Reverse Swing: The crisis of art criticism in Indian media
Media needs to play the crucial role of explaining the consequences of ‘locating’ the artist within a larger landscape, thereby opening a window into contemporary Indian society.
Increasingly, it seems like art criticism in mainstream media is faced with a crisis. Of course, one wouldn’t want to generalise this because, once in a way, some good and serious art writing does wiggle its way in. But one can unhesitatingly propose that artists, art galleries, museums, auctions, art fairs, biennales, seminars, academic spaces, etc, that constitute the approximately Rs.2,000 to 3,000 crore art market in India, is grossly under-represented in mainstream media, to the point of invisibility.
The mainstream media does not seem to be able to rise above banalities even in the case of significantly important events or exhibitions that come along periodically, leading to a strange intellectual and conceptual vacuum that can have drastic consequences. A society unable to vocally evaluate, analyse and critique its own cultural output is in danger of being swamped by cultural amnesia and become susceptible to dangerous distortions in meaning-making. It leads to a devaluation of democracy.
Let me reflect a little more deeply on this based on my own experience. Last year, I happened to curate comprehensive retrospectives of two major senior artists based in Bengaluru. Both exhibitions were on invitation from the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Bengaluru. Balan Nambiar is one of our foremost sculptors in stainless steel and the rather difficult art of enamel painting on copper and silver. The retrospective coincided with his 80th birthday and was dramatic in scale, with over 250 exhibits from five decades of his work on display. The other retrospective was equally majestic, of S.G. Vasudev (77), which showcased over 400 of his oil paintings, drawings in ink, tapestries in silk and inlay in copper, done over five decades. Of course, this retrospective was later shown at three galleries in Chennai early this year and is currently on (till August 11) at the NGMA, Mumbai.
Retrospectives, at such venues, are offered mostly to critically acclaimed or senior artists whose work is largely known. Twenty years ago, the 1998/'99 retrospective, in NGMA, Delhi and Mumbai, of five decades of the journey of painter, designer, ceramist, photographer Dashrath Patel was, maybe, the only one of an important artist who had largely stayed in the shadows. Incidentally, I had curated that exhibition too and it was, perhaps, among the first retrospectives by the NGMA.
The curated retrospective, therefore, of any artist who has consistently been at work for over five decades, is no longer about the artist per se. It also becomes the narrative of a nation, a region, a school, a style. The retrospective and the reflection around it, then, becomes the occasion for an archaeological exploration into the multiple layers of social, historical and aesthetic accumulation that reveal themselves, as clearly as strata in stone. An unravelling of the narrative can yield rich returns in terms of social/political insights.
However, it was disheartening to see, in the context of both the recent retrospectives, a cumulative inability of the mainstream media to really grapple with the material. The half-a-dozen pieces on Balan Nambiar’s exhibition in Bengaluru and the few more on Vasudev’s retrospective in three cities, more or less stuck to an easy biographical narrative, a few quotations from the artist and other colleague artists, a few sentences from the curatorial note and a few photographs. It was almost like encountering a pervasive visual illiteracy.
A curated retrospective, is a moment for figuring out what the exhibition is trying to say, rather than give a biography of the artist. No journalist chose to reflect on the exhibitions per se and how they were presented. Mainstream dailies or periodicals did not think it important to commission a serious art historian/critic to ‘read’ these exhibitions for what they were or could have been.
Both artists are products of the College of Arts and Crafts, Madras. The pedagogy in the college was distinguished by two factors – a preoccupation and ease with the line and a distinctly open approach to craft. The 1960s, when both the artists studied there, was also a time when a kind of critical indigenism was being experimented with as a counter and critique over easily valorised Western influences.
As leading contemporary modernists of post-Independence India, both Balan Nambiar and S.G. Vasudev’s work takes us into the thick of the debates and turmoil in the sixties within their college – a pioneering centre for arts education that has received the least critical attention from our art historians. The products of the Madras art movement have, thus, remained confined to the margins of the narrative around mainstream Indian art. This is an injustice that Indian art history needs to remedy – with help from mainstream media.
Vasudev’s work, for example, reveals the creative churn among the students and teachers at the Madras Arts College in the mid-sixties. The reputation of the school attracted students from all regions of the sub-continent – Bengal, Gujarat, Bombay, Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala and, of course, Tamil Nadu itself. It helped generate its own form of inter-culturalism. And an eclectic art practice grounded solidly in the play with line and surface, significantly absorbed and integrated from prevailing practices of traditional artisans and of ordinary people on the street. It brings us to the centre of the preoccupation with evolving a local, native vocabulary that was, in itself, a critique of Western canons of spatialization and depth. It led to Vasudev and a group of young graduates of the college, inspired by their teacher/mentor K.C.S. Paniker, breaking away from the then urban conventions of modern art practice and move to the outskirts of Madras to create the Cholamandal artists village. In the mid-sixties, this was a radical move.
In a strange way, the writers who wrote about the two exhibitions seemed totally unaware about the idea of ‘exhibition design’ which is what consolidates the entire exhibition into one challenging visual. The Balan Nambiar retrospective was jointly designed by leading artist Rm. Palaniappan and me. We sought to converse with the inherent ritualism in Balan’s work with a more secular spatialization of exhibits that would be more inclusive than exclusive. We deliberately evoked the aura of a ‘sacred’ space with his large sculptures inspired by tantric motifs, even as we quickly dissolved its mystical seduction by juxtaposing them with technical drawings and detail.
In the case of Vasudev, it was Miti Desai who handled 'exhibition design' at the venues in all three cities. A designer and dancer, she re-invented space by swiftly transforming the very look of the galleries with additional super-graphics, wall transfers, colour coding, audio-visual enhancements, unifying all visual elements and highlighting and repeating specific important elements of the curatorial content. It set the exhibition as a jewel amidst, otherwise, not too friendly architectural venues. The ongoing exhibition in Mumbai is a remarkable example of how modern, avant garde design can enhance an artist’s work. And what stands out then, is the curatorial intent, which re-presents the artist in a completely different perspective. As many visiting artists told me, 'this is not the Vasudev we know'.
That is the task of the curator – to encourage viewers to look at the artist as if s/he were a new-born baby and re-discover her/him. And the job of someone from the media who covers such a retrospective, then, is to prise out this 'other narrative' of the exhibition and reflect around it; critique the curatorial intent; analyse and de-structure the design and engage with this larger journey.
But there seems to be an absence of skills in this department among our 'critics', who fill columns with obvious banalities about the artist. What they need to articulate is how and why various aspects of the artist have been put together in the exhibition and where that discourse is leading to. What they have to help unpack is the conversation between structure, material, themes, periods. They have to play the crucial role of explaining the consequences of ‘locating’ the artist within a larger landscape, thereby opening a window into contemporary Indian society.
When will the mainstream Indian media be up to this challenge?