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Fight for art’s sake


The sea changes happening in the art scenario have never been much spoken about. How far apart are ideals from the actual causes?

Buyers might end up having works that have absolutely no value.

Photo: Parth Sanyal

Quiet impact: Every work need not have an illustrious past.

There exists an inherent conflict when one tries to reconcile the academic and the business aspects of art, particularly in the case of contemporary Indian Art.

One very obvious development in today’s art scene is the aspect of marketing, something that I have brought up earlier. It is a very crucial aspect of Indian Contemporary art and there are moments that I have felt totally averse to the idea of s omething that is considered to be a powerfully effectual tool for commodities that range from toothpastes to designer clothes, seeping into the very fibres of Fine Art. This is owing to the fact that it is a field, which to me, is still strongly rooted in subjective and academic criticism in order for it to remain a vibrant platform within which an individual or collective artistic expression is conceived, developed, debated and ideologies ascertained.

Of course, it’s not as if dealers, collectors and artists themselves have not used such tools in the past to gain a public audience.

At the turn of the 19th Century, public perception associated financial success with the aesthetic quality of the works, a scenario that is being played out in urban India today.

Also there were artists at that point in history, particularly Picasso who was known for his shrewd business acumen apart from being a master genius. Unfortunately, things are happening at a rather fast pace, especially in terms of demand that certain galleries and dealers expect artists to mass produce their works. While this occurs within Contemporary Art in the West, there have been many learning curves through which the world could differentiate between great, good, mediocre and bad works. None of the contemporary artists in India is being given the time to grow and eventually establish their artistic practice because of vested interests both in the West and within our own country.

Therefore, while some Western artists have fallen because of speculation and overpricing owing to market driven hype, a point in case being Julian Schnabel, strong historical development over years and years of Western Art saw to it that the entire market didn’t crash and vanish.

Therefore, while a certain degree of promotion and publicity have to be developed to support an artist, it is being used a tad too aggressively at a very delicate and fragile stage in the country’s current art scenario.

Contemporary concept

There exists a strong historical backbone that supports Classical Indian Art unlike Contemporary Art. With the latter the attention came by way of money, the only means by which new buyers and more importantly the mass audience are being initiated into the concept of the contemporary.

While some of the influential players within the dynamic, young contemporary art scene propose to do something about it, often suggesting the path to be taken, time and again it comes across as being shallow. This is because of the example they set with their own practice.

Let me recount something that took place recently at The Asia Society in New York during The Asian Art Week — a smart and obvious marketing tool, one could say, whereby we have a week that will be a one-stop-shop for collectors, investors and the occasional art aficionado to permeate their being and satiate their need (be it financial or passion) for art that is ‘All-Asian’! The tag did not perturb me as much as the lack of straightforward dedication to the cause of Indian art the so called “experts” brought to the forefront in the discussion. The dialogue was meant to shed light on the future of Indian Contemporary Art.

The panel included, Dr. Arani Bose, businessman, director and gallery-owner of Bose Pacia Gallery, New York, Melisa Chiu, museum director of Asia Society, Artist Atul Dodiya and Dr. Hugo Weihe, head of Indian and South-East Asian Art, Christies, NY. There were some valid points that were being made by the panelists, but as expected they seemed to offer nothing more than words. There isn’t much one could expect from these individuals who are for most part more attuned to the business side of art rather than the aesthetic, except, to a certain extent, Atul Dodiya. This, like one other panel discussion on Indian Art that I’ve been to, fell short of my expectations.

Let me explain why I find myself exasperated. For most part they desperately try to project a genuine need to support the growth of Indian art and artists from an academic and art historic point of view. Dr. Arani Bose brought out some valid issues faced in terms of contextualization and how categorizing in terms of cultural background is considered to be, in his words “Ghettoization” when it comes to Asian art.

However, different rules apply to Western art, where, say a German artist is considered International as opposed to just being German. He brought out how there was a lack of support for developing institutions and infrastructural support that produced critics, theorists, academics and, of course, artists that would sustain a steady growth. Wise words until Dr. Bose suggested the solution. He strongly felt that getting some of India’s new billionaires to invest in setting up the much needed foundation for sustained development would be a good start.

However, he failed to mention that his own gallery is guilty on many occasions of putting financial gain ahead of any other aspiration. How else can one explain their handling of an artist pair the gallery represents — Tukral and Tagra? The duo had their solo show in the New York gallery, which opened in April 2007. Within a year of their show the artist’s works were up at three auctions.

Provenance for these works only included exhibition history. Provenance is the history behind a work of art that is extremely intrinsic to the process of quantifying the monetary value of a work of art.

For example, German artist Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer boasted of a provenance that included its unique history involving a battle between the Austrian government and a family heir of Ms. Bauer. The niece claimed that the work, along with five others, was seized by the Nazi’s during World War II. This aspect of the painting’s history made it an extremely valuable piece in terms of art history thereby playing a major role when it came to pricing the estimates and ultimately shaping the outcome of the final bid — a world record of $135 million dollars.

The work is now part of the Neue Galerie in New York which focuses on Austrian and German Art. Every work need not have such an illustrious past but the point to be noted here is the value of art history. Of course, one can argue that contemporary art is created in the present and a number of Western contemporaries sell for exorbitant prices. However, one needs to understand that Western art has a longer “history” on its side, and for young India, contemporary history goes back to only a mere 60 years to the late 1940’s when the Modern Art movement took shape through The Progressives.

It reiterates how young the Art scene is in the subcontinent which is not a terrible situation to be in.

However, with the pressure to make quick profits comes the danger of expediting the production of art works as if it were coming out of factories for mass consumption. How could Dr. Bose encourage putting up Thakral and Tugral’s works for auction if his intentions are to support his artist’s growth? It also makes one question if the artists themselves are conscious of what they are getting themselves into.

What with value?

Does it not occur to them that if their prices rise when they are beginning to establish themselves, only because it’s financially prudent, what happens when the fiscal aspect dies? Buyers might end up having works that have absolutely no value since they do not stand at a strong position art historically — which I reiterate is the single most powerful aspect that determines the value of a work of art. And this will affect the careers of these young artists who otherwise might have potential but were misguided in terms of how they could develop their practice.

That is not what Indian Contemporary Art needs. And galleries such as Bose Pacia to an extent might be guilty of doing so by encouraging this terrible pattern of putting up their artists for auction when they have barely exhibited for more than a couple of years.

Mind you, the likes of Dr. Bose and Dr. Weihe are well aware of the fact that majority of the players within the Indian Contemporary Art scene is in it for the money. What irks me is their assumption that all of the audience is blissfully ignorant of this fact.

Apart from uninspiring didactic statements, there were quite a few glaring contradictions in the discussion. One of them revolved around art critics in India. For some reason the only name the panelists could suggest both during the discussion and when an audience member posed a question, was Geeta Kapur. I have deep respect for Ms. Kapur, who is a pioneer of art critical writing in India but the fact that they did not mention any younger writers who are up and coming showed their lack of interest in even acknowledging their existence. It is all well to say we need to encourage the new but if the “experts” themselves can’t go beyond one name it’s beyond absurd.

Dr. Weihe who is a knowledgeable and sincere person fell short of my expectations. There was hardly anything insightful he offered. Dodiya’s experiences as an artist, and how it amused him to see the attention he got from his neighbours, who didn’t know or care for art before the entire buzz, was a good way of explaining the manner in which some sections of Indian society view art today. One attends panel discussions such as this with a hope of hearing people within the industry who have the power and influence to shape the future of Indian Art offer some concrete, genuine, truthful insights.

The problem is that everything isn’t defined in terms of “Black and White”. Unfortunately, some of these players do not care to admit that and continue to be strongly business minded in their practice, whatever the consequence may be. Nevertheless they project themselves as championing the cause of critical and historical support, when their actions speak otherwise.

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