Can a 'new' arts ecosystem replace a non-existent 'old' one?

A recent magazine cover went to great lengths to rehabilitate a star artist who was accused of sexual harassment, and herald a 'new' order.

by Rosalyn D'Mello Published on : Apr 09, 2020

Being in close proximity to the ‘art world’ in a digital era has compelled me to seek frequent recourse in a small yet impactful communicative aid while processing much of what passes as either criticism or coverage—the barf emoji. Especially in a post #MeToo world in which the hypocrisies have never been so glaringly obvious; where sexual harassers are not just enabled but also selectively rehabilitated by the industry on the basis of their net worth, and where those who have voiced an opinion against their own exploitation or that of others are punished through forms of ostracism. There has been no admission or conversation around the magnitude of toxicity that has been inherent especially to the Indian art world context, and how it differs from its counterparts within the subcontinent. Within South Asia, India has most certainly occupied a position of relative power and influence, and has had access to more resources than its immediate neighbours and boasts a more enviable arts infrastructure than say Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. The collapse of government-sponsored investment in the sector led to the rise of a class of collector-turned-funders. In a culture that has been historically segregated along caste and class lines, the emergence of a new strata of wealth and influence-wielding industrialists and patrons certainly did little to democratise the industry.

So, some weeks ago, when a close friend forwarded to me an image of the cover of what looked like the Indian edition of a well-known international tabloid, my impulse was to respond with the barf emoji. Few symbols connote ‘vomit’ as directly and succinctly. The green shade of puke spewing out of an infected smiley face aptly communicated my disgust with both the image spread over the front page and the accompanying headline. Incidentally, the few people I sent the image to responded in much the same way, either relying on the emoji to communicate the revulsion they felt in their gut, or by actually typing ‘vomit’ or by articulating how they suddenly felt physically sick.

The Universe in Details—V, from the Critical Membrane series.
Supported by Yinchuan Biennale 2016 and Exhibit 320, Sonia Mehra Chawla’s Critical Membrane series addresses the fragility of the mangrove ecologies of India’s Coromandel and Malabar coasts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala from the vantage point of intuiting their impending destruction in the face of urbanisation | New arts ecosystem | STIRworld
The Universe in Details—V, from the Critical Membrane series. Supported by Yinchuan Biennale 2016 and Exhibit 320, Sonia Mehra Chawla’s Critical Membrane series addresses the fragility of the mangrove ecologies of India’s Coromandel and Malabar coasts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala from the vantage point of intuiting their impending destruction in the face of urbanisation Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist

I wasn’t thrilled about being the person to introduce an emotional virus into their routine, but I didn’t want to be alone in my nausea. I wanted my feminist allies to also bear witness to what I had seen; a cover featuring a man who had responded to sexual harassment allegations by flashing the platform upon which they were made and the Indian legal system with clear intimations of his inflated economic worth. The case had recently been ‘settled’, much to the relief of his dealers and collectors for whom his works function more as assets than as art. But, for the Indian art world, ‘settled’ is synonymous with exoneration. The Indian art world’s poster boy for the rags-to-riches narrative it continues to want to endorse to sidestep its lack of inclusivity was now ‘free’ to make his presence felt unabashedly in public. And what better way to announce the enthusiastic rehabilitation by the market than by having him occupy space on the cover of a tabloid.

Except, he is not alone. Seated next to him, though at what could be interpreted as a ‘safe’ distance, is his ‘good wife’, an excellent artist who had been bold enough to conveniently uphold and evangelise the virtues of a feminist practice, until it no longer seemed in her best commercial and emotional interests to do so. Next to her are two figures who are clear-cut representatives of the Indian and global art market, and to the extreme right, another artist who has always enjoyed art world and market validation, but perhaps didn’t come from as low class a background as his peer standing next to him, and so, didn’t quite earn the kind of monikers used to translate someone from the Third World to a First World audience.

THE NEW ART ECOSYSTEM the cover announced, before listing the names of all the happy and smiling figures occupying centrestage. What did this mean, I wondered? When did the capitalist art market so wholly appropriate the word ‘ecosystem’ that it became removed from its actual definition. In theory, and even semantically speaking, an ecosystem is meant to connote a holistic network of healthy, sustainable, mutually nourishing relationships. It lies at the heart of the difference between a forest and a plantation. A forest is an ecosystem. The Indian art world never was. For decades after independence, there were many artists emerging from art schools, but a handful of galleries, and a slim picking of collectors. Most had no choice but to seek validation in the West to find any merit back home. Then the market ‘boomed’ in the early 2000s, and many people, including artists, who happened to be at the right place at the right time got loaded. The number of galleries in tier one and two cities multiplied, and art had stock market potential, and began to be targeted towards ‘investors’. International curators parachuted their way into a local context, inadvertently creating hierarchies of significance in a community that was not as fragmented. At no point did we evolve an ecosystem. We just fed the market until it crashed, then continued to nurse it back to health. So, how could we suddenly have, as this cover provocatively claimed, a ‘new’ ecosystem replacing one that never in fact existed?

The Universe in Details—I, From the Critical Membrane series by Sonia Mehra Chawla, that suggests an overlap between science and art | New arts ecosystem | STIRworld
The Universe in Details—I, From the Critical Membrane series by Sonia Mehra Chawla, that suggests an overlap between science and art Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist

Toxicity has been the more prevalent feature within most arts infrastructures. All over the world, artists seeking a modicum of financial success and critical validation are forced to be subservient to the commercial set-up of the market, until their net worth is finally on par with their collectors, affording them the liberty to now call the shots. We must never make the mistake of calling such a hierarchical structure an ecosystem. For, within a capitalist art market, even philanthropy is wrongly used to denote an altruism that doesn’t exist in reality. It is a framework within which most foundations are fronts for tax evasion, most collectors potential scammers, while many museums are funded by capitalistic networks with horrific human rights track records.

While one is aware that corruption is so endemic to our culture it seems silly to single out just one industry, what is chilling is the moral high ground that the art world continues to doggedly occupy in contemporary discourse; as if there were indeed something still noble about the whole enterprise. An ecosystem that has been invaded by hierarchies, that remains dictated by the vicissitudes of market-bound demand and supply curves, and that thrives on the continuing exploitation of various forms of intellectual and physical labour is not an ecosystem. It is a corporate, capitalist entity. The cover of this magazine is a celebration of the power of wealth, the social currency it can purchase, which can afford its big players unchecked immunity and impunity. Barf-worthy indeed.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this piece belong solely to the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of STR or its members. STIR is only a platform to facilitate these views.)

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About Author

Rosalyn D'Mello

Rosalyn D'Mello

D'Mello is an author, columnist, editor, researcher, art writer and critic. Since January 2016, she has been writing a weekly feminist column for mid-day, and, since mid-2016, a regular column for OPEN based on her visits to South Asian artists' studios, which she has been evolving into a forthcoming book for Oxford University Press, India, thanks to a research grant from the India Foundation for the Arts.

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