Sunday, December 27, 2015

Imagining a New Art Patronage by the New Year

(Subodh Gupta- image is for illustration purpose only)

Towards the end of the year 2015, most of us feel the quickness with which the year has passed right in front of our eyes. Many of us have not even forgotten the excitement that we had felt or the loneliness that we had experienced towards the fag end of 2014. We thought 2015 will stay a little longer but it has faded like a dream from the waking memories of a human being. This article is not intended to any kind of stock taking, which perhaps I would do in the coming days. What I really want to talk here is about the lives of our artists in general. As the years pass by we, the people in the Indian art scene grow a bit wiser or that is what all of us think that we should be doing. But are we? In the age of communication technology that grows leaps and bounds by day and by night, art people too have drifted apart. If people are sticking together it is just for keeping what is left intact; the fear of losing it is very evident everywhere. I hardly see a happy artist. Each one is seeking something that they themselves do not understand. And do they really find what they have been seeking? In 2008 September, one of the biggest financial services firm in the US, Lehman Brothers declared itself bankrupt which sent shockwaves all across the world crashing many markets including the art market which was in the upswing. It took a couple of years more for the aftershocks of it to reflect in Indian art market. The brave posturing was over by 2010 and the complexion of the contemporary art scene completely, perhaps, irrevocably.

 (Young artists at Khoj Peer workshop- image from Khoj website-illustration purpose only)

Five years have passed since then. I have not heard the name of one single artist who has made a strong impact in our art scene. It does not mean that the young artists are not working anymore. Somehow they are not showcased or not even looked at by the promoting agencies. There is a careful treading on the tight ropes that all these galleries have been walking since the collapse of the market, rightfully so. Nobody will insist that the galleries should put stake their wealth in order to promote the career of unheard and new artists, who once were the toast of the parties during the boom years. I am told that many have lost faith in the art scene and have migrated to other fields in order to eke out a living. And one will be surprised to see that this has happened in a big way in Baroda, which in fact had been the breeding pond for the gold fish amongst the new artists. Recently I had an opportunity to talk with a couple of young art students from a very reputed private university in NOIDA and to my surprise both the kids told me that they did not have any clue what they would next once they come out of the university as fresh fine arts post graduates. To my shock, one of them told me that she would perhaps become a drawing teacher. It is sad that these children are spoon fed with dreams and high hopes about the kind of art that are basically not skills based but idea based. They move around in the cutting edge art circles, most of which are foreign funded and wonder whether they could ever make it in their life time. The boys and girls coming from small towns to study in big town universities go back completely confused and dejected.

(Collapse of the Lehman Brother in 2008)

There is no dearth of lip service when it comes to the saving of the youngsters from some sort of impending doom. Senior artists as well as the established mid-career artists look almost like saints par excellence when they speak about the plights of the younger generation and their intention to help them out to do something. But it is quite human that nobody would make space for the youngsters unless and until they prove their worth and catch the space away from the already established ones. Look at the Indian cinema, both in Bollywood and in the regional cinema you could see still the market is ruled by the fifty plus artists. They are not going to make space for the younger lot; in fact there is a hidden competition between them. In the Indian art scene too, we see the lack of promotion for the younger lot from the senior and established ones. And expecting them to promote the youngsters is also not so ethical because the seniors and established ones have come to that place or come to occupy that space through sheer grit and hard work. Are the young generation artists ready to do that? The fact is most of the youngsters take a short cut. I have seen a few talented artists shifting the course to become performance artists and cutting edge artists. There is no problem if somebody becomes a performance artist. But the problem is whether the existing hierarchy within that genre of art would ever allow him or her to grow bigger and carve out his or her space in that field?

 (India Art Fair)

In my view, there are three kinds of young artists (I am just keeping the established youngsters out of this discussion); one, the artists who are terribly conventional and even when they are in big cities prefer to maintain their regional and small town identities. Two, the artists who are extremely cosmopolitan and highly visible in the cutting edge art circuits. Three, the artists who have had shows during the boom time but still are not in the success bracket and they too are very much visible. When 2015 is going to come to a close, I am really curious about the fate of these three different kinds of artists. The first lot is definitely going to survive because they are not really there for a competition or conquest. They just want to survive as artists and if they could manage to sell a few works every year they are happy with it. They do not have any problem to operate from a remote Jharkhand town or from Mumbai or Delhi. The second lot is full of those artists who want to be at the right place at the right time and to be with the right kind of people so that they feel good about what they are doing. May be this is a process of growing up in the big cities’ dirty art climate. There must be a fair amount seasoning happening in this. But unfortunately, these artists are heard only through certain channels and also not for their works but for their being there. The third lot is the most pathetic lot. They have had their share glory and page three space during the boom time. They were seen and shown with the happening and established artists but today they are just left on the way side. The bus has gone but they are still waiting. What distinguishes the third lot from the second lot is our ability to recognize them by face or name while the second lot largely remains obscure.

 (Why can't they be the new patrons of art with the trap of 1990s. picture for illustration only)

This is a very sad state of affair. The galleries, though I have exempted them from the responsibility of promoting the second and the third lot of artists, there should be some kind of a social responsibility to be shown by these galleries. The galleries are real weathervanes. Depending on what is sold they change their track. Not a single gallery could stand away from this blame. Fortunate are those galleries that have already established their position as agencies that promote only a minimum set of artists. We cannot complaint about them. They may be working with maximum ten artists or a bit more permutations and combinations with other galleries for the business sake. As they have taken that position, nobody can point a finger at them because what they would like to promote, they promote it with a lot of focus. But there is a medium level of galleries (they are more in number) that enjoy the good will of both the specialist galleries and the ‘commercial galleries’ at the lower rung alike. These medium level galleries promote all what is fashionable and they would drop the artists like hot potatoes during the time of adversities. It is literally crime. Either you should not pick up all and sundry or you stick to all those artists you have taken on board, giving them chances on a rotational basis. These galleries behave so funnily; if someone says this or that curator is good, they all will run behind that curator, if someone says this or that medium is catching up, they will go behind that and all these times, they remain in limelight and enjoy good will as serious galleries because the interests of the serious galleries are also partially served by these medium level galleries. During the last ten years we have seen curators from different countries coming here doing shows from Kochi to Kashmir and all the places fall in between and disappearing forever. We have seen curators displaying works of art on the ceiling even just for the heck of it (or they say that’s the new way of seeing art. I wonder whether these curators would ever display a work at the ceiling in their homes) and vanishing into thin air. We have seen galleries suddenly going retro and rural. But all have done injustice to the art scene in India.

 (from an auction. Picture for illustration only)

What could be done? I believe we need to wake up to a dawn of new age art patronage. The high end galleries and the auction houses have proved beyond doubt that they are here for the ageing and dead artists. They are here for auctioning the vintage. They are here for auctioning the weight of history created by the life and times of the artists around his or her works. If you really look at the names and works of these artists who periodically appear in the auctions and reap phenomenal prices, we understand that they have never been in the success bracket till their very ripe age. Lucky are those who have managed a decent and dignified life during their younger days. And also we should see the emerging pattern of these auctions. There seems to be a workshop in heaven where all the dead artists are still working at the behest of the collectors and dealers down here. So we do not know when this incessant stream of works of the moderns would ever end if at all it should. The emerging pattern shows that these people pick and choose those artists who have reached certain age. As far as the auction houses are concerned, whatever you say, it is history, only history that makes sense. So what about the young and the established mid-career artists? They should really work or their lives should be cut short. Which one would you prefer?

 (Shall it be applicable to art too?)

I am sure that most of the artists would prefer to live and work even if it is a bit cumbersome. The very idea of success in the art market should change and also a new age patronage should evolve. The developing stories tell us that artists are not really sublime characters. However, we have to make sure that the artists should live and work and they should live a dignified life and work decently. They need patronage. That means the new and emerging rich class should look around through their eyes not really using the help of the galleries as the only way to reach out to the right kind of art, and see a lot of artists who need support. The rich class should not think (unlike in the late 1990s) they are investing in art. Instead they should think that they are participating in the making of art and culture of this fast developing country. Over the social media interfaces and other connecting platforms, they could come across a lot of interesting artists and art works. This takes a lot of resolution and sense of responsibility and pride. What we need is the will power to promote art. I am not saying that there should be an effort though not organized, to undercut the role of the galleries. Let the galleries function or reform their functioning in the emerging scenario of new age patronage. It is possible. But only thing that I want to warn is that sourcing works of art over internet could be a bit tedious and less satisfying. It is where they need to look at the writings of the art critics and art writers, who would be following the artists sincerely and writing about them. Just do not believe the so called art consultants who by virtue of their wealth and access have made a career out of sophistication than real knowledge. When Mr.Modi speaks of Make in India, we need to see the real message behind it beyond the ideological issues. We should be proud of the art ‘made in India’ both in thinking and in executing. It should not be a western import as it has been for a long time. And also the skills of the Indian artists should not be left unused by favoring too much of conceptual art. We need both conceptual and skills based art. There should be a day when both skill and concept would go hand in hand in the Indian art scene and the world will sit up and take a note of the emerging Indian art. 

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