Friday, April 27, 2018

The Irony of Indian Contemporary Art: An Eye Opener for the Experienced and the Beginners

Are we so sure of the contemporary Indian art scene? And if someone searches for Indian contemporary art or contemporary Indian art in the internet what kind of a result is he expected to get? I give you five case scenarios and let me tell you it is not to make any artist look lesser than anyone else. As Google is the most preferred search engine, I ran a search, ‘Indian Contemporary Art’ and this is the result that I got.  

Then I ran another search, ‘Contemporary Indian Art’ and this was the result that the site provided.

Then I looked for ‘Modern Indian Art’. Lo, I had this page before me.

Then I went all out for ‘Indian Modern Art’.  Hmm, I was not getting what I was looking for.

The last search was ‘Indian Modern Contemporary Art’. I couldn’t have expected anything lesser or better.

Once again, let me state it categorically that I do not want to make condescending comment on any of the artists who are represented here with their works. They are not directly responsible for the search results. But one thing is sure that if the spiders of the net crawl around and gather so many virtual pages out of the billions in the quantum memory of the internet, then these findings should be seriously taken as Indian contemporary art in India and elsewhere. That means, what we the ‘intellectuals’ or the ‘people of high art’ see as contemporary Indian art is just a minority when compared to the vast amount of the visual material available as Indian contemporary art in the virtual space. 
 What exactly is the reason for this? One could accuse my search being too broad and if I had given specific search words definitely I would have landed on the ‘right’ kind of image. Okay, I accept that argument for the time being. But let me present another case scenario. I do not know anything about say, Bhutan. I run a search, ‘Bhutan’ to begin with and I have nothing but the pages thrown on my face by the Google search engine. Then I go for Bhutanese contemporary art and again, Google gives me Bhutanese ‘contemporary art’. After this exercise with the search for Indian contemporary art, how can I believe that I get the ‘right kind of Bhutanese art’? Still, I have to believe that it is what Bhutanese art is. Why, because I do not have any specifics. And if I need specifics, I should start with a contemporary art library where Bhutanese contemporary art is seriously discussed or I should approach a professor who is well versed in Bhutanese art or an art consultant who is dealing with Bhutanese contemporary art. If that is the case what is Google doing here?
Should I say that Google is a stupid search engine because I know that it is not the ‘right’ kind of contemporary art that I know as the mainstream, intellectual and intelligent art? Or should I say that the key words that fed into the mouth of Google were not right enough? If so how would I reach the right words? I have already mentioned the difficulties regarding knowing the right kind of search words. So a person going by this kind of search is obviously going to land in the wrong places and there would be chances totally misunderstanding the Indian contemporary art scenario. I am not talking about the people who ‘know’ what it is but the large population in the world that ‘does not know’ what Indian contemporary art is. If cursory interest is the trigger for a search then it is always the general search words not the specific ones. Then you would say that you should click on the ‘All’ button than the ‘Images’ button. Okay, accepted, but what about someone who is an artist who does not want to read but want to see only. There are millions of the people who use internet who prefer to see than to read. So how could we tell them to hit the button ‘All’. Then you will zero in on the common intelligence called common sense or discretion. Arrey bhai, if your common sense is directing you only to the images what are you going to do? 
We have to accept the fact that there is a huge disparity between what is ‘projected’ as contemporary art and what is ‘proliferated’ as contemporary art. We become a poor minority that understands what is projected. But the majority is that set of people that understand what is proliferated. If Google is to be trusted, then we could easily say that in India and elsewhere modern art is proliferated and understood as we have seen in the images shown above. Obviously not as the ones that we see and try to understand if we give ‘specific key words’. We in India should really be surprised to see this finding because we believe that we are in the making of a contemporary visual culture for the world as a part of one of the surging South East Asian art markets. However, what we see here are derivatives of the western modern adequately tinged with the Indian modern. And if there are more numbers of such images in the internet, then it translates easily into their huge presence in the art market. What does it mean? It means nothing but there is a parallel market that does not care about that art market which is driven by the so called intellectuals and auction results. The artists in this stream may not be reaping high dividends and profits nor are they becoming stars and celebrities. But there is a market where they are stars and at times they may be faceless artists who just produce works according to demand. Believe in it or not, such a market is strong. Do we need to say that it corrupts the minds of the people? I have to say it does but I do not stop it at that. I reiterate that it such art corrupts the minds of the people, then definitely our intellectual, political, rich and mainstream art fails absolutely to resist such degenerate art from proliferating. It happens because the mainstream art has become exclusivist and elitist. It does not touch the hearts and minds of the people. Even if it does, the hearts and minds for its touching are carefully chosen in the sanitized spaces of aesthetical appreciation. Rest of the aam janta is excluded from it. That’s how we have such ridiculous shows about the pathetic conditions of Indian farmers and get opened with wine and cheese parties. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

‘Facing India’ in Kunstmuseum, Wolfsburg is yet another White Middle Class English Show from India

Work by Bharti Kher
After reading my article titled ‘Why Indian Art is also ‘White Middle Class (Fe)Male and English’, a French art scholar asked me what would be my take on the exhibition titled ‘Facing India’ to be opened on 29thApril 2018 at Kunstmuseum in Wolfsburg, Germany. I had not noticed anything about this exhibition so I had to go for an immediate google search which directly took me to the museum site and now I have enough ‘materials’ to speak a few words about it. Besides, the moment I hit on the page of the museum site that speaks about the exhibition, ‘Facing India’ I understood why my respected friend from abroad put such a question to me. I could see the broad stroke that the curator/s have drawn or how wide they have casted the net to catch more or less everything that could come under a title ‘Facing India’. This is a six women artists’ show and they are namely Bharti Kher, Mithu Sen, Reena Saini Kallat, Vibha Galhotra, Prajakta Potnis and Tejal Shah. Hence, the exhibition has to have the ‘feminine’ responses to the problems faced by India today or to put it in other words, these responses should be telling the viewer how these artists ‘face India’ today. Or rather, it could be the curatorial take on how as curators they ‘face’ India today. 
‘Facing’ is an act that poses and solves a problem at once. When you have a problem you either run away or you face it. By facing it you are not simply looking at; you are trying to find ways to overcome the hurdle that the problem has posed or find ways to negotiate with the issues presented by it. And this facing to solve or overcome cannot be a value neutral act and therefore it is not value neutral facing in itself poses a counter problem which the existing problem would not like to ‘face’ at all. What would the original problem (which is not a response to anything but a self created one for its own advantages) do then to ‘face’ the problem/s created by the facing act of someone or more people? It could either try to finish of the problems not really by addressing the problems but directly decimating the posers or by putting them into serious disadvantage (look at Shabnam Hashmi and Teesta Setalvad as social activists who have dared to face some problems in the society. They have completely been disadvantaged by the original problem creators) or the original problem creators could really avoid or neglect the existence of such problems created by the ‘facers’ (that’s how often happens when commercial movies try to highlight social problems or artists try to face an issue by ‘portraying’ it in their works of art. For example, how many policy makers have taken the displacement issues painted over and over by the artists living in Gurugram, former Gurgaon, the IT suburb of Delhi, seriously and bullet pointed in their policy discussion or how many water conservationists have taken the artists who have raised the water crisis posed by many artists? I do not want to say that these artists have been completely neglected by the policy makers but I intend to say that the voices raised them are seen and heard as faint voices aesthetically managed in controlled environments exactly the way stunt directors performs death defying stunts and explosions in controlled environments. I do not think that in India, such stunts are seriously taken by Military intelligence or surveillance agencies as the film makers and Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) do not really collude in script writing as they marginally do in the case of Hollywood Sci-Fi movies).
Work by Vibha Galhotra
So first of all my response to this exhibition that such a theme, Facing India is not going to create any impact in the Indian sub-continent as an aesthetical project only because it is propped up in a German museum. But it would definitely make some polite circle high-fives because they have their vested in these artists as the future market investments. What surprises me in the curatorial decision to select six women artists to deal with such a vast subject like ‘India’ (Facing India is just a by-product) and trusting their whole faith in the aesthetics of these artists to deal with a volley of questions that they raise at the outset itself. From the website of the museum let me quote the questions: ‘How do women artists in India use their voices today? How do they deal with their social responsibility? Which language do they find for that which remains unsaid?’ Let me say, they are very potent questions. But my only problem is whether these artists are capable in ‘facing’ these questions or rather have they been ‘facing’ these questions in their practices at all. In my view (which is often critical therefore condescended by many market forces as pessimistic), these artists have not dealt with these issues seriously before and the best way to understand this is to closely watch their aesthetics over a period of time. 
Art historians and critics at times become forensic experts (it implies that artists commit crimes and leave some palpable evidences at the crime site). Here, I get a forensic evidence right from the curators themselves (or what I take as a curatorial introduction from the note posted beautifully and proudly on the website of the museum). “Nevertheless, as broad as their range of topics may be, explicit and implicit references to the presence of the feminine and the position of women, as well as solidarity and empathy, are recurring themes throughout the exhibition.” What surprises me in this statement is the choice of words that the curators have carefully used (I can see their precarious standing while using those terms); ‘references to the presence of the feminine and the position of women’. Here, exactly the way these artists have used in their works, the presence of ‘feminine’ and ‘position of women’ appear without any political or critical qualification. In India there are thousands of women artists who exactly articulate the ‘feminine’ and the ‘position of women’ with great solidarity and empathy with their sisters but never making a political position in the issues that have generated such ‘feminine’ and ‘position of women’ responses. What distinguishes these artists from those thousands of women artists is their supposedly political positioning along with the ‘feminine’ position. 
Work by Reena Saini Kallat
The non-appearance of the word ‘feminist’ in the whole text of the introduction juts out as an invisible sore-thumb. I do not say that there is a thumb rule in the museum discourse that any female oriented exhibition should be nailed to a plank of feminism/s. However, I cannot overlook the fact that any artist who shows ‘empathy’ and ‘solidarity’ with a gender group or a race, or a politically dispossessed people and so on, it automatically brings the artist to a political platform and a political platform cannot work on the humanist ideology alone, which is romantically idealistic and ideologically hollow and vacant. So in the case of women’s issues, the empathy and solidarity shown by a group of six artist cannot go ideologically free therefore a feminist position of any kind becomes a pre-requisite in its presentation (may be at this stage the curators may come up and say that in their full-fledged catalogue there are discourses on feminism vis-à-vis these artists). I am surprised why this particularly loaded term, ‘feminism’ is conveniently avoided from the introduction especially in the case of these six artists in India. I am sure that the curators have not noticed anything ‘feministic’ about these artists. If they have not found they have found the reality. It is unfortunate that Indian women artists who have got their global currency desist from using the feminist qualification in order to present their works of art. They still understand feminism as a burn bra movement, family breaking movement, free sex movement and catching others’ husband movement. Because of these reasons most of them do not like to qualify themselves as feminists. I should not be using this as a blanket accusation or qualification for all the women artists in India. We have Nalini Malani who has openly spoken about her feminist sympathies, Navjot Altaf, who has not only spoken about her feminist position but also her early Marxian activism to substantiate this, Shakuntala Kulkarni, to certain extent has spoken of feminism, Rekha Rodwittiya also has taken a feminist position but without understanding the theoretical nuances of it, a lack that has turned into an unfriendly person (that for the Indian public underlines the features of bad feminist – or rather feminists are bad position) and so on. Shilpa Gupta has very subtly politicized her feminist political position vis-à-vis the larger politics of the country. But ironically, the six artists mentioned above have not made clear political positioning in the society and hardly any feminist discourses in this country have taken their art for furthering the discourse in the visual arena. To put it simply, we do not have a Mahashweta Devi in visual art. 
What could be the reason why the Indian women artists turn their face away from the feminist positioning? There are two major reasons; one, they have not studied feminisms with all their socio-political and cultural nuances. They have not done any field studies (except a few). This has made most of them closet feminists and socially ‘feminine’ artists, with their married lives and sindoor in their hair parting ‘intact’ (here I may be judged chauvinistic). But I could prove it with a recent interview of feminist artists from all over the world in some Biennale platform where one of the senior artists, Neelima Sheikh very politely shirking off the feminist mantle off her shoulders. The second reason is they think that ‘feminism’ is a foreign import and it does not work in the way it has worked in many other countries. So the Indian women artists could remain ‘feminine’ but never feminist, but empathize with feminist cause without ever being ‘called’ feminists. That’s exactly the reason why this exhibition has to bring in Urvashi Bhutalia, a feminist publisher with a strong grounding on the partition narratives as one of the essay writers for the exhibition. I would see it as an external justification of feminism which is not aesthetically seen in the works of the artists. 
Work by Mithu Sen
Now let me come to the point that I had discussed in my previous essay (why Indian artists are white middle class and English). The present set of artists too is ‘white middle class and English’. They are in the words of the curators, “Socialized and educated, in an increasingly globalized world, these women artists no longer limit their ‘border controls’ solely to India, but rather reach out into other countries and continents.” What better definition is needed to prove that they are savvy artists with ‘white’ skins (notionally), middle class origin and English. The curators themselves say that they are globe trotters and jet setters and they reach out into other countries and continents. That is not a problem at all. We read world literature, watch global movies, listen to international music, east foreign cuisine, patronize world fashion so why not reach out to other countries and continents in return? As said, it is an increasingly globalized world. But in an increasingly globalized world, to reach out one has to resort to a mono-cultural attitude, accepting certain hegemonies of cultural practices and yield to it. It has to do away with pluralistic uncouthness to a large extent in order to be really global where brands are identified, attitudes are entertained and the same taste and same language are preferred. If you look at the visual language of these six artists in question, we could easily make out that all of them are catering to the aforementioned global qualities. They visualize and execute the ‘issues’ in a language which is understood globally. But we are forgetting to extend that sentence; understood globally by who? Their language could be understood by a tribe of people who use the same currency of culture. Everything has to be polished to the taste of the polite world that put on accents of different kinds depending on the occasion. 
One may suddenly think that I am talking this done to death issue of indigenousness and Indian-ness in art. Some may even think that it is all about taking the whole argument to the 1960s and 1970s when everyone was looking for a visual language which would at once give you an identity and a passport. But today, the identity and passport have become the ability of an artist’s language to be global to be recognized in any part of the world; in any part of the world by the people who belong to a particular cultural class. It discriminates the people and artists who are dealing with the issues that are closer to home and touching to the lives of the common people all over the world. The curators have made a wonderfully ignorant statement in this context. Let me quote: “The rapid development of urban India thus runs contrary to the living conditions in rural areas. Countless ethnicities, castes, languages, cultures, religions and philosophies from an ostensibly pluralistic society, in which identity is defined by differentiation from the respective other. The social structure of India thus reflects that of our global community as a whole, which basically struggles with the same issues.” I say this is an ignorant statement mainly because of the reasons that I am going to discuss in the following paragraph. 
Work by Prajakta Potnis
First of all the pluralism of the people in India is not just based on ethnic racial differences or mere linguistic differences as seen in the case of the ethnic differentiations that we see in other parts of the world. India’s pluralism is not even based on the economic differences experiences within the country and the curators have taken ‘poverty and struggle’ as a global currency where the deprived people from all over the world suffer from the same ‘poverty and struggle’. This difference is not even the working conditions and the conditions of women in general in any such vertically and horizontally graded societies. India’s problem is not simply because of its North-South or East-West divide. India’s issues are not pertaining to the memories of India’s partition or the present Hindu-Muslim divide. While corporate militarism has made many parts of the world into ruins, which has resulted into huge demographic displacements and dispossession, massive human tragedies and so on, Indian reality is not really connected to those things. The curators have seen the global struggles as the struggles between classes and genders (a common fallacy that we see in the western curators). Though they mention the caste issues and the untouchability still prevalent in India cursorily, they do not have the ability to see it as the fundamental organizational problem of Indian society which the artists in question have conveniently over looked. I do not say that each woman artist is supposed to look at the caste issues and the gender issues within the castes, I insist that the global language that these artists have developed do not have anything to do with the reality of women or the women issues in India. Even if an artist like Bharti Kher goes and takes the body castes of the sex workers in Kolkata and exhibit them, they are not far different from the aesthetics created by a white male artist like George Segal. 
Now I would say why these artists in their efforts to sophisticate and polish the visual language and present them as globally relevant, have failed utterly in their ‘feminine’ as well as ‘feminist’ cause and deprived the women folk in their country of ‘empathy and solidarity.’ It has a peculiar economic reason. India ‘faced’ the market boom somewhere between the commencement of the new millennium and the global meltdown in 2008. India could push the market dynamics a bit more till 2012. India’s contemporary art developed and flourished during this time. This was not an India centric market and it never would have been imagined so. As globalization was the only one reason for the porous borders and the global flow of economics, the wares that were sold out in the market had to have global appeal and the global sophistication, devoid of the rough edges of the local histories and sensibilities. Market is money and money is always male. Market works according to the male values though there have been many female players and decision makers in the market. But the aesthetics produced in those days (even today) was/is absolutely global and catering to the global male who did not want to look at poverty and struggle, menstrual blood or lack of sanitary napkins, rapes or murders or men and women and such ‘petty and disturbing’ issues. Even if the artists wanted to handle those issues they had to come with polished devises to create such aesthetics. Thukral and Tagra, Princess Pea, Subodh Gupta, Sunil Gawde and so on are the best examples of such aesthetics. It is easy to mention a few more names such as Jitish Kallat, Sudarshan Shetty and Shilpa Gupta. One could see how the rest of the artists in India who got market success remained ‘international yet national’ but only a few ‘really international’. The six artists who ‘grew up’ in this climate polished their language to those levels that could  be passed off as ‘truly international’; that means they carry a sort of male language, globally understood, un-disturbing and not particularly pitching on any of the ‘home bound issues’. 
Work by Tejal Shah
These artists have definitely pin pointed certain issues as their ‘pet issues’ and could make claims that they have been ‘facing it’ for quite some time. But the sad condition is that except for one artist none of them is ever discussed for the serious socio-gender or cultural discourses taking place in India today. If at all they are invited to discuss these issues, it always happens in the polite crowd that often agrees with each other and keeps the issues as something to be discussed over wine and cheese. I have never come across these artists responding to the burning issues in India in any manner. They may be doing it in their house parties, which who else not doing in India! None of these artists has in any way contributed to the general discourse of socio-political issues in India. There are many other artists in the meanwhile doing research and practical works among the people who are really going through problems. They take clear political positions but art is never hailed as ‘global’ for the lack of sophistication and too much presence of local issues. These six artists could ‘face India’ in their own terms which is not a problem at all; but it would not make any difference to any of the discourse currently on in India because their aesthetics is White Male Middle Class and English, which is absolutely a minority in India and except for the aspirant majority of the artists, rest of the population is not even aware of their existence. 

(Images taken from Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg website)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Why Indian Art is also ‘White Middle Class (Fe)Male and English’

Work by Subodh Gupta
A recently conducted survey in Britain says that the working class representation in the cultural fields has gone down considerably that should cause panic among the people who stand for equality and justice. The representation of the working class in the visual art is just 18.2% and the best of the jobs in this sector are often held by the ‘white middle class men.’ The survey also says that only in the field of crafts the working class representation is comparatively higher and relatively proportionate to the general population. This data however cannot be used for assessing the situation in India, still this should be telling us some hard facts at our faces also. The working class representation in Indian art organizations is also negligible and this feature has also crept into the arena of selecting the artists. Today, the Indian art industry, though it does not have any industry status bestowed by the authorities, has become a conglomeration of upper class/caste, English educated/speaking, globally oriented and power brokering communities. 
To understand this issue in the Indian context, we should identify the working class and what makes someone belong to working class. In India working class is no longer the factory going or office going people. They have transcended themselves to the category of middle class which is an admixture of various upper and lower castes often vying for supremacy in various social domains including the work places. Economic freedom and the invisibility offered by the urban spaces have helped many lower castes (and other backward caste people) to overcome the caste barriers to a certain extent. So the real working class people belong to the lower castes that are destined to live in the rural areas and urban fringes immobilized by economic and caste burdens. It is very difficult for an art professional to come from one of these castes or communities and take up a higher position in the art industry or art education. I do not say that it is impossible but it is possible only to a few, which is a negligible minimum in the demographic percentage.
Work by Shilpa Gupta
One of the points in the above mentioned data analysis from Britain deserves a revisiting. The relative higher representation of the working class in the field of craft underlines the fact that in Britain also the craftspeople still come under the working class category. In India, most of the craftsmen come either from the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) or the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (generally called Dalits now and formerly they were mentioned by the condescending term, ‘untouchables). While the craftspeople who have moved to the urban centers and have found jobs in various industries move towards the urban middle class, the ones who have preferred to live in the rural areas still bear their craft as ‘caste’ around their necks and are subjected to various social discriminations. The British art education introduced in India during the mid 19thcentury was mainly for the craftspeople for preparing them as better workforce in order to contribute to the Empire’s socio-aesthetical ends. The British education was not intending to make Indians artists at par with their British counterparts nor did they want a new middleclass to come up from these craftsmen. It was something similar to the English education system introduced in India by the British. As Macaulay said, the education should produce Indians who are capable of serving the British values not only by deeds but also by the total restructuring of the moral values. The British authorities did not want to create and Indian gentry that would stand up to the Empire but they couldn’t have stopped the historical dynamics that created such an Indian force. Same thing happened in the case of the craftspeople and artisans who were to serve the purpose of Empire. They wanted to gain individual artistic status by moving away from sophisticated craftsmanship offered by the new ‘art education.’ 
Work by Bharti Kher
Intermingling of caste happened in art institutions perhaps better than in any other training and work field in India under the British because many individuals wanted to become independent artists by getting trained in these art institutions which were primarily catering to the artisan castes/classes. Perhaps in the egalitarian years of nationalism during the late 19thcentury and in the early 20thcentury we see the Brahmins and the lower castes sharing the same studio spaces and training under the same teachers. However, we cannot say that the lower castes who got trained along with the upper castes gained the same social status in their professional life. Exceptions were there in certain places where the lower caste artists were facilitated to become great artists and through that they could transcend their caste position easily that it would have been otherwise. But at the same time many lower castes were appointed as craft tutors and studio helpers, carpenters and potters in the same institutes who never got any social position as individual artists, while the upper caste artists became lecturers, professors and gurus and masters. 
We could see the same situation till the mid 1970s when some of the fine arts colleges in India were still art and craft institutes where the teachers were just studio potters, painters who got trained in academic painting styles, traditional sculptors, carvers and carpenters. There were agitations led by the students to upgrade these colleges and to get ‘academically trained’ artists as their teachers. The irony was that most of these agitating students were coming from lower middle class families and also from artisans’ castes. Their demand to get academically trained teachers should be justified because their struggle was not to become artisans and craftspeople like their parents and family elders but like the individual artists who belonged to the upper castes and socially advanced classes. It was in a way a simulation of the same what had happened during the early 20thcentury. The artisans and craftspeople who got trained in the British art education system were not really striving to become better trained craftspeople but individual artists. In the last quarter of the 20thcentury too the aspiration levels remained the same. And interestingly, the expansion of educational facilities had brought in students from various castes to the art institutes, but their class status remained as lower middle class. There were rarely middle class students in those days but in the turbulent days of social change in 1970s their middle class status had to go under cover and camouflage itself as lower middle class or lower class. 
Work by Rembrandt
Except in the metros, most of the provincial art schools and colleges still have a majority of art students coming from the artisanal classes; which automatically translate into lower castes in India though in the institutes this aspect is not so vehemently highlighted these days. In the regular art colleges we see art students and art history students hailing from middle class (the erstwhile lower middle class that got a promotion due to economic mobility) but a majority still has the lower caste (OBCs and SC/STs) status. They all study without much caste discrimination within these institutes but the moment they enter the higher education or job sector the caste aspect starts slowly creeping in. Today, a cursory look at the biodata of the artists who are full time professional artists in the Indian art scene, we could say a majority of them are from the artisan classes (OBCs and SC/STs). The caste surnames ‘Acharis’, ‘Karmakars’, ‘Sutars’, ‘Mistrys’ and so on point at this fact. Some of them have transcended the caste identity either by taking away the surname or by becoming economically successful.  But the rest of the artists remain in a semi-opaque curtain of caste which at once makes them visible and invisible as caste individuals. As I mentioned elsewhere, the economic success mostly in the urban spaces and the fame that follows makes the artist unburden himself of the caste weight even when has a caste title attached to his first name. 
This is not the case when we reach the elite institutes that impart art and art historical/critical education in India. The presence of the lower caste students are either minimal or even if they are equal in number as the upper caste students, the success ration in performance is depended heavily on the skin color, beauty concept, English speaking abilities, acceptable English-European-American accent, social mobility, proximity with power structures and so on. During the last fifteen years or so, the number of lower caste students getting into such cream institutes have gone considerably down and even if a few of them get into it, their success or performance is hardly highlighted or made visible in the centre. Perhaps, they may be making some impact elsewhere, within the same caste groups, regional languages or Dalit study groups, protest movements and so on. But the professional rise is hardly assured to these people. If you look at the professional working in the major Indian galleries, museums, auction houses, art consultancy services and so on, we would come to know with a shock that no dark skinned, non-English speaking, not fitting to the beauty concept male or female are employed in any of them. They are simply ‘White English Male/Female culled from Indian origins’. 
Vincent Van Gogh
It is pertinent to look at the number of artists who have come up in the art scene in India and are almost promoted during the last ten years (the post boom years to be precise) we could see that most of them belong to the upper middle class, upper caste, English speaking, fair skinned categories. But if you look at the stars who came up from 1995 to 2005 (a very crucial decade in India art) most of them belonged to the lower class (which became middle class in due course of time and some could go up to upper middle class status) and OBCs and lower castes. They have been now relegated to the vaults to make them vintage properties. But something else happened during those boom years. When the upper class and upper caste families found that there was money in the art scene, they started pushing their children not only to the traditionally known art institutes in India but also to the newly established art and design institutes that cater to the global students and audience. During the post boom years, these students came as graduates and post graduates in the scene with a global training, global attitude and global art works which perhaps do not have anything to do with the Indian politics or reality. This new breed of artists and art professional today rule the Indian art scene, once again underling the caste and class divisions in the general Indian society. This is one area to be probed further in order to understand why the Indian art scene also turned ‘While Middle Class English’ exactly the way British art scene has turned. 
I do not have a substantial data to support my arguments but I am sure if someone really is interested to go further, this essay could be a starting point to debate the issue. I have been dealing with the issues mainly keeping the male artists in India in my mind. But it is interesting to see how Indian women artists have fared through these caste-class issues because many Indian women artists who are prominent today do not belong to the lower castes or lower class. They are either married to upper castes or class or are able to transcend their caste and economic status through economic gains made out of their art sales or through the success of their husbands (as artists or business men or other professionals). What happens to those women artists belonging to the lower castes (OBCs and SC/STs) who get trained in the art institutes? Where do they go? Even if they are there in the scene as successful or semi-successful artists, how do they deal with the caste-class issues in their lives? It may be an interesting area of study if someone is really interested to go into the nuances of it. Many women artists in India today wouldn’t be interested to talk about it because they are not even able to understand feminist positions in art or any other field therefore unable to call themselves ‘feminists’. Hence, I doubt whether there would be any woman artist in India today who would come forward to articulate caste issue as caste and class issue as class issue itself. May be I am wrong. Or may be women artists today articulate the caste and class issues by interspersing them inextricably with the ‘feminine’ issues. More debates are needed in this field of study. 

PS: I welcome readers to inform me more details about the issues that I have raised here in this essay. If I have gone wrong anywhere, you may correct me. 

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Why Women Don’t Paint Male Penis and When they Do Why Do they Do That?

Work by Sarah Lucas
Recently in Kerala, a woman artist drew a composite image of a trident whose middle blade turning into an erected phallus to which the image of a small girl was portrayed as if she was tied to it by ropes. The artist was protesting the cruel Asifa episode that has shaken up the conscience of people in India and elsewhere. The incident had created a lot of socio-political hue and cry, and even the prime minister had to finally say that the perpetrators of rape would not go unpunished. However, this visual protest by a woman artist invited a lot of flak for her not because she had painted a trident but had turned it into an erected penis. The protest was misplaced and the attack by the right wing activists on the artist was largely condemned by the intelligentsia. I say the protest was misplaced mainly because the protesters were claiming that the artist had abused a Hindu symbol; a trident that connotes the Shiva cult. Ironically the trident, the weapon of Lord Shiva in the Hindu mythology no longer belongs to him. It has come to represent the general arrogance of the hooligans who crowd the streets and falsely claim to be the protectors of Hinduism. In short, the symbol of trident has degenerated into a bigot’s weapon that could even rip out a foetus from a pregnant womb during the sporadic riots. Interestingly, the protesters have also forgotten that Shiva is always represented as an erected phallus firmly placed inside a symbolic vulva. It had taken many centuries to derive such a sophisticated symbolism with all its apparent erotic connotations erased and unity of prakruti and purusha (female and male principles) suggested with all its ramifications of divinity. 

 Penis Nailed to a Board, works by Sarah Lucas

This backdrop of trident and linga (phallus) should have made the right wing hooligans just avoid an artist’s lone visual protest in this line but they just couldn’t digest the overt phallic symbolism and the violence involved in that hybrid image. Personally speaking, I was not impressed by the image either. Not because I am a right wing fundamentalist but because the kind of uncouthness of the image. A violence had already been inflicted on that hapless child and the image created by the artist, I thought was an added abuse on the memory of that child. While the unsophisticated image created revulsion in me I was equally revolted by the arrogance of the right wing fundamentalists who had gone on a rampage at the artist’s house and ‘gang raped’ her virtually in the social media. This artist was an unknown figure in the art scene till she was attacked for the image she created. Obviously, she was picking up a turbulent political situation to reap some kind of publicity by making such an overt visual protest. She had not expected such ruthless response from the right wing fundamentalists but definitely she had expected support from the intelligentsia that has been protecting such political and cultural victims from the hands of the fundamentalists and making them overnight stars in the socio-cultural firmament. This is a dangerous thing; while protecting the victims of right wing culture is the moral responsibility of the intelligentsia, such acts also create bad examples of culture and would degenerate the cultural understanding of the general public. The publicity that a victim gains around the ‘incident and image’ would set an example of ‘art and culture’ because of which the carefully cultivated cultural and artistic movements in the society would suffer terribly and the disinterestedness of the general society in the case of art and culture would be intensified by such bad examples.
The Bed, Work by Tracy Emin

Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995, drawings by Tracey Emin
However, many people think that it is not an occasion to debate the aesthetical merits of the work of art that has created such hue and cry in the society. Therefore, here in this essay my attempt is to look at the historical reasons why the male right wing fundamentalists get agitated when a woman paints a nude or to be more precise, paints a phallic symbol. Right wing fundamentalism always works on the plank of majority. When a set of people have a brutal majority based on religious or political affiliation, there are chances of right wing fundamentalism growing to magnificent levels. In India, MF Husain was attacked initially and was later chased out of the country not because he was painting the Hindu Goddesses nude or in a ‘bad light’ though it was the apparent reason everyone was citing and everyone else was convinced about, but it was because he was a Muslim artist painting a Hindu Goddess. Had he been a Hindu artist portraying a Hindu Goddess in voluptuous forms none would have created any problem for that artist. It was Raja Ravi Varma who gave ‘human identity’ to Hindu gods and goddesses. In fact he was using the then famous singers and dancers to model for his ‘divine’ pictures. But as India’s cultural scene was not in any manner centralized (not even decentralized and scattered) none noticed how our gods and goddesses took human form. But if we see it historically, Ravi Varma was doing something similar to what the Impressionists were doing in Paris in the late 19thcentury. When Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ was exhibited the Parisian polite society they were scandalized because to a sensibility that had been accustomed to seeing the unknown models getting depersonalized completely as they turn into divine and mythical figures, the presence of a the local sex workers and women who led ‘loose and anarchic’ life in the paintings was too much an obscenity to tolerate. This happened only because the Parisian art scene was more centralized and the mediatic interventions were strong enough to form the public opinion. 
Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet
Ravi Varma did not suffer on two counts; one, he was a Hindu painter making gods and goddesses modeled after singers and dancers of the time, two, he was pushing his works not really to the public but to the royal and feudal patrons who enjoyed such voluptuousness in their paintings, and had not given too much of importance to religiosity (as in the case of the Baroda Gaekwads) in the cultural life of a painting or that of a painter. Secondly, the public that was the end user of Ravi Varma’s works in the form of oleographs was not really aware of the nuances of making a work of art. They were gullible and credulous enough to receive those pictures as the pictures of gods and goddesses came to them through various presses in India (mainly the Ravi Varma Press) and palpably sourced from the local bazaars, temples and fair grounds. Religious authenticity had already been imparted to these souvenir pictures and the general mythico-cultural climes in which those pictures were consumed/worshipped were conducive enough to maintain the status quo of the gods and goddesses irrespective of the invisible painter and his models. In Husain’s case this was not the case; much before the controversy erupted, Husain was already a legendary figure who commanded great respect from the Indian public in general. This barefooted savant was a prolific genius and the only cause of worry was the growing intolerance against his works by a section of the society (that was/is formed by the Hindu bigots) only because he was a Muslim. Their contention was simple; would he paint ‘his’ gods and goddesses in such a way? They wanted Husain to paint the Islamic gods and goddesses in nude. They did not heed to the fact that Semitic religions were monotheistic and worshipped a single godhead and in the case of Islam they insisted that the ‘Maker should not be made’. That means the god should not be painted in a human form. The Islamic fundamentalists also contributed to this stricture by making it mandate that no Islamic artist should paint human forms; this says why Islamic art has more calligraphy than images. They bigots also forgot the fact that Husain’s cultural make was Indian and he couldn’t have kept himself away from the religio-mythical and cultural discourse of India. Had he done so he would have been dubbed as a sectarian artist, which Husain never was. 
Shantanu and Matsyagandha by Raja Ravi Varma
If Husain’s visual experiments were attacked not for their artistic merit but for his religious affiliation, a woman artist’s work of art is attacked only because she is a woman; it is not important whether she has painted a self nude or a goddess in nude form, a male nude or a painting with some religious connotation or not. Her gender is just enough to implicate her with socio-cultural crime. Here in Kerala what happened was all about it. Had it been a man painter (read a Hindu painter) reacted visually using the same imagery, he wouldn’t have been attacked so severely the way she was abused publicly both in virtual and real spaces. Whenever a woman paints her own nudes or the nudes of anybody else, it becomes an issue in the society. While a male painter has all the freedom to paint a female nude with or without the permission of the model to exhibit it in public, a woman taking the same agency and right over her own body or the body of a fellow being is seen as a crime in our society. That is the biggest hypocrisy that we have ever seen not only in India but also even in the most advanced countries. But because of several social agitations and feminist interventions the West has somehow overcome the inhibitions regarding the female nudity created by the female artists themselves. But we are the victims of such false morality that stems out of the patriarchal grip over our consciousness and living patterns. 
A woman painting a female nude or a male body organ is always seen as a transgression mainly because in any patriarchal society, a woman’s body is seen as the private possession of a male or a few males in her family. When a woman takes courage to come out in the society and makes a cultural or social gesture, the male members of the society also claim some sort of an ownership on her body and soul superseding the rights of the male members in her family. A female artist/writer/actor or anybody who does anything that involves the public becomes a public property and it becomes automatically sanctioned that the male members of the public could judge her act without even trying once to hear her out or understanding her position on her act. The complete subjection of woman’s life to male values has created such a pathetic scenario and that is the only reason why the right wing fundamentalists go all the way to oppress and terrorise a woman artist who has painted a male organ that too attached to a potent Hindu symbol! The male fear here is very evident and palpable. A woman painting her own nude or the male phallus is seen as an encroachment into the male values and if she is allowed to do so the right over the male body is symbolically handed over to the female which is dangerous to the perpetuation of the patriarchal values in a society. Due to this patriarchal thinking a woman attacked when she takes her own agency in painting her own nude or makes a counter claim on the male body.
Vollard Suite by Pablo Picasso
I say making of a male nude by a female is a counter claiming from her side is mainly because of the dominant art historical narrative has always been the other way round where the male artists claim the female body as if they own the female bodies. Citing the number of female nude bodies in the western museums, the feminist artists in the West have made attempts to thwart that equation by reclaiming the right over their own bodies from the hands of the male artists who have made their bodies just an erotic object subjected to the dominant (white) male gaze. One of the major projects of feminism has always been the reclamation of the female bodies from the male gaze and male hands. That’s the reason why the feminist artists paint their own nudes rather than letting the male artists paint the female bodies. Today, after a half a century into active feminist experiments and experiences a female nude by male cannot be seen as an innocent artistic act; it has got ideological connotations which a male artist has to justify to the satisfaction of the feminists in the world. In the meanwhile feminist artists reclaim their body by painting them, sculpting them, performing them, vandalizing them, loving them, caring them, documenting them and putting them into various situations of easiness and difficulty. They test their bodies with various external agencies and prove their capacities to withstand all kinds of theoretical and practical pressures. Feminist artists have developed a counter gaze to look at the world; a sort of look back in anger and in curiosity too. This reclamation is one of the biggest achievements of feminist art in the world. 
Even if we see the art done by the female artists in general and the feminist artists in particular, we can see it with a fair amount of curiosity that, even for snubbing the centuries old male gaze, feminist artists hardly counter paint the male bodies or male organs. Politically speaking, in any context of political subjection and violence, the retaliation comes through the implementation of the same pain and objectification to the previously oppressive bodies and ideologies. But the feminist artists all over the world know the trap involved in such retaliation. Even if they paint the male nude body or male organ for the sake of creating a counter gaze, they know for sure that they would be eventually playing into the rules set by the patriarchal games. Male body being seen as the authoritative body due to its musculature and social aggression, perpetuation of its image through painterly or any other artistic mode would be indirectly perpetuation the patriarchal aggressive values come as a package with that body image. So the feminist artists desist from making the male nudes or male organs. Why celebrate a weapon of subjection at all, is the question that the feminist artist all over the world ask. At the same time, each time, given a chance or by finding a chance, the feminist artists reclaim their body not only by painting the nudity of it but also by highlighting its ability to be a counter narrative to the male aggressive body, by highlighting not only its voluptuousness, beauty and eroticism but also its blemishes and shortcomings. There are artists who portray differently shaped vaginas (Judy Chicago), read poetry out of vagina (Carolee Schzeeman), put body into torture (Marina Abromovic), idealise and iconise (Cindy Sherman) and there artists who document pregnancy and child birth (Mary Kelly) and paint with menstrual blood. 
Penis nailed to a board -  Sarah Lucas
Even if women artists do not want to portray the male nude body (many female artists even if they are not so ideologically oriented about feminism and the body discourse, say that they do not want to paint a male body because there is nothing interesting in it. But ask a male artist about the female body, he would idealize it as the embodiment of beauty and perfection, which in fact has been even an art historical norm so far when art history comes to the hands of the male historians) there are exceptions in the art scene who have deliberately challenged even the feminist stereotype by painting the male body as well as the male organ with absolute irreverence and not any inclination to idealize it. Their ability to lampoon the male body makes them potent feminist artists even if they stand far away from the canonical feminist framework that sees male body as a tool of aggression therefore a taboo. These artists however overstep this idea of deliberate avoidance of the male body for aesthetical purpose and bring the male body as a central point of discourse. Here they do not create a counter gaze but a counter narrative where the aggressive male bodies could be seen in their most pathetic forms. Leonor Fini is a surrealist female painter who had painted male nudes, especially male organs and seen them as erotic images. Eunice Golden and Sylvia Sleigh are the other women artists who have painted male nudes and organs. Phoebe Mills is a Manchester based artist who has painted and sculpted male organs in a satirical fashion, making them almost child-like and cartoonish so that they look absolutely helpless and harmless and even comical (for more read Priscillia Frank’s The All too Short History of Women artists painting Naked Men).  
The Tent - Tracy Emin 
1990s saw three women artists belonging to the Young British Art Movement (YBA) aggressively articulating male bodies and organs in their works with total irreverence and no sense of shame or guilt. Tracey Emin is one of the artists who is still going strong with her international exhibitions of paintings and drawings, who made the male art world sit up and think about the potential of feminist art that could ‘name’ the men who had subjected the artist with or without her permission. She made a tent and stitched the names of the men who had slept with her from 1963 (her year of birth) to 1995. Also she created a ‘bed’ which showed all symptoms of a frantic love making with used contraceptives thrown around. It was in a way a reversal of the Picasso syndrome in the art world. Artists like Picasso used to revel on the models who had become their love interest, concubines and muses. In history, despite having their own artistic abilities these women is marked as the muses and keeps of certain artists. From the impressionist period we get the names of Mary Kasset and Berth Morrisott. Here Tracey Emin reverses this Picasso syndrome and names the people she has slept with, which absolutely shatter the male authority over a female’s body, which they think, could be enjoyed in seclusion and secrecy, while enjoying the power over the female body in public. Sarah Lucas is another artist from the same movement, who made fun of the male organs by making them look like awkward objects in her works. Female artists could challenge male authority by making the male nudes and male organs but most of them prefer not to do so for the fear perpetuation of the same ideology. But when women do it, there will be hue and cry because the males in the world feel that they are losing authority over their own bodies. What would have been the women thinking about their loss of authority over their bodies over all these centuries? This is the time to think about that and subject the male bodies for introspection, retrospection and invasion if need be by the female artists as well as feminist artists. 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Art and Symbolism: Why do People say They don’t Understand Art?

In the last essay in this series (Ref. Some Thoughts about Art Viewers) I had mentioned the historical circumstances in which art viewers are formed especially in the context of block buster shows. While discussing the viewer-behavior I had suggested that it was the mysterious and private symbolism that kept the viewers away. Formation of a viewer happens when the symbolism used in a work of art in display is understood through intellectual as well as emotional deliberations within the given context. This could happen through the help of an explanatory note attached to the work of art, understanding the general context of the exhibition, the artist who has made the works and the common curatorial thread in which the works are curated or even with the help of a simple title. When such curatorial devices fail and the visual language looks absolutely esoteric and alien due to the opaqueness of symbolism, naturally the viewers turn away from a work of art. It was in this context that I thought that there should be some explanations of symbolisms that the modern-contemporary artists use in their works of art. There are stereotypical symbolisms which help a viewer understand the work very easily and perhaps derive meanings directly, which I say an absolute give away that could absolutely destroy the charm of a work of art making it too commonplace devoid of any aesthetical challenges. Then I spoke of a ‘desirable symbolism’ by which I meant a kind of symbolism that poses certain challenges to viewer and forces him to solve it or understand it through active contemplation. Certain amount of awareness of the cultural context is a prerequisite to be such a viewer. 
During the modern times, which could be roughly be said between the 1870-1960s (till date in the case of India) art all over the world had a responsibility to create its own viewers from amongst the general public. There was a time when people enjoyed what religion and courts enjoyed as art. There were strict demarcations between what the populous vulgus (general people) could enjoy and what the higher ups could. Therefore whatever appeared as art before the people in the public domain was meant for direct communication which in a way reassured socio-political and religious control and impacted an invisible moral training of the people. The religious establishments within their esoterically private circles enjoyed a different kind of art which was deliberately kept away from the public. It was the same case with royal courts which used to reserve different kinds of art collected from the land and elsewhere for extremely private enjoyment. Establishment of democratic values, collapse of royal courts, rise of a new rich class from the former feudal classes with the onset of industrialization, arrival of printing press, invention of photography and so on opened up the former esoteric art vaults and a the new middle class started aspiring to reach the level of the former aristocratic classes. This emulation of upper classes by the lower classes was the first historical occasion where the birth of a modern art viewer occurred. He went alone and took his family along at times to the places where ‘art’ was exhibited. And it is quite natural that they had to take great pains to understand the meaning of the symbols that each artist had used in the creation of a work of art. However, the proliferation of printing press made this education easier as it could mediate this understanding between art and the new viewer.  

When art was specially created for the enjoyment of the public, the symbolism that the patrons wanted the artists to create and also in the independent commissions what artists followed was mostly based on religious literature which could easily build narrative bridges between the visual symbolism and the viewers. This art for the public was primarily based on a common context in which the artists and viewers belonged to the same symbolic order. Artists of higher caliber while making the apparent easier to communicate incorporated their private esoteric symbolism within the works in order to make the works more mysterious and demanded more scholarly interventions for unraveling the mysteries. Common people as viewers enjoyed both these apparent and mysterious symbolisms depending on the social circulation of the concerned information and knowledge. But when the patronage changed and art became an independent activity, this common context was broken and the artist became the sole negotiator of his own symbolism to which he gave entry points to the viewers. However, the rupture of this common context was not drastic and it took many years for the artists to move away from the mythological and religious connotations and secularize them completely in order to suit to the changing modern times. By the time we reach the latter half of the 19thcentury we see the modern artists completely breaking away from the former traditions of art making and ushering art creation into a new realm of private symbolism.

In fact the symbolism created by the modern artists was not too difficult to understand; they culled their subjects from their surroundings and painted what their eyes perceived, their intellect directed and their emotions demanded. This was a new context of art creation where artists were the sole proprietors of their works; there were no external agencies to tell them about the final product. What happened to the viewers in this particular historical phase was rather interesting. They had already been conditioned by the ‘ways of seeing’; if it is art it has to be seen in this light, that was the motto till then. But here was a new breed of artists and they were presenting some works of art absolutely different from their seeing habits. Art critics and writers started writing about them based on aesthetics, science, experiments and subject matter. Some of the critics even named the works after certain ‘isms’. So there was a new context altogether in which a new viewer was to be created. And throughout the 20thcentury we could say viewers were led by critical mediations and at each juncture a new viewing habit was formed. I could cite the establishment of Cubism by 1907 and in ten years we have Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ that scandalized the art scene. Immediately after that we have Abstract Movement, Expressionism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Social Realism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Hyper-Realism, Native Art Movement,  Pop Art Movement, Conceptual Art, Narrative Movement, Feminist Art Practice, Art of Impermanence, Performance Art, Video Art, Sound Art and what not. The story continues even today. 
How do we expect a viewer adjust to all these changes? How can a viewer find himself in a comfortable position with these changing ‘isms’ or schools of thoughts and practice? And how do we expect a viewer to understand the symbolism involved in each school of art and in each individual artist? The questions are too many. However, if we look at the historical experience of the viewer/s we could say that they have been comfortably moving from one ism to another without much trouble. But that happens only to an initiated society where museum/gallery going is a general practice and is not seen as an exotic thing to do. The people who call themselves educated or cultured go to museums or galleries the way they attend theatre, dance and musical performances, speeches, debates, shop for books, read books, read literary criticism, movie reviews and so on. A viewer is formed out of these practices. Hence, when a work of art is presented before him, he receives it from within that context of general understanding because a visual work of art though it has a different language of communication is not far away from the cultural discourses in currency in that given point of time. When one is within that currency of ideas, it becomes easier for him to understand a work of art which otherwise appears him as an experimental jumble which is too difficult to understand. Somehow it has become a preconceived notion that the symbolism that the artists use in their works is too private to decipher. If we understand the context that I have given just now, the symbolism is never a difficult thing. To read a book, to watch a movie, to listen to a piece of music, one needs focus and contemplation. The same is required for viewing a work of art. Today, unfortunately it is said that a viewer stands before a work of art just for five to six seconds. But we read a page taking more than a minute. If we stay before a work of art for around a minute (and more than that) perhaps we would understand the symbolism/s better. One has to try. 

Now let me come to the stereotypical symbolism that everyone enjoys to certain extent because it helps them to ‘understand’ the work of art without trouble. This stereotypical symbolism in art comes from previous understanding or familiarity with the image/symbol and the symbolic values attached to it. For example, everyone is familiar with the image of a crucified Jesus Christ. Artists all over the world even during the modern times have used this image not only in visual art but also in movies, theatre, literature and dance and so on. The image of a crucified Jesus Christ is not a portrait of Jesus Christ that evokes piety or horror in us. It evokes a different set of values ranging from religiosity to peace, justice, liberty, fraternity, equality and love. Hence, a revolutionary, a democrat, a Republican, a left wing extremist and a right wing extremist all would use the same image to evoke the same values in different contexts. It becomes easier for the viewer to discern the context and understand the set of values attached to the symbol of crucified Jesus. But the danger is this that over a period of time, crucified Jesus Christ becomes a symbol in itself that connotes nothing but a crucified Jesus Christ. The over condensation of values in one image blunts and numbs it and makes a mere image which could be a stand in image for the said values without meaning much about it. A viewer loves this symbol because he feels that he understand the painting. The same is the case with the theme of ‘mother and child’, ‘dove the symbol of peace’ and ‘Buddha the peacemaker’. These universally identified symbols are over used and have lost their connotative capacities. Still people love them because they say that they understand the work of art. What they understand is the shallow image. It happens because the artist also intends only that much. He takes a short cut to make his art appealing to the people. Over communication is as good as no communication as people are tend to forget such overtly familiar symbols as they forget commonplace objects like a desk or switch. 

It should not be said that people forget familiar symbols that easily. There are times when people remember the work of art forever even if they have only common place symbols. It happens when the artist has used his special skills in making the works super realistic. Works of art with photographic precision are always a thing of wonder for even an initiated art viewer. Even if a very expressive work is kept side by side with a work done in super realistic style, people would prefer to throng before the super realistic work because they ‘understand’ it on the one hand and on the other they appreciate the ‘skill’ of the artist to create something as realistic as they see with their own eyes. They actually forget the fact that the ways of seeing a thing as their ‘eyes see’ is relatively a new thing which has a maximum a history of five centuries. To be more precise I would say that such a way of seeing has only two hundred years of history; since the invention of photography. Photography brought the three dimensional space into a two dimensional plane through a mechanical process. Even before that the Renaissance artists had achieved this ability. With this advent of illusionism (a thing called vanishing point within a picture as if rays were emanating from a middle point which give a depth to the surface) that fooled the eyes a new way of looking at the things around us was created. Photography accentuated it. Without our conscious knowledge our ways of seeing was altered. That is why when an artist uses his skills to create illusion people watch it with wonder and amazement as if such achievement of illusionism is the only thing in art. This was not the case in the pre-photography or pre-Renaissance times. None thought that the artists were making disproportionate figures and images in the picture because the meaning was conveyed through prescribed terms and the images were easily understood the way in which they were portrayed and illusionism was not a term of reference at all. 

It has proved beyond doubt that the stereotypical symbolism is not the way to create a new viewer. Stereotypical symbolism, in most of the cases destroys the viewer base in any country. But unfortunately, go to any village or town fair, you would see works of art with stereotypical symbolism being sold and bought like hot cakes for cheap prices. Here in this context I would like to bring the Kalighat paintings that used to be sold like hot cakes in late 19thcentury and early 20thcentury. Kalighat painters had a total grip on the social circumstances in which they lived. So they chose to paint the subject matters that were familiar to the temple visiting public in a hybrid style which was neither the court style nor the local folk style. It was a meeting point of the classical and the vernacular (margi and desi) and people lapped it up without questioning the lack of realism in them. The realism in them was of a different kind and people who viewed/bought those works understood this context very well. The Kalighat artists could separate the religious and secular in different compartments and even make social satires and critique by selectively bringing them together or resorting to the creation of new symbolisms. The famous image of a cat holding a fish or a lobster is such a derivative symbolism which became a famous cultural symbol as far as the Kalighat painting was concerned. The Kalighat painters could conceive the avarice of the Brahmin priests and their greed for worldly wealth and their indulgence in vices in the form of a cat eating a lobster as if it was a very innocent act. People slowly understood it and it became a symbol as potent and communicative as the symbol of crucified Jesus Christ. 

Now let me detail a little bit about the desirable symbolism in to which a new viewer has to be initiated. What is a desirable symbolism and do the artists need to consciously create a set of such symbolism so that the viewers understand his works? This has been the norm in any time because each artist who strives for a sort of creative originality indulges in the creation of a very private style which could be derivative but strongly different from the root styles from which it is derived. It could be discerned based on the choice of colors, brush strokes and the ways in which an image is articulated. But private symbolism is not that. Each artist has an individual existence as well as a collective existence. That means he is a part of a continuum and at the same time a point of rupture. It happens in his creative career alternatively or simultaneously. His historical continuum helps him to be anchored in his narratives however radical it seems and the rupture helps him to create some exceptionally new symbol that could function as container or the present and past. It is not necessary that an artist always contain past in his present works. A work of art could be present in all its connotations but in my view a work of art stands on its own only when it has invisible connections with its locale, its history, its visual habits and the common contexts. How to shoot his new ways of articulating in this common context or rather how to create this common context itself is challenge for him. For this an artist always uses roads taken widely and less trodden paths. Hence, in the desirable symbolism we see references familiar to the viewer or the references that could be made familiar to the viewers. Either the viewer is asked to learn about the private references or the viewer is at once given those tracks to reach the references. A desirable symbolism at once creates a work of art and its viewer, but what most of us fail to understand is the latter part; we fail to recognize a work of art’s ability to create a viewer through the creation of a desirable symbolism.

The desirable symbolism is as varied as the number of artists who employ it. There is no formula to get to a desirable symbolism. There are no concoctions so that one could prepare a desirable symbolism. It is the creation of a visual knowledge system based on the available knowledge systems in which both the artists and the viewers are common share holders. At times, as viewers we do not understand that we have a stake in it. And the happiest moment in the life of a viewer is the moment of recognition of that particular stake/share. That is why we say a modern viewer is an intelligent viewer. He has to be much ahead of the artist or at least a fellow traveler. Most of the viewers even refuse to recognize this familiar desirable symbolism thinking that they do not ‘understand it’. If you want to watch a movie you have to sit in front of a screen. If you want to read a book you have to look at its pages and read. Similarly if you want to understand a work of art and the symbolism involved in you have to look at it for a minute and try to connect the dots. It is an intellectual activity. But it is often said that art is to be understood by the common man. In fact the common man is the most intelligent man. A common man comes to see a work of art is an uncommon man. A common man who goes to listen to a music concert is an uncommon man. A common man who picks up a book with a desire to read it is an uncommon man. He makes a pact with the object of desire at that moment. It is a marriage. Once you enter in it, you are bound to make efforts to understand it. I am not saying that each and everyone on the face of the earth should understand art. But at least those who go to watch movies, listen to music concert and read books could go for art exhibition. Even a regular newspaper reader could go and understand the desirable symbolism in the work of art. Whenever artists have deliberately tried to make esoteric symbolism in order to make art itself an exotic practice, they have failed miserably in connecting with the people. People, as intelligent as ever have neglected them. But this has made a huge gap in the continuity of the chain of viewers. Today, an average citizen is an informed citizen. He could understand the symbolism in a work of art upon contemplation. What we need today is the patience to look at a work of art with the desirable symbolism.  

(Images for illustrative purpose only taken from the Internet)