If your mind allows you to take your attention off from your own temporary glory of walking along the carpeted corridors of the international airports in Delhi or Mumbai, within that transitory zone you would come across the works of art done by Indian artists carefully culled and artistically displayed there in conspicuous and inconspicuous walls and corners. However, I haven’t yet seen people taking selfies before these works of art. Instead, they go to the generic yet spectacular gestures and physical movements captured in fibreglass sculptures and take selfies. Let me tell you, this is not done by uninitiated folks alone. I have seen reputed gallerists posing before these sculptural atrocities, taking selfies and posting them instantly in their social media pages to tell the world that they are on the move! I do not take pictures in airports. However, these works of art displayed in various joints at the airports, for me, underline the presence of the invisible middlemen/women who have ‘arranged’ the procurement of these works. I have felt this invisible presence of the so called art consultants when I walk through the hotel lobbies and hospital aisles. I see well known names but sub standard works. Something has gone terribly wrong in our country.
It is said each public building should invest seven per cent of its total cost in procuring art as a part of promoting culture in the country. And they do spend this money on art. But the kind of art that we happen to come across in the public buildings makes our skin cringe in shame. But there is a huge danger than the general embarrassment caused by these works of art. The people from abroad, with a cultural outlook, a museum culture that has shaped their sensibilities etc., upon seeing these works of art in the airports and public buildings, could think that this is the kind of art that we still produce. My readers must remember that it was a couple of months back a British art critic had rubbished Bhupen Khakar’s show in Tate saying that Khakar’s paintings were as good as the mediocre artists in London in 1980s. The foreigners who see Indian art in public buildings and airports would definitely have the same feeling. They could think that we Indians are still producing some kind of art that they had already discarded decades back.
What has gone wrong with our art?
India would have grown with this attitude; a home, a Bajaj Scooter and a work of art at home. Had India kept the momentum on the production of art the way it was in 1970s and 1980s it would have been possible. The western cultural industry knew the dangers of it. With the advent of 1990s and also with the opening of global market in India and vice versa, the western cultural Tsars strategically declared that painting was dead. They started promoting conceptual art and impermanent installation art. Their materialistic and philosophical circumstances were conducive to propagate that idea. But they knew for sure that their museums, which were the backbones of their natural cultural industries and economies, were filled with paintings and traditional kinds of art. They also knew that if India becomes the hub of art making, then the international tourism would turn its attention to India and Indian artists would rule the world. It was then they acknowledged and approved certain artists like Vivan Sundaram and literally projected them as the right kind of artists for India. Vivan Sundarm single handedly worked for the western interests. He became the proponent of the installation and conceptual art and encouraged a lot of young artists to abandon traditional skills and get into the making of impermanent art. In 1990s, he like a fervent missionary did this ‘service’ for the western world. Geeta Kapur, the art critic created an adequate obscure theoretical atmosphere so that the artists who practiced traditional skills felt inferior within that climate. Their agenda was later on picked up by Khoj International and then by the Arts and Aesthetic Department at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
When the Indian art market opened up, the western world did a U-turn which both Vivan Sundaram and Geeta Kapur could not handle. The western cultural industry declared (not in literal terms) that painting was no longer dead. It was resurrected. Paintings that depicted the glittering world of money and power and superficiality of contemporary life were given philosophical justifications. Everyone painted. Everyone sculpted. Everyone photographed. Everyone did videos. Everyone did digital works. Everyone did anything that involved skills. ‘Skill’ was the mantra of the time. Vivan Sundam fell behind because he was no skill man. But unfortunately, those artists who believed in Vivan Sundaram and his conceptual practice groped left and right to gain some foothold in the burgeoning art market of that time. Artists who studied in various colleges, but unfortunately with less aggression and a lot skill became assistants to the artists including none other than Vivan Sundaram. Sundaram even went on to the extent of making works of art based on Ram Kinkar Baij, absolutely deserting those new converts along the way. He brought out two volumes on the works of his aunt, Amrita Sherghil, who was definitely not an installation artist.
I do not believe in conspiracy theories. But I cannot reject the fact that Vivan Sundarm knew that art with no skill would not last long. If you remember there was a frantic situation created by Geeta Kapur, Ranjit Hoskote, Nancy Adajania and their junior versions in the art scene. They were quoting European critics and philosophers to justify Indian impermanent art. Without Foucault, Derrida, Agamben, Danto, Guittari and Deleuze Indian art sounded incomplete. But I demand an answer from the abovementioned people why they justified Indian art with those philosophical tools that even the west itself has rejected in due course of time. Indian art is suffering because of these people. It has to change. India has to find its skills and concepts. India should be filled with art. Each household in India should have a work of art. And it is possible, I believe. If the general cultural climate is vibrant with various kinds of art practices, then I am sure none could be away from that flow. ‘How good and pleasant it could be before god’ and artist you have a work of art in your bed room, study room, drawing room and love it the way you love your beloved. It is possible. It is possible because that is the only way to save India from the redundancy of visual culture created by Vivan Sundaram and his ilk, and also from the bigots who create the climate of ‘we’ and ‘they’. Let’s be the Renaissance people, finding the genius, vouching for them, taking pride in them and celebrating them. Yes, we do not discard installation art because that too needs skills and concepts, but definitely not of deliberate obscurantism .