by Sukanya GargJun 26, 2020
“Art is for everyone, but everyone is not for art” – I cannot exactly recollect where I read this, but it resonates with me. Especially in the context of contemporary art forms, the burden or the excitement (as the case may be) to form the story and readings into the works is to be shared by the viewer as much as the maker. In my personal opinion a good work of art is one that leaves enough information and hints, like pointers to solve a puzzle. But, at the same time is not rigid to fully and conclusively define it. And then the aspect of making art accessible - to anyone who chooses to engage with it! While art galleries and many museums are open to all (and free), the elitist feel and high-brow attitude make them inaccessible by the uninitiated.
‘Gallery to artist ratio’ globally, and specifically in India is very poor. This means that there is a far greater number of artists and too few galleries to showcase and represent their works. There have been initiatives that have attempted to provide greater access for arts and also democratise it. The current pandemic crisis has potentially created opportunities to revisit the framework of viewing and selling art. Of course, the kneejerk action of endless and mostly uninspiring Zoominars (taken the liberty to borrow this term from a friend’s post) and live video conversations was one fallout of an attempt to remain ‘relevant’. There are three notable initiatives that have truly helped in supporting early to mid-career artists and art lovers alike.
Artchain is a platform that uses Instagram to showcase artwork images. It is not curated and this makes it truly accessible to all. Its co-founder, Ayesha Singh, is herself an established artist. In my catch-up conversation merely after two weeks of its launch, she was amazed at the speed at which the platform gained traction, leading to a safe inference of the crying need for young artists or those from tier two or three towns of the country. CarpeArte over the past three years has been involved in aggregating news about significant art shows. Its on-ground curated walks have been a noteworthy intervention. During the COVID-19 lockdown this not-for-profit setup selectively provides artworks of young artists for sale. A similar initiative has been made by Kala Sakshi Memorial Trust to support students of masters’ programmes across the country. Kavita Nayar, the founder of the trust, has been dedicated to the cause of supporting art students through their high calibre annual scholarship program and invitational workshops, which I have personally witnessed. They now rise to the need of providing support to students during the current crisis. And as I write this story, YoungArtSupport has taken birth! An initiative spearheaded by Al-qawi, along with Ekta Singha and Abhishek Verma – both of whom are practicing artists whose works I personally admire, aim to support young graduates through this project.
While there have been several discussions and discourses to attempt predicting how artworld may be impacted with the COVID-19 pandemic, STIR speaks to two members of the Indian art ecosystem on their views on various trends. Priya Paul is the Chairperson of Apeejay Surrendra Group, which operates The Park Hotels. A collector and design aficionado, Paul is a patron of art and a philanthropist. Minal Vazirani is the co-founder and President of Saffronart, the largest Indian auction house that has presence in the UK and US, besides India. Vazirani is an avid collector herself and has particular interest in modern and contemporary Indian art.
Concept over aesthetics and the craft of making art, a shift towards providing greater importance to underlying concept of works, than the skill to produce aesthetically pleasing work.
Paul feels that artists will continue to make technically sound work. “A creative professional reacts to the surrounding and contemporary events and that will continue to happen”. However, given the severity of the current situation and associated economic downturn causing a slowdown will elicit varied reactions. “So many people have been taking photographs of empty cities, a phenomenon that has never occurred at this scale before,” she adds. So, while there may be paucity of art material and studios that are inaccessible, she feels that artists will react to immediate environment and create works that express emotions and conceptual ideas. Some see beauty of nature reclaiming its space and others see despair of pain and suffering.
For Vazirani, idea and concept have always underpinned the creation of art but the rendering of those has changed as the contemporary Indian art movement established its own vocabulary. “If we look at the importance of underlying concepts in the work of modern artists, we get a glimpse into Souza’s self-effacing Heads that are rife with socio-economic/political critique, Raza’s philosophical and even architectural structure of the Bindu, or Gaitonde’s engagement with concepts of Zen,” she explains. In continuation, contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta, Jitish Kallat, or Shilpa Gupta explore themes of economic migration and globalisation versus individual identities, but the manifestation of their ideas is largely through installation-based art form. In both cases, however, the viewer is seeing an idea, a reality that the artist prompts – perhaps asking the viewer to pose a question, challenge their perception, re-appropriate a symbol.
History indicates that major catastrophes have led to the creation of some great art. As humanity continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, some deeply moving works are to be expected from artists.
Vazirani feels that pandemics, catastrophes, war and natural disasters have produced some incredible works of art and literature – documenting the seen and unseen, the said and unsaid and speaking for those who could not record their experiences and citing warnings for the generation that follows. “Crises have a way of seeping into every aspect of daily life with a sense of overwhelming urgency and even fear. Creative expression then becomes an outlet or a way to make sense of what is happening,” she says. Art becomes a way to cope with these changes and heal as a community; and records, often in the subversive, the emotion, the fear, the political ineptitude, the disaster that has erupted with lack of collaboration. This emerged in paintings by Egon Schiele, Edvard Munch after the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic and we see the similar powerful rawness of imagery from the 1943 Bengal famine Chittoprosad’s drawings and Somnath Hore’s sketches and sculptures of the Bengal famine. Vazirani adds, “We are beginning to see works by many artists directly engaging with the situation in their work and will continue to see artists put into a visible image or installation, the threat of the invisible COVID virus, which has ravaged lives as an unseen invader”.
Paul concurs with this thought. Such events have historically borne fruits and history repeats itself. “Intense hardships lead to intense creativity. We have witnessed this across all creative spheres – films, literature, to visual arts,” she says. Such environment pushes us to look inwards. The emotions are thought provoking and not that of exuberance. She sites examples – “…even in quarantine people are singing and dancing, making tik-tok videos, cooking, and painting walls. Creative intensity will find an outlet. Of course, some will scream and others will make”.
Fundamental alterations in viewing and buying art
Paul says that creative use of technology will lead to a movement of inclusiveness. According to her, “…seeing art will not be limited to visiting a museum or a gallery. Festivals will move online and that will allow everyone to see it”. To make the experience more realistic, technological interventions through Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) will help”. Imagine global audience for a small gallery say in a small city like Indore, or even vice-versa, someone sitting in Indore can see a show happening in New York. Likes of Google Culture have led the way with valuable archived content and more will now follow the suit. This by itself will have a major impact in reducing carbon footprint. Paul feels once the immediate pandemic crises subsides, physical spaces will reopen, but virtual and physical will co-exist. A more vibrant ecosystem will be the future.
Vazirani reminisces the early days of Saffronart. “When I started Saffronart, the overwhelming phrase I heard was, “you are crazy! Who will ever buy art online? Clearly, art online is here to stay, now more than ever”. With 99 per cent of internet traffic being images and video, there has never been a generation that is so inundated with ‘the picture’ and all that goes with it. With smart phones, tablets and unwired connectivity, images are the fuel we ingest and form our output as individuals so visual language has become even more important aspect of what drives us as a collective. “Greater virtual access to art and engagement, acquiring it has become simpler and allowing for a much wider demographic reach,” she adds. The natural next question is - ‘does accessing art virtually replace the need for physical viewing’? Vazirani says, “…in my lifetime, I would probably say no, it will not be a replacement, but rather, a means to learn more about the physical piece, the artist who created it, the concept, and the technique. Acquiring a work and engaging with it physically becomes the next step”. Moreover, when the work of art is not physical in the way that we know it, we could see them through the use of technology. “An example is Ian Cheng’s work where he created the object/creature called, ‘BOB (Bag of Beliefs)’, which is a form of AI that allows this creature to develop, move, have a ‘personality’ and ‘grow’ based on interactions with humans through a software. The experience can be as effective virtually as it can be physically”.
Hypothesis: Art will become more important given fewer avenues to spend money (e.g., vacations, social get togethers, movies/live performances) and home/personal spaces become increasingly important. Yay or Nay?
Paul negates this view. “When people continue to practice physical distancing, they will not be inclined to entertain guests. And therefore, to add personality to spaces through art will not be a priority”. Moreover, she feels there will be a backlash to the idea of ‘possession’ itself. Disposable income itself will be constrained. “Art comes in once everything else is in place,” she says. Some of it however may happen with the motivation to help artists.
In contrast, Vazirani feels that living with art is a privilege, where it is viewed or acquired, discussed or dissected, taught or learned from - this generation is fortunate to have the ability to access it at their fingertips in previously unimagined and unprecedented numbers. “The way we define art may change, our mode of consuming it may change, but I expect the need for it will be greater than ever going forward”.