetrators of those political issues. For example, if an artist prefers to work with the image of Dr.Ambedkar, he makes the image of this great man in different mediums and makes allusions through symbolic associations and presents them in a value neutral space and invites people to see and ‘understand’. The irony is that the people who in fact deal with the caste issues raised by Dr.Ambedkar would never agree with such representations for these works of art literally behave as negotiators with the perpetrators of caste atrocities than really protesting, resisting and defeating such forces. They simply hide this soft mediation for the benefit of the ruling class or the oppressive class and make the real people feel that their concern for the caste issues are so uncouth therefore unpresentable. This kind of political art causes a huge amount of invisibilization of the real caste issues. And in the meanwhile those artists who seriously deal with the caste issues in their works but in certain uncouth ways never get support from this corporate class or the upper caste that rules the market today. Funnily enough, the sophistication of the ‘Ambedkar image’ (never the idea) is no different than the innumerable decorative Buddha portraits done by those artists who do such works only because they think that Buddha has ‘market potential’ and maximum they would say that they paint Buddha because they are spiritual and they love peace.

(work by Savi Savarkar)

Let me come to the question: How one could make political art? I have two answers to this question. First of all any art done ever in this world is political. Art does not need any political tag in order to be called political because an artist whether he or she as a social animal and a thinking animal is a political being as well. Hence, his/her work cannot be apolitical; there will always be a political undertone to any work that one does. My second answer is that to create political art one has to politicise oneself. An artist has to politicise oneself thoroughly in order to create political art. How does one politicise oneself? Politicisation of the self does not mean that one has to join a political party and work for it. Nor does it mean that one has to arm oneself up and become an extremist to right the wrongs of the society. Politicising oneself simply means that making oneself sensitive and responsive to the society. But most of the people are sensitive and responsive in their own ways. This sensitising and making responsive of the self has to have certain political awareness. This awareness should be about human progress without disturbing the ecological balance while cherishing a desire for maintaining parity in the society. To put it simple this awareness is all about being universally compassionate, ecologically sensitive and working towards equal rights and justice for all the people irrespective of gender. When such awareness leads a person in his life and he happens to be an artist he cannot just be a mediator for the corporate class, nor could he take membership in it. While he could aspire for a good life, a comfortable life and life of fulfilment, he does not seek it for himself alone. He seeks for a larger society and all his creative efforts are directed towards realising such a society. This does not mean that doing charity becomes a part of a political act or awareness. Most of the times, charity comes as a part of one’s self redemption from the possible sins that he believes to have committed in his life.

(work by Savi Savarkar)

Political art is done by those artists who are aware of the issues and also who are ready to study the issues with the same verve of an activist. An artist cannot just wash his hands away by saying that I have done my bit via visual means and now it is the job of the activists to do the work in the streets. I do not either say that an artist has to go out in the streets and do activism. He could do his art and should find ways to show it before people using alternative ways of exhibition. If you are creating political art, you cannot seek the same avenues as others to exhibit your works because you have to understand that the people who run these avenues are in agreement with the tormentors, the state and the corporate market. If corporate market is supporting political art then we have to look at that work with some amount of suspicion. Real political art cannot be sophisticated the way the corporate market wants it. And real political art cannot satisfy the needs of the corporate market.

We are living in a different world, a world which is ridden by caste issues and class issues. Our lives have been reduced to that level of consumers. In these hard and trying times art cannot just make beautiful objects and say that art is just a personal means to express one’s own self. Art cannot stand without the reality to support it. Art could be imaginative and fantasy filled still it could have pointers to lead to the political realities. I do not say that art has to present a message for the people or it should lead a people to revolution. Art can be without messages but it should stir the intelligence of the people so that they could think for themselves. Art is one simple component in the larger scheme of social revolution. Artist could use any materials, any methods or any technology to create an art object; the intelligent use of it could also lead people to a particular issue. Artist’s existence as a political artist has to be with a double edge; he has to create a work of art with persuasive intelligence which is intrinsic to it and at the same time he has to initiate new ways of seeing the works of art. In a caste ridden world as ours and in a disparate world ours, and in a world divided in religious lines, art could contribute a lot in sensitising people. Artist can neither be a maker of beauty alone nor a maker of polished objects for the sake of corporate market. Artist has to be an intelligent and politically aware human being who is ready to take a plunge into the socio-cultural and political discourse of the country. He is no longer a Bohemian living in his den and living his own life but an active intelligent being whose mind constantly work towards fulfilling a world of equal rights and justice.

Post Script: An artist who wants to publish a book of visuals against Fascism went to a Delhi gallery that presented a ‘politically charged’ exhibition recently thinking that it would support him in the publication but to his surprise he was dissuaded by the gallery managers saying that his work was ‘too political’!

(All the images for representative purpose only)

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