Dissolving the I: individual to institution to infrastructure


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FEW truly grasp the nature, role and reach of artistic creativity. The cliché that each human being is creative has today lost its relevance because of the failure of the individual to live a creative life, espousing the principles and values of creativity in daily activity. This in turn has led to a negligible and marginal ideological role for the arts and culture in India’s socio-eco-political developmental framework. As a result the reach of the arts has depended on the transformation of arts into entertainment, and the ‘marketing’ success thereafter, or a long-standing dependence on the crutch of patronage for public survival and sharing.

Tackling this scenario has been the focus of my work since returning home during the mid-1990s. The key concern has been how one creates and sustains the energy for respecting the values of creativity with a financial independence underlying the transformation while not compromising the integrity of the creative processes. This in turn demands creating a material institutional underbelly which is built upon the creative process, structured as financially self-generating and, more important, capable of generating this self-sufficiency from within the creative arts context and on terms which best represent creativity. This implies the restructuring or dissolution of patronage – governmental, corporate or philanthropic – as the main pillars upon which the arts move forward, alongside building knowledge-bases with a new passion and ability to publicly disseminate such ideas.

This process has acquired critical dimensions given the need to tackle the nature of materialism itself. Today, the abuse by the economic value system, given its overriding influence and reach in all facets of daily life, as well as the abuse by the religious value-systems of their spiritual core, has occurred chiefly because the arts and culture have failed to build a genuinely creative value system which can tackle and nurture the material responsibilities of its idealism. As a result there is no effective material counter and discipline to the great economic and religious frameworks. Consequently, the nature of our daily materialism has become restrictive with regard to the fearlessness and joy that a human mind demands to grow. Thus the nature of knowledge and its learning processes has been belittled, and hence the role and reach of the creative and academic intelligentsia marginalized.

Naturally, changing this decaying scenario requires at least a thirty year sustained battle, which incorporates new weapons and allies to support and nurture the arts and culture, stage by stage, with a vision that clearly grasps the nature of the art object and its ability to transform the spectator-participant, the I, as well as the environment in which it needs to be placed so as to be free to be itself.


In this context the art object needs to be re-examined more deeply. It should be seen as having four key interlocked and sequential dimensions – the aesthetic, the historical, the financial and the developmental – within a legal context. If the aesthetic and historical dimensions – the core of art and its creativity – are not genuinely credible, or not understood and respected by the market system, art will have little financial credibility. Without financial credibility the chances of internal self-sufficiency are minimal. Only when the aesthetic-historical-financial sequential linkage is embedded into the psyche of the people will the concept of ‘art as investment’ hold meaning, become a credible asset and thereafter get the chance to act as a factor of production. Only then can the developmental dimension emerge in a sustainable manner.

It also needs to be understood that the financial dimension emerges as a by-product of the aesthetic and historical knowledge-base being shared effectively with the public. Thus wealth is only a by-product in the process of arts and cultural infrastructure-building. The moment the focus is off this hierarchy, the financial credibility falls apart. Hence, the risk of leaving ‘art as investment’ in the hands of only the financially-minded is real and dangerous. This risk heightens given few can visualize and implement the developmental dimension. The risk is further accentuated by the legal ambiguity in which the art object is contextualized, especially in the Indian situation.


It is the legal ambiguity which has destroyed the domestic antiquities market, leading to rampant distortions and a black economy facilitating years of smuggling. That a mediocre work by a hyped contemporary artist can be valued at three times the price of a fine Indian miniature from Kishangarh, is just one example of legal ambiguity destroying value and credibility. That over 175 galleries trade in modern and contemporary art, but barely one in Chola bronzes, further typifies the importance of a fair and transparent legal context.

Despite these problems, India today stands at a unique threshold where art is emerging as a genuine capital asset, with the financial institutions ready to trust it as collateral and the public ready to open their minds to a re-examination of old preconceptions regarding the functionality and significance of an artistic and cultural heritage. The western experience only holds a few clues, though it is not the ideal path, for it too has failed to place the arts and culture at the heart of a developmental framework, where the value system of creativity disciplines and counters the economic and religious values while maintaining the joy and passion for daily life.


Along this process of culture staking its claim, the ironic focus on the financial dimension runs the risk of overwhelming the love, respect and joy of the aesthetic and historical, unless the knowledge-bases and infrastructure which support this awareness grow as rapidly and deeply as the economic interest. Naturally, that is very difficult given the different energies and foci required, let alone the fact that few care or truly love the process of nurturing the arts and culture for others. Few have dedicated their time and life to building its infrastructure, though during the first years of independence many creative minds became teachers and administrators so as to help a new nation build a material institutional platform for the arts, culture and its education. Thus it is imperative to change the nature of public involvement, as well as remind the intelligentsia and creative communities of their duty towards this task. The creative minds now need to take new material responsibility for re-implementing creative idealism in India.

For the last decade I have been focused on this dilemma – how to transform the arts and culture into the pivotal sector upon which the developmental framework of India rests and moves forward. During these early phases, fundamental change has been engineered, but the required build-up of momentum (given the scale and inertia of India), and the interlinking of the art object into all facets of a socio-eco-political psyche still remains nascent, as does the economic empowerment of all creative minds. Yet I am convinced that change is now inevitable, the curiosity created irreversible, and that once the love and respect for ‘art the asset’ emerges, the transformation into ‘art as knowledge’ will be even faster and deeper, so returning to that love for creativity, catalyzed by the economic function.


That India has more artisans and artists than any other country should further persuade most in power that herein lies the key to unlocking talent, generating self-esteem, material independence, as well as preserving and nurturing the world’s greatest living artistic and cultural heritage, which today lies buried underground, serving no one but rats and smugglers.

There is little point in saying that this is all criminal, that our heritage lies rotting before our eyes, vastly under-utilized, unable to play a pivotal role in making the public wiser, richer and more aesthetically sensitized to the world. The key is to change the framework systematically, carrying the public along the way, building new bridges and platforms to rejuvenate this public involvement, while at the same time creating wealth on a scale which truly makes us believe that issues such as poverty and inequality can be dissolved by rejuvenating the arts and culture.

However, for any of this long-term unlocking and galvanizing of resources to become viable, many smaller steps need to be taken upon certain guidelines and principles. Naturally, to dissolve away patronage requires an internal cross-subsidizing institutional framework which nurtures one cultural discipline so as to eventually support another, taking it to a maturity whereby it can financially fend for itself more easily. This is the same as the institution-builder becoming a philanthropist but with a clearer infrastructure-building vision which recognizes that platforms need to be built which can simultaneously create knowledge, energize and inspire love for the knowledge as also pay for itself and for activities unable to pay for themselves, or which should never pay for themselves. It is about creating a value system which deeply respects and loves experimentation, a fearlessness of the mind, an ability to absorb contradictions, a deep-seated compassion for all ideas and humanity, accepting each corner of the world to be within oneself and that knowledge is to be shared with joy and a sense of self-discovery, a joyous self-criticism and a duty to build for others, where selflessness inevitably emerges from the deepest selfishness because the latter was given the freedom to be itself with love and honesty. This is the material power in the creative system which actually allows the economic system to continue with whatever grace it still possesses.


At Osian’s we truly treat creating wealth as the by-product, retaining focus on building great knowledge-bases whatever the cost. We also believe that sooner or later the wealth will emerge if from inception we accept the responsibility to communicate the idealism.

The key is not to tailor the idealism so that it communicates; that is marketing. This is the compromise all creativity faces today – creating in anticipation of market reactions. The art lies in creating new structures by which the most complicated message, which is idealism, can be communicated on its own terms.

Today, the film industry is probably most guilty of tailoring the idealism to communicate, which is why one of the world’s greatest knowledge bases and art forms has been reduced to mass entertainment for the lowest common denominator, and that too by default with very little financial success to justify its position. Once the cinematic sensibility and culture can be transformed into one which sees film-making as first and foremost a great art form (and only thereafter great entertainment) which must tackle at its root a deep financial obligation and public communication, we have the next major paradigm shift in the cultural infrastructure-building journey.


Once the art and film world start to systematically interact with a deeper commitment to the underlying creative values, we have the basis of uniting many art forms – from photography to fashion, literature to theatre, dance to music – all serving each other, not just intellectually but also financially, for therein lies the future for building the arts infrastructure. Grasping the innate cross-subsidizing aspects within the cultural lexicon so that one creative discipline supports the other, to become itself, to not compromise upon its nature, leading it towards a maturity where it is not forced to financially pay its bills prematurely, and so collapse.

Hence the time and space is provided to the creative form to develop its knowledge-base, share it with the public, make the public love and respect the subject on its own terms, and then slowly to visualize what structure emerges which is capable of moving towards financial self-sufficiency, from which greater wealth will naturally emerge, as the public will sooner or later respect the art form. Hence one art form pays for another art form to be given the freedom to develop, and therein carry the third, and so on.

These processes are at the root of Osian’s vision, where the auction house, barely successful in the first years, still subsidized the early archive and film house development until prices of art reached a level such that the archive could grow exponentially and build itself into a significant collection whereby the basis of a museum was established, hence sculpting out a unique living space, i.e., The Osianama (the integrated museum-arts and film centre-archive-cinema space which is being built at Minerva).


At the same time the Osian’s-Cinefan, Asian Film Festival, was also being nurtured and sustained by the Auction House until it became a dominant platform to influence cinematic sensibilities, so ushering in a new audience who sooner or later will make it viable to show and create a different kind of ‘artistic’ world cinema. This has helped open out many new outlets of dialogue, debate and education vis-a-viz all aspects of film-making, hopefully opening out a thousand new economic options for that and other disciplines. Naturally, this is not easy, and apart from vision, knowledge and stamina, the love of many people is required to be carried and nurtured, while wealth continues to be created for the public.

In the process of conceptualizing the intellectual interlinkages and the sequence which needs to unfold, the platforms for creating wealth also need to emerge, one from within the other. The organic growth of Osian’s Art Fund from the Auction House was visualized from inception, nearly seven years ago, and yet only at a certain point in time, at a certain maturity of the market and public perception, did a fund become viable, as will the mutual fund industry for cultural artifacts, say three to four years from now.

However, for a financial institution to truly create wealth from art, in an ongoing and significant manner, is very difficult. The financial institutions cannot respect aesthetic and historical factors above financial factors. As a result, they can rarely do justice to the art object because they fail to respect the logic of the subject, thus allowing non-aesthetic and non-art historical factors to override decision-making when art is bought and sold.

The Osian’s Art Fund will hopefully show the way by which art can fulfil its investment potential, creating significant and sustainable wealth for the public. Over the next few years the atmosphere and framework for a mutual fund industry for cultural artifacts will emerge if the process is sustained with integrity. However, it is our firm belief that great wealth can only be generated from art if the knowledge-bases which underlie the subject are respected beyond all else, and financial gain is seen as a by-product of this process. Naturally, no financial institution will take such a stance, and thus obviously for many, art is still not a good investment.


Yet, if the knowledge-base is open to continual debate, and new mutually respectful collaborations are made possible between the art and financial world, India stands at a unique juncture where, unlike the West, she can place the arts and culture at the heart of her developmental framework. Transforming art into an investment is part of this larger vision. Given the nascent stage of development in the art market, the rates of return can be relatively high, capable of generating enough surpluses to allow a mass of public to partake in the process.

Indian contemporary art is but the tip of the artistic iceberg, as most of our movable heritage is still buried in the world’s largest black economy. Once we can destroy and transform this suppressed market into a publicly accountable and knowledgeable framework, we have the basis of bringing into play India’s greatest resource and asset base. As the arts begin to work towards eradicating poverty and inequality, we potentially hold the seeds of a new developmental model, one that India has been searching for decades.


The key to understanding this transformation is the fact that all individuals have creativity within them, and if the chance for material self-reliance comes in sustaining your creativity, the basis for a more egalitarian system is in the making. However, before this becomes viable, the arts must generate their own wealth on their own terms, building their own infrastructure, entrenching the art object into the socio-eco-political fabric of daily activity, free of patronage, using every platform, from auction houses to art funds, from film festivals to museums, from publications to archives, so as to take forward such a journey. For art is knowledge, knowledge is wealth, and creativity is philosophy in action.

It is now time to take material responsibility for this creative idealism. Hypocritical preconceptions regarding the relationship between generating wealth and the idealism of creating knowledge must die. For the intelligentsia, the generation of wealth must simultaneously entail the redistribution of that wealth, from inception, for only that will truly help mitigate the ‘corrupting’ influence of pursuing wealth. It is a difficult but necessary burden to bear, for at the end of the day the creative individual who decides to build infrastructure using the private sector, must fulfil a public sector responsibility. Only then is the transformation likely to succeed in replacing patronage with a collective self-sufficiency while bringing the uncompromising joy and passion of institutionalizing individuality.