Whose art is it anyway?
Artists' initiative, in terms of a collective approach, has become marginalised due to the failure of national art institutions.
SPARE A PENNY FOR PUBLIC ART? A sculpture at the Wagah border. PHOTO: V.V.KRISHNAN
It has been a long-cherished belief that the Indian genius is the genius of individualism. This emphasis on a talent for individualism is more apparent in Indian art that outside the institutional or academic framework has gained a forward propulsion through contributions of single individuals rather than a shared vision.
These days, we see the fallout of this most graphically in the art situation where market exigency drives art production, and the artist's initiative - in terms of a collective approach - has become marginalised.
Part of this phenomenon owes its existence to the failure of the national art institutions as well as the start-stop-fizzle-out nature of the artists' group activity.
The history of Indian group initiatives of the 1940s' to the `70s - particularly those that did not have a specific `location' like the Delhi Shilpi Chakra - display a spectacular inconsistency in intent. Most groups like the Young Turks, the Progressive Artist Group, Group 1890, the Calcutta Group, seldom had more than a few shows - sometimes as little as one - before the group dissolved into what it began as, a cluster of individuals with a heterogeneity of styles and intentions. Thereafter, the passage of the group's manifesto or ideology was usually through the mediations of the individual.
Perhaps the intervention of the State was even more tentative. When Maulana Azad inaugurated the central Lalit Kala Akademi in 1952, it was with a marked nostalgia for India's "lost traditions" and the glories of a classical past denuded by imperial rule. However, he did not articulate or envision the future of modern practices for the very institutions that he was founding. Modernity, then, lay elsewhere. The Japanese inspirations of Bengal in the 1910s' and `20s, guided by Rabindranath Tagore, was followed by the great rush to the West in the `50s and `60s as the seat of modernity.
This stands in sharp contrast to the envisioning of a national art in a country like Mexico - which emerged from the tattered fabric of revolution much like the depredations of British imperialism in India.
In the Mexican example, the Minister for Public Education Jose Vasconcelos actively supported the making of a Mexican national art, through the grand initiative of the murals, or as Alfaro Siquirios stated, "We glorify the expression of monumental art because it is public property." The scale of artistic freedom lent by the Mexican Government and the degree of financial support to a leading crop of artists virtually guided Mexican art consciousness in 1940s' and `50s. In contrast, the Nehruvian scheme of apportioning a part of spending on public buildings was at best a half measure, limited to urban centres with sporadic manifestations. The government spent on public art projects such as the murals for Gandhi Darshan and railway headquarters at Baroda House, for K.G. Subramaniam's large mural in terracotta based on Tagore's `The King of the Dark Chamber' at Lucknow as well as Husain's mural in the Delhi Income Tax building. However, such investment never carried the momentum of mass public address, and correspondingly, did not evoke the scale of historic response of a `national' art.
In the 1940s' to the late `70s period, which was broadly the period of an Indian modernism, several groups dedicated to a shared ideology or the common use of a medium sprang up.
Their group activity was usually short-lived and most of these folded up without a full articulation of intent. In some cases, we see a carry over into younger generations. For instance, the Group 8 printmakers may have broadly served as precursors for the Indian Printmakers Guild, which also closed after a few exhibitions and the release of print folios.
The two or three artist collectives with a visible profile - Khoj, Open Circle and Sahmat - are strongly identified with ideologically-driven activity and do not intercede directly in the workings of the market.
This is what makes the present art scenario particularly vulnerable to speculation, and to the presentation of art that is affirmed by the eye of the dealer. The well-known truism that what is not reported in the media is strikingly true of art production.
That what lies outside the popular dealer-buyer nexus, will at best remain only on the periphery of a popular contemporary art history.
Artists, who were active in the 1950s' and `60s, speak with nostalgia of the modes of resistance that they set up in opposition to the government view of Indian art.
This included staging their own exhibitions, through loose confederacies of the like-minded, interceding directly in artist's representations at biennales and seeking active representation at the state and central Lalit Kala Akademi.
In most instances, these kinds of initiatives have been abandoned. The artists' position has shifted from an active to a relatively passive one, wherein the two branches of art production and art exhibition now work through completely different mechanisms.
One recent initiative is that several artists have created their websites to mount and speak about their work and thereby directly reach the viewer.
However, a much more concerted effort will be needed if artists need to determine how the display and documentation of art actually determines the making of art history.
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