Paradox of Indian art
If contemporary art from here is sporadically visible rather than definitively present internationally, it is because the art establishment has not negotiated a firm linkage with the global system, writes RANJIT HOSKOTE.
A painting of Hamza, one of India's greatest conquerers, part of an exhibit at Washington's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
CONTEMPORARY Indian art presents us with an intriguing double paradox. First: some of the most energetic and challenging art being produced by Indians is now shown, not in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, and Kolkata, but in New York, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, and Berlin. This paradox is easily explained. Since the early 1990s, as a cultural resonance of the strategic and commercial interest shown in the newly liberalised India by the more industrially advanced societies, Indian painters and sculptors have enjoyed a measure of visibility in the global art system. They have, more recently, been joined by installation and video artists, and artists active in the new digital media, whose projects have outgrown the local limitations of finance and display. These young and mid-career artists have been represented in such major international exhibitions as the Asia Pacific Triennale, the Yokohama Triennale, the Kwangju Biennale and the Documenta. Their work has been included in benchmark exhibitions organised by the Asia Society, New York, and the Tate Modern, London; some have shown at prestigious museums and galleries in the world's metropolitan hubs.
But this very situation generates the second paradox: that, despite its apparently heightened international visibility, contemporary Indian art has not established itself as a major and sustained global presence. Dazzling as these appearances may seem to observers at home, they are modest and intermittent by comparison, for instance, with the magisterial presence that contemporary Chinese art has secured since its advent on the global scene in the late 1980s. Nor do Indian artists share the high international profile of their counterparts from Japan, Korea, Thailand, or Indonesia.
Naturally, many Indian artists, viewers, galleries, and collectors are haunted by the question: Why has Indian art not yet gained global saliency? Unfortunately, they often adopt the resentful tone of the candidate for largesse who has been passed over during the distribution of regional quotas. Unfortunately, too, they direct the question at an imaginary West that serves as stage, audience, and arbiter of taste, all in one. And, finding no answers, they console themselves with the exhausted spectre of cultural difference, believing that Indian art-making languages are marginalised because they are difficult to assimilate into the canon of Western art history. We never pause to ask how, if this were absolutely the case, such artists as the Chinese Fang Lijung and Gu Wenda, the Indonesian Heri Dono, the Korean Lee Bul, and the late Montien Boonma of Thailand, all emerging from non-Western contexts, have won critical acclaim and commercial ascendancy as international stars.
The question of the global saliency of non-Western forms of contemporary art is, in truth, more a pragmatic than a philosophical one. If contemporary Indian art is sporadically visible rather than definitively present internationally, this is because the Indian art establishment has not negotiated a firm linkage with the global art system (this may well indicate a persistence of the non-aligned attitude that kept India aloof of trans-national strategic alliances throughout the Cold War). Indeed, except for the few artists, curators, and theorists who work within its ambit, Indian art-scene players display an alarming ignorance of this system. Few recognise that, far from being a monopoly of the nebulous West, this global-scale interplay between cultural and economic structures is widely ramified through the industrially advanced societies of West Europe, East Asia, and North America. Its visible manifestation is the interlocking grid of biennales, triennales, periodic showcases, and blockbuster exhibitions; behind these scenes operate the major galleries and dealers, the more adventurous museums of contemporary art, the cautious auction houses. The master spirits of the system are a constellation of international curators, gallerists, and theorists, who lay down and update the global parameters of taste, define the norms of political acceptability and aesthetic stimulation, identify the shadow of obsolescence and the aura of the new.
It is this key combination of actors that anoints artists, invents audiences, projects unsuspected sources of art from the margins to the centre. Artists who meet the prevailing criteria for promise are taken up by a network of galleries, curators, theorists, art-media professionals, corporate sponsors, and grant-making bodies. Such artists are positioned in the appropriate international venues, nurtured through support for projects, documentation, catalogues, and through media coverage. The strategic concatenation of several such artists at any given time results in the establishment of a trend. Within years, the trend passes from gallery to museum, academy, and auction house, becoming an influential context within which future trends are contextualised.
Whether from ignorance, structural weakness, or failure of vision, the Indian art scene has not risen to the challenges and opportunities of this system. Admittedly, the exchange rate prevents even the most established Indian galleries and dealers from participating fully in this global network. State patronage being minimal and corporate funding based on the fluctuating generosity of individual enthusiasts, support for Indian art initiatives comes from international foundations, museums, and trans-national corporations. More crippling than this is the phenomenon of the de-activated horizon. An obsession with short-term profits leads some India-based galleries, which exhibit Indian art abroad, to showcase early modernist art (whose price-tag has rendered it comprehensible even to the philistine) that is so conventional as to be banal; or worse, to revel in the art of kitsch nostalgia. The market for these outmoded works of art is the non-resident Indian of unadventurous taste; that there is a world of cultivated viewers and patrons, beyond this enclave, does not appear to matter.
By contrast, during the same timeframe, considerable achievements have been registered by the art establishment that has emerged in the China of Deng Xiaoping and his successors. An efficient nexus of artists, theorists, curators and collectors both at home and overseas, it marks a successful alliance of state infrastructure and entrepreneurial energy. A history of this recent Chinese art has already been published; extensive documentation of individual artists and curatorial projects is available. The interest from the outside, originally stimulated by the Dengist transition, was matched by a focused effort from within, to project the country's contemporary art globally. All that we have to show for nearly six decades of post-colonial art is a single monumental conspectus: an indispensable, if idiosyncratically argued, overview of art in India from the 1890s to the 1990s.
For the rest, apart from the Lalit Kala Akademi and Marg publication series, two magazines and the occasional well-conceived and well-argued exhibition or auction catalogue, the interested reader finds only sectarian accounts of regional art movements, biographies of individual artists, and sporadic writings of variable intensity. Like the artists, the most engaging and sophisticated Indian theorists now publish in overseas or online contexts.
In consequence, we have no coherent, consensual art history to counterpose against the West-oriented art history that forms the conceptual basis of the global art system.
The departures and subversions of our artists seem to take place in an uncertain location between Indic tradition and Western art history; the efforts of individual theorists to account for this uncertain location have not percolated through to the art scene at large. Unlike even our post-colonial twin culture, the Philippines, we lack an art publishing industry and an art media that could synergise scholarly research and a wide readership. We therefore lack a body of available knowledge about art that ranges, in tone, from the academic to the popular; and in form, from the critical journal to the e-zine, the encyclopaedia to the picture-book.
We must also address our disinclination to build up the material expertise of museum culture. Instead of the institutional professionalism of docents, object-handlers, storage and conservation specialists, archivists and appraisers, Indian contemporary art circles depend on the opinions of private entrepreneurs or rule-of-thumb experts; the glamour of publicity has eclipsed the importance of these crucial artisanries of knowledge.
Can we expect the global art system to be interested in our art, when we ourselves treat it in such cavalier fashion, neglecting purposive support, the necessity of publishing, the coherence of art history and the need for material expertise, while confusing price with value and revelling in the myopia of the next sale?
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