Guest Author of March 2010
After a foray into discussing current representations of cultural heritage in China with this year’s first two essays, we turn our view to questions relating to exhibition practice, and the ideological and structural boundaries of contemporary art worlds. In December 2008, Kavita Singh, Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, led the curatorial team for the second exhibition of the newly opened Devi Art Foundation, which we presented as the MoCA of the month in July 2007. The exhibition had the title Where in the World. Here, we present an abridged version of Kavita Singh’s introduction to the catalogue, which reproduces some of most striking arguments in the essay. In sections named Export, Outraged, Outrageous, and Uncollectable, the exhibition presented contemporary art in India, highlighting aspects that deserve attention also for contemporary art in general. The notion of an “artworld” is largely one that relies on its exclusiveness, or the appropriate methods of excluding and including various actors. It might be defined by the willingness (and possibilities) to acquire specialist knowledge of what contemporary art is and may do, or by strategies of ostensible inclusion that foster ‘self-ethnologization’ for the sake of authenticity, be it formal or adhering to an political vanguardism expected from societies on the “periphery”. Finally, even the timeliness of the contemporary becomes a means of exclusion: art that is ephemeral becomes “uncollectable” from the position of a traditional museum; an issue that questions contemporary art not as much as it does the adequacy of the museal collection itself.
Where in the World
In the bad Bombay films from the 1970’s, the heroine would be hit by a car, go into coma, wake up amnesiac, and, looking around the strange room filled with strange faces, woodenly ask: ‘Where-am-I-?’ Indeed. Where in the world was she? Although the title of this exhibition was chosen with more serious intent, it does have within it something of this same sense of waking up from a delirium or a dream, and finding oneself in a new place, difficult to recognize.
In the past ten years or so, contemporary art from India has “gone global”. It has been hailed as the next big thing after Chinese contemporary art. It has produced some international art stars, who have been successful border-crossers, going from being renowned Indian artists, to being renowned artists from India, to finally becoming renowned artists, period. Some works by contemporary Indian artists sell for large sums, and some artists are collected by an influential, taste-making international elite of collectors and museums.
Has this shift in Indian art’s place in the world affected the art? Does the expansion of the viewership change the way the artist addresses audiences? Has the need to stand out in an ever-larger crowd affected the scale and look of the art? What forms does an engagement with local contexts take? In short, what has globalization meant for the world of contemporary Indian art?
We have here two terms that seem to be interchangeable but are actually incommensurate: ‘globe’ and ‘world.’ We hear of globalization all the time. It is described as a new phase of unprecedented interlinkages across the planet facilitated by technological, economic and social changes. According to some, globalization has emancipatory potential; through it, settled power relations might shift, and terms like ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ might become meaningless. According to others, globalization is the new guise under which colonialism has returned; this time (or rather, again) enacted not by conquering nation-states but by corporate capital gone rampant. However we assess it, globalization plays itself out on a globe that is imagined as a surface, flat and featureless, a zone of networks and mobility whose possibilities could erupt anywhere. In contrast to the ‘globe,’ the ‘world’ is an inhabited place. It is real, marked by features, memories, relationships and connections that discourage quick abandonment and rapid change. It is context. The world is what we carry with us, even as we move across the globe.
There is art in the world, and there is the world in art. Placed next to the word ‘art,’ the word ‘world’ has both a commonsense meaning, and a specialized one. In 1964, the philosopher Arthur Danto published an essay called ‘The Artworld’1 in which he introduced the term in its specialized sense. After Danto, a number of theorists have developed the concept of the artworld to suggest systems or networks – of individuals and institutions – who ratify certain things as art. Fully developed, the ‘institutional theory of art’ suggests that artworld institutions have an absolute and arbitrary power to promote and demote, include and exclude, objects not just from their own purview, but from the purview of Art itself. A theory like this helps explain the banal objects – urinals, soup cans – and peculiar behaviour – self-mutilation, sexual self-exposure – that get enshrined as art, but it does not look as closely at the ‘artworld’ that enshrines them. How is the artworld constituted? Why should so many members of the artworld agree that certain objects are art? As a critic asks, if the artworld is the space that distinguishes between art and non-art, is its recognition like the botanist’s recognition of a new species of plants, or is it like a nation state’s recognition of a foreign government after the violent overthrow of its predecessor2?
If the artworld is not – or is not only – a closed world consisting of the self-interested nexus of artists-dealers-critics, it is still, in one sense, a world with borders. The history of the last hundred years of art has been, in large measure, a history of vanguardism3. Every few years a new movement or direction would announce itself, would oppose the art establishment, would earn outrage, then understanding, and then admiration and co-option within the canon and the establishment it had attacked. The next wave of vanguardists to arise would critique their predecessors for being part of the establishment, before being borne on a similar tide. But, as Bourdieu says, nothing is more closely linked to history than an act of subversion4. By making art that responds to, critiques, and dismantles the art that had gone before, avant-garde artists tie themselves to the art of the past. Not only do they make art in response to other earlier art, what they make is comprehensible only when it is seen in relation to it.
Today vanguardism continues, not as an historical movement, but as a prevailing attitude. Contemporary art enmeshes us in the history of art. And it is this enmeshment that makes the web of the, to me, real artworld. The amount of knowledge that we need to understand why it became historically possible for a shovel or a used sanitary towel to be acknowledged as art puts up a barrier between those who are able to invest the time to gain this knowledge and those who are not. This barrier of knowledge forms the real border of the artworld. In other respects the artworld is global – transnational, mobile, and quick, eager for new members to join its global networks of circulation and valuation.
As contemporary Indian art globalizes, it moves between worlds and artworlds. The four sections in Where in the World open lines of inquiry into the form of this movement. ‘Export’ traces the strategies used by artists asked to enact ‘Indian-ness’ in their work. ‘Outraged’ and ‘Outrageous’ follow the ways in which artists engage with issues and the larger public beyond the artworld. And finally, ‘Uncollectable’ considers the movements of objects through markets and into collections.
It has been said that the global circulation of contemporary art causes it to focus on the local. As artists from more and more places ‘elsewhere’ show their work in biennales and art fairs across the globe, their expanding audience expects easy access to their work and concerns. One formula suggested for international success as an artist is ‘national content’ housed in ‘post-modern forms.’ That is, artists might use new genres, media and technologies of spectacle to reiterate icons from their own cultures, or to address current issues relating to their contexts that have already been made familiar by news. The artists can thus ensure that they appear ‘contemporary’ in their art-language while remaining ‘authentic cultural insiders’ in their content. A number of writers and artists have offered incisive critiques and self-critiques of the ways in which this demand for legibility affects the making of art. Observers have pointed out that this leads to ‘self-ethnologizing’ or presenting ourselves as others would wish to see us5. Some even sharper critiques suggest that the nomadic contemporary artists of today are the 21st century equivalent of the living ethnographic specimens who toured with 19th century World’s Fairs6.
Underlying these criticisms is a pessimistic assumption that the history of making art for foreign audiences is always a capitulation; that artists cannibalize their own cultures and histories to allow their consumption by the economically powerful. One could argue against this on three counts. Firstly, one might invoke, as this section’s title does, the history of ‘export art.’ Within the history of art, the term applies to luxury products made in one part of the globe for consumption in another part. Historical examples of export art would include fine Japanese porcelains made in Arita in the 17th-18th centuries for European markets, or Indian chintzes and kalamkaris from Kalahasti and nearby sites for markets in Europe, Persia and Indonesia. In both cases, local skills and technologies were applied to make items suited to foreign needs; the opportunities and challenges provided by new markets led to an extraordinary flourishing of that art. Secondly, one might test the convictions of those who argue against ‘export’ art by asking if they would argue for its opposite: a self-enclosed community of insiders who share cultural knowledge which is limited to internal circulation. This is a parodic vision of cultural authenticity, which nobody today can countenance. And thirdly, one might ask about the space left for an artist’s intelligence and autonomy in that Foucauldian structure that can only see wealth and power being met with avidity and subservience.
Some artists do know how to turn local motifs into spectacular objects that speak the double register of Indian content and transnational form. The most visible, though by no means the only, artist to successfully do this in India today is Subodh Gupta. Described as the ‘biggest thing to happen to Bihar’s culture after Nalanda’7, Gupta is the poster boy for the recent boom in Indian art. Receiving prestigious commissions, sought after by influential collectors, over the past ten years Gupta has developed an astonishing capacity to abstract and amplify everyday objects from Indian middle class life. In his works from the last decade, vessels and vehicles undergo transformation in material or scale, or are massed together into abstract forms that are pleasurable and discomfiting, familiar and strange. What evokes familiarity and what evokes strangeness alters according to the viewer’s location; to an Indian audience his sculpture Chimta turns a familiar thing into an eerie, bristling god; to a Brazilian viewer, the fetishistic object might strike a familiar chord but the humble kitchen implement used for making Indian breads might be irreducibly strange.
The two sections of this exhibition that follow ‘Export’ regard the ways in which contemporary art connects with a larger public beyond the artworld. Punning on the word ‘outrage’, the sections are titled ‘Outraged’ and ‘Outrageous.’ In one section we consider art that tries to engage the public with messages about social, political and environmental issues. The next section, titled ‘Outrageous,’ shifts attention to art that sets out to be provocative by deliberately crossing the bounds of propriety.
Vanguardism in art used to oscillate between a vanguardism of form and the adoption of an explicitly political content in formally conventional art. Since the 1970’s, when institutions of the art world have themselves turned into transnational corporations, formal innovations that allow art to evade the market’s grasp have become politically vanguardist as well. In one sense or the other then, most groundbreaking artworks can be seen as potentially political in their intent. The ‘Outraged’ section in this exhibition is thus not the only one to examine politics in art, but it takes up art that is ‘political’ in the most literal sense, that is, art that takes as its subject environmental, political and socio-economic issues.
One might ask about the relationship between ‘art’ of this kind on the one hand and ‘news’ on the other. Art that engages with current political issues often brings back to our consciousness something we were already made aware of by journalism. Considering that artists are reframing social and political issues as art, what does it mean to make a comment, however perceptive, in an installation, which will be viewed in limited circuits of art world? The most persuasive counter to this dismissal is the suggestion that art allows for a slower, more reflective dwelling on the issues that flash past us in the mediascape. In that sense, while the media may offer us information on crises, art can fill the information with meaning.
Now more than ever there is a global commons of art where artists from peripheral or formerly peripheral locations might make and show their work. But many artists voice discomfiture at the way in which they are ‘compelled to operate almost exclusively under geopolitical frames of reference.’8 Latin American art ought to be about Latin America’s traumatic history. Chinese contemporary art ought to be about China’s traumatic history. Iranian contemporary art ought to be about Iran’s traumatic history. Some kinds of art are willfully misrepresented to conform to this pattern: the ‘Political Pop’ paintings from 1990’s China are repeatedly described as bold and iconoclastic works that dare to attack governmental propaganda, though specialist art historians repeatedly tell us that there was no political content, and no political risk involved in the making of these works.
Circulating globally, political art from elsewhere ‘dips into the fallacy of representation,’9 becoming a close relative of the self-ethnologizing, ‘export’ art that we had considered above. Contemporary art from troubled or formerly troubled regions is presented as something like a dispatch from the front lines. Here one could also critique the spaces of global art that present themselves as redemptive sites that allow tongues to finally be loosened and veils to finally be shed, allowing an oppressed populace to express its individuality.
In contrast to the overtly political art whose forms might allow for its co-option into a global art system, are the more problematic works and acts of artists who wish to counter the art establishment by taking up explicitly anti-art positions by deploying the aesthetics of shock. In this vein artists might purposefully produce works that are subversive, sacrilegious, sexually graphic, or physically dangerous to artists and/or viewers. Through the 1960s and 70s (and following the early example of Dada), there was an explosion of artworks calculated to shock in Japan, Europe and the US. We are taught that this was part of a larger countercultural move which challenged canon-formation and commodification of art. Artists claim that this kind of work forces society to confront its conventional understanding of right and wrong. More cynically, detractors suggest that this kind of art is pure sensationalism, and is calculated to draw attention in an overpopulated art world. Perhaps the cynicism is not misplaced with regard to much of the art of shock made in the last decade, which seems to be made not to resist commodification, but to attract it. The Young British Artists, foremost among whom is Damien Hirst, are the classic example of art that shocks and simultaeneously succeeds in the marketplace.
Although art that shocks is explained as a kind of electro-therapy for society, its successful delivery of its meaning depends upon its being seen by the artworld, and not by society at large. Provocative and transgressive work is mounted or enacted for an audience who will understand it as ‘art.’ It is expected, and accepted, that a real, naked body seated inside an art gallery will be understood and treated differently from a real, naked body seated at the bus stop. Artists and critics react sharply to any attempts by the state or the public to apply commonplace standards to acts of art. Art calls for its autonomy, which is why art expects to be granted a freedom not given to non-art acts of speech. Existence within the artworld both protects provocative art and takes away some of its potency. For, an audience that enters a gallery to see art will see only ‘art’ in whatever is presented to it, even if the artwork is the artist’s mutilated body. Does not even the most radical art count on this objectification, in order to survive?
The problem arises if this kind of art comes within the sight of those who are not meant to see it. If an artworld outsider walks into a gallery and sees a naked body not as art, but as a body; the desecration of a national symbol not as art, but as the desecration of a national symbol; irreverence to an icon, not as art, but as irreverence to an icon; if he expects rules about obscenity, sedition, and sacrilege to apply within the space of art, we have controversy, censorship, and vandalism. It is not that the ‘compact’ between artist and audience has broken down; it is that someone who was not part of the compact has entered the picture.
In the world of contemporary Indian art, the works that touch upon the edges of the acceptable and the unacceptable are often less extreme than those seen elsewhere; seldom do we see projects that do violence to the artist’s body. Instead, one is more likely to encounter iconoclastic acts that dismantle or mock revered images of gods and political leaders alike. In contemporary India, the deconstruction of national icons seldom causes scandal10 but the use or deconstruction of religious imagery routinely provokes eruptions from the religious right. M F Husain’s fate at the hands of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is too well known to bear repetition here. Controversy also arose around a student’s work in the degree show at MS University, Baroda, in 2006, which reinterpreted Christ and Durga in an irreverent way. This exhibition had grave consequences for the student and for his teachers and institution. The religious right’s aggressive posture comes, primarily, from its desire to exert exclusive control over representations of religious tradition. Increasingly, its wish is being fulfilled, as more and more artists self-censor themselves, and turn away from engaging with traditional religious imagery for fear of inviting their wrath.
Right-wing activists’ radars are especially sensitive to imagery that yokes together the sacred and the sensuous. It is ironic that this very yoking has long been described as the hallmark of Indian religious art. Sexually explicit works depicting mortals is usually not of concern to the Hindutva-vadis. It should be said, however, that Subodh Gupta’s Vilas, seen in this section, had its first showing in Mumbai at a time of heightened communal tension. The work consists of a digital print showing the artist nude, sprawled out on a Vaseline-covered couch and the Vaseline-covered couch itself. Anxious about inviting unwelcome attention, just before the exhibition’s opening, the artist smeared Vaseline onto the digital print, covering over the crotch.
It is worth noting that when contemporary artists from India parodically engage with Indian tradition, even Indian religious tradition, they tend to do so through low-culture and pop-culture references. There seems to be a hesitation to deal with classical high culture in a radically critical way. In this, contemporary Chinese art is markedly different: artists there make trenchant observations of civilizational re-assessment or cynically appropriate cultural icons. The difference in attitude comes from divergent recent histories: the Cultural Revolution ruptured China’s relationship with its past, and artists come to Chinese history from a position of alienation. In India, the relationship with tradition is less discontinuous; moreover the tropes of nationalism made it essential to revere the past.
Stories about contemporary art appear in Indian newspaper headlines on two kinds of occasions. Firstly, when it becomes controversial, and is attacked by right-wing groups. And secondly, when it sells at auction and fetches a high price. As shown by the media, contemporary art is a schizoid entity, both incomprehensible and reviled, and celebrated and desired. Why does the price of art capture the popular imagination? It is doubtful whether even the most naïve newspaper reader confuses price with value. Art’s price at auction is fascinating precisely because it is impossible to draw a straight line between monetary and artistic worth. The opacity and irrationality of the art market’s operations makes it seem like an enormous lottery. And the thing about lotteries is that anybody can hope to win.
Over the last five years, while India’s real economy grew at 9%, its speculative economy grew manifold. And as middle class India began to play the stock market, and began to believe in the Great Capitalist Free Lunch, upper-class Indians began to play the art market. For several years, art investments posted a 35% annual return. Art was promoted as that impossibility: a safe, high-investment high-yield opportunity. Art galleries, art auction houses, art advisors, art portfolio managers, art mutual funds collectively built a buzz around art, constructing an industry around practices that inflate prices and attract investors. The hungry market shifted its attention from the ‘Old Masters’ – in this case the generation that came of age in the 1960’s – to the ‘Contemporaries,’ for the supply of Old Masters was too limited to sustain a boom of a sufficiently large scale.
Contemporary critiques of the commodification of art seem to suggest that there was an earlier, purer era when artists were not enmeshed in money matters. Perhaps this is the place to state the obvious: the relationship between art and money is not new. In feudal times, and through early modernity, art was always a professional practice devoted to the making of a luxury product. Artists earned a living by producing things of beauty for wealthy patrons of church or state. At the same time, today’s commodification is different from the artist-patron relationship of earlier times. Artists may now watch their work entering the speculative market, and they may see the possibility of controlling and manipulating their own prices. At the very least, some artists might be encouraged to produce, or to keep on and on producing, the kind of work that performs well in the marketplace. As Thomas McEvilley says, the fear is not that art will end up as commodity, but that it will start out as such11.
‘Uncollectible,’ the final section of the exhibition uses a range of artworks and art-documentation to look at issues of commodification through the lens of ‘collecting,’ ‘not collecting’ and ‘uncollectability.’ Collecting, rather than the market, is foregrounded here, because art is able to enter the market only when it takes a collectable form. And collecting – in a relatively stable, public institution – does not simply consume art, but assists in the formation of canons; collections make histories of art possible. What is not collected, very possibly, will be forgotten.
Since this exhibition is drawn from the works of a single collection, the title of the last section has to be seen as ironic. The works on show in ‘Uncollectable’ cannot be called ‘uncollectable,’ because they have been collected. But it is a mark of the nature of this collection that the works within it allow us to think about not just eminently collectable but also eminently un-collectable, experimental art. This section thus begins a work that will not exist for long. A Balasubramaniam’s memorial bust in camphor is a self-portrait that is gradually evaporating. Eventually, there will be no figure left in the vitrine, and the material from which it was made which will have crystallised in new forms.
A work like this could never have been collected by any of India’s government-run museums. Rules regarding the responsible use of public money would never allow the purchase of self-destroying work, which might have vanished by the time the auditors come. India’s National Gallery of Modern Art is not even able to collect video art, as DVD’s are considered too liable to be corrupted and are therefore not sufficiently physically stable enough to purchase. As a result, governmental institutions must restrict their collecting to the more physically stable and more conventional media of painting and sculpture. This conservatism profoundly affects the kinds of collections they make. As things stand, the National Gallery will simply not be able to relate the history of what Indian art did after 1989. Similarly, market-players who buy art as an investment too need their art to have a physically stable form.
The Lekha and Anupam Poddar Collection of Contemporary Indian Art is likely to be the most important collection within India of Indian contemporary art of the last ten years. Collections of a similar kind, if not of the same magnitude, might be found in Britain today but it would be hard to find another collection with the same sweep and range inside India. In the absence of other collections, this collection will be the future’s memory of these years in Indian art. It may be our only memory of these years. What will it remember and what will it forget? It is important to remember that despite the scale of this collection, and despite its boldness, there are things that are not collected here: things that are not available, not affordable, or not to the collector’s taste.
The four sections of the exhibition explore four themes; unlike most thematic exhibitions however, artworks are not grouped together here by their subject matter: viz. landscape-still life-portrait or even gender-environment-identity. Instead, this exhibition tries to trace the ways in which art responds to its new audiences and markets; espouses or eschews identity politics; or tries to rise up within or rise above the market. While I outlined the themes and plotted the groupings of artworks at the start of the semester, students produced the catalogue texts and gallery notes. For many, it was a struggle to deal not just with ‘their’ artists, but with the challenges of writing about post-modern art itself when their training so far has prepared them to deal with pre-modern art. My own colleagues, Shukla Sawant and Naman Ahuja have been deeply and generously involved in the project despite their own heavy course-loads, offering time, insights, conversations and chai.
The exhibition made no attempt to conceal its curatorial patterns or voices. I may not always agree with the opinions expressed in the catalogue entries, and I might have written about certain works differently. But discussing works and developing texts with the students who took my course has been one of the most rewarding teaching experiences I have ever had. We all intended this to be a talkative, opinionated, and noisy exhibition.
1 The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 61, No. 19, 571-584. Oct. 15, 1964
2 Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art, Thames and Hudson, London and Princeton, 1987: pp. 13-17.
3 This has its historical stages. One might say that for the first half of the 20th it was the work of art that was deconstructed, and in the second half, the focus was on the social mediations that produce artistic value.’ See Jose-Luis Brea, ‘Online Communities: Experimental Communication in the Virtual Diaspora,’ in Gerardo Mosquera and Jean Fisher (eds) Over Here, New Museum of Contemporary Art and MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) and London, 2004: p. 194
4 Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Historical Genesis of Pure Aesthetic,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 46, 1987: pp. 201-210
5 Sheba Chhachhi, ‘The Self-Anthropologizing Subject: New Internationalism in Contemporary Indian/Asian Art’ unpublished talk; see also Etienne Balibar, and Immanuel Wallerstein, Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, Verso, London and New York, 1991, pp. 86-106.
6 Hans Belting, ‘Contemporary Art and the Museum in the Global Age,’ in Peter Weibel and Andrea Buddensieg (eds) Contemporary Art and the Museum in the Global Age, ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2007, pp. 16-38: p. 20
7 Gayatri Sinha, ‘On His Biotic Metal Train,’ Outlook India Magazine, March 17, 2008.
8 Monica Amor, ‘Whose World? A Note on the Paradoxes of Global Aesthetics,’ p.31 in ‘Liminalities: Discussions on the Global and the Local,’ Art Journal, Vol 57, no 4 (1998): pp. 29-32.
10 One notable exception is the controversy involving Surendran Nair’s painting An actor rehearsing the interior monologue of Icarus and the then-Director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in 2000. Nair’s painting, which was part of a group show being mounted at the National Gallery, depicted a winged figure preparing for flight from on top of an Asokan pillar topped with the lion-capital that is the Indian national symbol. The bureaucrat-Director of the Gallery had the work removed on the grounds of disrespect to a national symbol. All artists withdrew their work from the exhibition in an act of solidarity and launched an agitation. This eventually led to the removal of the Gallery’s Director.
11 Thomas McEvilley, Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millenium. McPherson, Kingston, N, 1997: pp. 15-17.