Thursday, February 14, 2013

Whose Chair it is, After All: Thinking About a New Approach to Art

Almost eighteen years back, when I was a struggling writer in Delhi, going to all the newspapers offices with articles and reviews written painstakingly, and asking the page editors whether they wanted my articles, thereby making friends and sympathizers in the publishing industry, I met a few people who taught me the lessons of having faith in one’s own writing. Going around with manuscripts of articles was not a pleasurable thing. People used to rebuke the style, the attitude and the general anarchy that had reflected in my person. Some of them shut their doors at my face and some of them invited me to write further. Both were learning experiences. The greatest lesson that I learned as a writer in those days from my optimistic journeys to the newspaper offices was this: as a writer or art critic you don’t have a chair to lose. A writer’s chair is in the minds of his/her readers. Readers are an abstract lot till when they come to say a hello or they hunt for your autograph or a photograph with you. Otherwise a writer lives in the minds of his/her readers. When you write well and make sense, your imaginary chair remains there for you. When you make false judgments and hypocritical observations they pull the chair and you land upon your bottoms.

In those days of my relentless commuting between newspaper offices and Lalit Kala Akademy library I chanced upon an artist on whose works I had written a very harsh piece. She said she would throw me out of the scene. For the first time in my life I realized that my writings had arrived. Again, after a few months I faced another artist who threatened me of throwing me behind bars. I smiled at the artist and walked off. In 2009, an artist supported by a lot of galleries in India came out against me. They together brought out a veto against me. It said that I would not be allowed to curate any shows unless and until I got permission from the concerned galleries. I gave them a polite answer saying that so long as artists showed their willingness to work with me none could deny my right to work in this art field because we lived in a democratic country. Time and again I have faced this threat of being removed from the scene or pushed behind the bars. But I am not worried. If I am alive I have all the freedom, both in my materialistic and spiritual ways, to work in this scene and make meanings that would suit to my learning, knowledge, awareness and purpose.

I continue to do so today. I appreciate controversies regarding my career and show the willingness to face the consequences. Physical decimation of my existence is the only possible way to remove me from the scene, if someone really desires to do so. I am not worried about chairs. I am not concerned about materialistic possessions. Since 2005 in my never ending travels across the length and breadth of this country as an art critic and writer, I have never carried a notebook, a pen or a laptop. Only recently I started carrying a laptop with me in my journeys. My simple idea was this: wherever I went I met friends stationed in those places and they all had computers and laptops. If I wanted to write I could ask anyone to allow me to work in their work stations. Otherwise I would just go out in the street, find out an internet café and do my work there. I have done it in India as well as in abroad. Even today, I have a strong conviction that I could go to anywhere in the world and ask without feeling any ego problem for a place to stay and a place to work without paying anything to anybody. I have been taken care of by the larger forces out there.

I do not claim anything in this world. I do not claim name or glory. I do not aspire for fame or fortune. What I claim is my rightful position to do my work wherever I am. I have realized the futility of having ego and fighting foolish wars over retaining it. I find the major problem that our art scene facing today is all about ego. Everyone wants to score over the other. Everyone wants to prove the best and everyone wants to outdo the other. It is high time that we think differently. Whatever today we talk about globalization and the collapsing of boundaries, the global flow of economy and the need to look beyond the nation state and its limited aspirations and so on, however we feel that we are a part of the globalized world and it is time for us to live up to the changed times, fundamentally we are the people who have not changed internally and would remain in that limbo for many years to come. The changes that we claim to have happened to us are all cosmetic in nature and hegemonic in purpose. When we talk about global art our whole aspiration is about making something that is seen and projected as global art. We have been limited in our thinking process by the falsities that we have accepted as truth.

As an art critic and writer (I am afraid of using the qualification ‘curator’ because today I chance upon several of them at every nook and corner of the art scene), my intention today is to understand the process of art making and the contexts that facilitate such processes. You may think that there is nothing new in this. The recent art activities in India have proved beyond doubt that we neither understand the art making process nor do we recognize the contexts that facilitate such processes. We are in a crisis. My whole aim is to understand the nature of this crisis. And our art today very clearly shows that it is unable to grapple with this crisis. When you are not able to grapple with a crisis what one does is either yield to its forces or neglect it altogether. Our art is happening through these two processes today. Most of our artists yield to the pressures of the present crisis or they neglect it and fall into certain dogmas. We need a total rethinking about our art practice in order to facilitate any kind of movement in the art scene. For that one has to study very carefully about the historical dynamics that has formed the notion of India and Indian-ness because we are not cleared all our existing problems or ironed out all our varieties in order to be a part of the hegemonic global practices. To achieve this sense of balance and clarity one has to eschew all egos and work towards the realization of the self that helps one to evolve as a better human being therefore a better artist.

Though I have not developed upon the nature of the crisis that I have mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is very important to understand that our egos are the biggest hurdle in understanding this crisis. Each artist operating in Indian art scene today should overcome their egos and egocentric thinking. It is not just about killing the ‘I’ in I and feeling that we have done away with it and feel good about it. It is about going into the fundamentals of principles that constitute the very nature of a human being and then elevate oneself from those basic natures to the most sublime position. By doing that one could create the best art works. Today we are carried away by the formalisms of the so called global art. But these formalisms are just cosmetic experiments that are incapable of addressing the fundamental ideas. That does not mean that one should abandon new media practices and delve only into painting and sculpting. That becomes another dogma. We have thousands of artists today working on various issues in various mediums. Most of them do not understand what exactly they are doing with their art or dealing in them. Someone talk about Euclidian theory without understanding anything more than the primary definitions. They take it as a formal exercise. Some people talk about displacement and dislocation without studying the various reasons and roots of such problems. Feminist artists do not understand the principles of feminism. Sculptors do not sculpt, painters do not paint, cutting edge artists do not handle computer or do not understand software. Everything is outsourced. Outsourcing is the mode of hegemonic globalization practices and outsourcing is the biggest crisis of the world. Art too has imbibed it in its making. So first of all we have to do away with all kinds of outsourcing. Only when assistance is needed one could seek it. In the name of conceptualism one cannot get things done by other skilled people.

The crisis is that artists have not become philosophers and theoreticians. I am not talking about a scenario where artists are ‘informed’ about theories and philosophies and become mere translators and orators of such theories and philosophies. I am talking about a scenario in which artists becoming as good as philosophers and seers who could show a different way of looking at life or even interpreting life. It needs a lot of studies and involvement. It needs sagacious engagements with the knowledge systems and proper internalization of information and then elevation of the self to the level of sublime. The work of art becomes a subliminal aspect of life not only of the artist and the viewers but as an art object itself only when artists do their art with sheer understanding and alertness. For that one should become a philosopher artist. It is the need of the time in order to progress towards a future that would help the human beings to evolve as better beings than just becoming the followers of imported theories and practices.

This has not yet happened in India in our times. We lost out to a great resistance to globalization in terms of art mainly because during the boom years as our art scene converted itself into a demand-supply machinery anybody who could put paint on the canvas taken for an artist. Anybody who did primary things about software and art was handpicked by agencies and promoted as artists of the future. The result is that today we have millions of artists but majority of them does not have any understanding about art or grander principles. To rise up to the changed times and find the real identity of our own people and ourselves it is pertinent to become more egalitarian and philosophic in our approach to art. Art cannot be done by anybody only because Joseph Beuys had said so. Art could be done by everyone when everyone is a philosophically inclined spiritual being while fulfilling the materialistic needs of their lives. Kabir, the famous saint poet lives even in the tongues of the illiterate people today because his art was capable enough to capture the imagination of the people who could understand the need for their personal sublimation. A tiller or a vegetable vendor is many times better than an artist today because their daily lives have taught them the grander truth of life than the falsities understood by most of the contemporary artists. When an artist says that he or she is doing a project in fact it does not come from the spirit of the person. It comes out of external demands created by the society or by oneself. When life cannot be a project art too cannot be done as a project. An artist who pursues certain aspects of life should be able to continue with it for a prolonged period of time so that he or she gets at least a minimum understanding of things. Collecting data and presenting good arguments do not make good artists. A polemicist is not always a saint and a saint need not be a polemicist at all.

To go back to my initial point about chairs, I would say artists today should become aware and they should live in alertness and recognize the ultimate fact that no chair is permanent in this life, and nobody could give you a chair. The chairs could be the same but the people who sit on it keep changing. This does not give any importance neither to the chair nor to the person. If at all any value to be attributed to the chair, which is an inanimate object, it should be done by the person who sits on it and similarly a person should raise oneself to the position that the chair offers. As a physical object chair is an impermanent object and as an organic subject a human being is also impermanent. But his or her self, expressed through his or her art is a permanent thing and the permanency comes out of the deep awareness and alertness. So it is time for us to think about a different kind of practice in art. None is going to give you any value permanently or no chair is going to be therefore an artist because an artist is a person who creates his chair in the minds of the people with the works of art. In that case the general public of this country has not created too many chairs for too many artists because they have failed in creating art that touches the minds of the people. It is time for all the artists in this country to rethink about their practices. There is no globalization in art until you become the central point of the globe. Otherwise you become the imitators of an imaginary globe that has been created by the hegemonic people for perpetuating their ideas and gain their benefits.

(Image courtesy: LITTCHATT)

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