Acts of delicate balance
ALL societies seem to share an almost identical list of needs and desires, both material and immaterial. Yet how societies come to fulfil these needs or satisfy their desires is as diverse as the number of societies populating the globe. Obviously, an equilibrium of sorts is attempted by all societies, a balancing of man’s basic needs for physical survival, intellectual stimulation, escapist entertainment, and spiritual succour. The role of culture in this attempted equilibrium is anything but fixed and varies greatly between different societies. The relatively small arena of contemporary art and its concomitant institutions can fulfil a plethora of needs in some societies while being of relatively little use to others.
These observations have become stridently apparent to me in the past thirty years, divided as I have been almost equally between two different societies and intimately involved with contemporary art in both. For the entire decade of the 1980s, I lived in New York City, both running an art gallery there for six years and exhibiting my own works, which also led to an in-depth relationship with the contemporary art scene of Western Europe. From 1992 to the present, I have lived in India and for the past ten years running a gallery and organizing art exhibitions in the capital city of New Delhi. While there are many similarities between the artists I have worked with in both the United States and India (their socio-economic backgrounds, methods of working and manner of approaching art in general), the differences between the roles played by contemporary art in the respective societies often appear to be at polar extremes.
First, one must specify the arena within India that I am talking about. I have worked predominantly with artists from my own relative generation (now aged between 35 and 55), almost all with a Master’s Degree in Fine Arts from an Indian college and many with some postgraduate training abroad (most likely Paris or the UK). These artists are those often invited to participate in exhibitions of contemporary art being mounted outside of India, usually by non-Indian curators.
All of these artists are frequently exhibiting their works in India, but in most cases their works are more often being exhibited outside of India. In fact, some of these artists are criticized within India for pandering to foreign markets and tastes. While this group of artists can certainly be said to be among India’s ‘avant-garde’ (and, yes, the concept of an avant-garde still has relevance in developing countries if we define it as an art which stands apart from, and even in defiance of, established institutional and market parameters within its own country), they do not garner the official or public support which progressive and experimental art forms now receive within the western world’s culture industry.
This situation only emphasizes my earlier point of the inherent differences in the role contemporary art is asked to play in different societies. (Here one must note that the Indian art market is almost entirely fixated on painting and for that reason, of our included artists, the painters have for the most part been able to sell their works within India, whereas the non-painters have only very recently begun to find buyers, and this primarily for their smaller and more conventional works.)
In the major cities of the United States and Europe there exists a flourishing market for experimental art in its various forms (visual art but also music, dance, cinema, literature, fashion and architecture). By ‘market’ I would include museum exhibitions, concert halls, non-profit art institutions, publications and other forms of mass media, in addition to the arena of private galleries selling art to individual collectors. All of these components contribute to a thriving culture industry that increasingly accommodates experimental art and educates a growing audience and appetite for it.
One need only look at the recent attention paid to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or Rem Koolhas’s store for the fashion house Prada in New York to see the increasing appeal of the collusion between architecture and design, advanced theory and state-of-the-art technologies. This collusion has the marketing potential to excite all manner of products and the fine arts become just one more link within an ever-expanding culture industry (which easily accommodates the experimental and contemporary along with the traditional, classical, folk or tribal, alternative or ‘outsider’, even the degraded as in kitsch or the criminal as in ‘gangsta-rap’). Some would certainly bemoan this as the ultimate bankruptcy of ethics and morals by way of a post-modern polymorphous-ness, while others may celebrate the democratic appreciation of culture in its diverse forms.
A very different situation exists for contemporary art in India today and I think it would be superficial to attribute this solely to an underdeveloped economy or to a lack of guidance from institutions that promote the traditional or classical arts almost exclusively. This difference may revert to the needs of a society and what it desires from contemporary art.
India is, in many ways, a richer and more complex society than those of the West. I mean this in both conceptual and philosophical senses but also in terms of the material richness which one witnesses on a daily basis. I hope to avoid simplistic binaries that are often used to describe the two societies, the most common being religious vs. materialistic or spiritual vs. rational. But by simply walking down the street, by visiting bustling markets and houses of worship, one encounters constructions, assemblages and actions which, to western eyes completely unaccustomed to such things, resemble nothing other than a wide variety of experimental art forms produced in the West during the past fifty years.
In this way, India, again for a westerner, completely confounds any notion of the contemporary in that many of its most ancient and traditional forms and practices seem to be more radical than the most progressive of art forms found at home (meaning, again, the West). And herein may lie the crux of what each different society demands of its contemporary art.
In the western world, even the majority of religious practices have to an extent been ‘secularized’, in that they have been cleansed of esoteric rituals and mysticism and rendered benignly social (though one could certainly argue that with the advent of ‘New Age’ spiritualisms these qualities are being reinvested). The West’s institutions, cultural and corporate as well as governmental, pride themselves on rationality, transparency and efficiency. Hence, art (and particularly contemporary art but not exclusively) is called upon by the society to provide the uncanny, the exotic, the metaphysical, even the transcendental. The experimental art of the western world has risen to this challenge, continuing to provide the most outlandish, absurd, extravagant, convoluted, and grotesque images and experiences to be found within that society.
The situation in India is quite the reverse. While one is virtually accosted by a profusion of material complexity on the street, engulfed with sensual stimuli of varying sorts, or surprised by random sightings of unusual behaviour (no doubt reasons why western artists continue to be attracted to India), the experience of entering an art gallery is actually limiting and specifically about control. While life on the Indian street is seen to be ‘chaotic’, inside the gallery is necessarily thought to be ‘sane’.
Contemporary art in India is asked to provide a tangible connection with the art of the past, to display technical proficiency and thematic continuity. Often, it may seem that there are only two approved subjects for contemporary art in India – religion and the rural ideal – while all other subjects are taboo. While the western avant-garde tradition has institutionalized (and the market has championed) artistic patricide from one generation to the next, India’s contemporary art scene remains a deeply patriarchal structure, suspicious of radical gestures (the pejorative term ‘gimmick’ is often heard used) and contemptuous of forms that strive to deny pre-eminence to a market based entirely upon painting.
So where then does that leave the Indian artists who strive for a progressive and critically-engaged practice that might have an effect both at home and abroad? The present generation (those artists that I have been working with) have come of age artistically and professionally during a decade when India has opened up to a wide diversity of foreign products and media, resulting in vast amounts of information coming into the society and challenging its image of itself and its place in the world. At the same time, young artists in India now have access to much more information about what other artists are doing in other parts of the world and, due to a globalizing art system, are increasingly being invited to participate in exhibitions abroad. Conversely, a wider diversity of art and artists is being seen inside of India, most often sponsored by foreign institutions or government cultural bodies.
These artists have not run en masse to slavishly copy the prevailing style of western experimental art (as perhaps previous generations of Indian artists did with painterly styles). For the most part, they have looked at the globalization of the art world with a suspicious eye and each has chosen to walk a precarious tightrope rather than remain comfortable on more stable and familiar ground. These artists reject the notion that India is anti-podal to the West. They allow elements culled from traditional and popular cultures (both indigenous and imported) to be used in their works, effectively allowing the street, the temple and the world to come into the art gallery. Each of the artists consciously attempts to breach the chasm which has existed between western and Indian art in the past, to include references, materials, forms and subjects which have relevance to both contexts.
Simultaneously, the artists acknowledge that the conflict between India and the West (or the negotiation of their encounters) is not the only subject worth investigating. Many conflicts entirely specific to India provide inspiration for their works and are, it is hoped, of interest to the western world. These artistic vantage points have led to the creation of works which investigate clichés about India, both to itself and the world, to the updating of traditional themes so as to be pertinent to contemporary times, and to the examination of identities both Indian and international. It should not be surprising then that many of these artists are those invited again and again to exhibit internationally as theirs is an art designed to be seen by an audience comprised of a multiplicity of viewpoints and to be meaningful to each.
Yet globalization does have its faults and in respect to the art world, can come in for some due criticism. Several artists have mentioned to me, on different occasions, that they felt surprised that globalization has come to benefit them and their careers, though they have generally been adverse to dominant cultural modes of westernization and capitalism. Most often their works went almost unnoticed in India until being appreciated by foreign curators. Alongside is also the boon of travel which usually comes with such appreciation. Globalization as a strategy of multinational capitalism may be insidious and amoral but within the art world it has fortunately come on the heels of decades of sensitive and responsible dialogue involving multiculturalism. However, museums in the western world are very much a part of the culture industry and, even while technically ‘not-for-profit’, must still answer to the market factors of attendance figures, ticket sales and critical response.
In the case of contemporary art shows from non-western countries, this usually imposes the parameters of an orientation towards young artists and advanced forms of art practice. In other words, usually the types of contemporary art that resemble contemporary art being made (and popular) in western countries. Unfortunately, this can mean that senior artists are excluded from the start, artists may be predetermined so as to fit western pre-judices of what constitutes ‘advanced’ art, and a proper context for evaluating the art shown can never be adequately provided.
In the case of India, this can also serve to exclude other forms of contemporary artistic practice, such as the tribal, folk or functional, which can be just as relevant to the contemporary urban artists’ practice as are the works of their peers. Granted, no museum or single exhibition is big enough to do justice to the multiple facets of contemporary art from anywhere, but we should still seek to avoid curatorial prejudices that may limit rather than expand our parameters for the reception of art.
It may also be useful to examine the group exhibition that is packaged under the mantle of a single country and its function within a globalizing art market. Certainly, it is one of the most convenient structuring devices, but does it benefit the artists concerned to be categorized first and foremost by geography and nationality? Are the artists and their art being asked to represent in some way their country as a whole, its people, or its culture? This can be an even more problematic affair in the case of the mega-exhibitions hosted biannually or tri-annually in different corners of the globe, where a smorgasbord of artists from the world over are collected together, often with only one representing a country as large and diverse as India. My fear is that nation-themed group shows inhibit the audience from seeing the artists as individuals or, worse, present a delectable morsel of exoticism to an otherwise lackadaisical public.
For the most thoughtful Indian artists, the polarities of spiritual/ materialistic, rational/intuitive and even East/West are constructions of Modernism, things of the past and almost entirely irrelevant today. Their works are the visual equivalents of the literature of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy (among many other writers): works which speak of heterogeneity, complexity, hybridity and contradiction – attributes which have long been operative in Indian culture and society and the over-riding reasons for its vitality and fecundity. These attributes have been defined as ‘post-modern’ within the West but are not necessarily so in India.
To return to my original premise and the ambition for equilibrium that is shared by all societies, today we can posit the beginning of a single globalized society which is striving for its own equilibrium (and the lack thereof can certainly be blamed for the growing tide of right-wing ideologies throughout the world today, an unfortunate but predictable response to the forced accommodations of heterogeneity, complexity, hybridity and contradiction which globalization necessitates).
What then will the western world need from India and vice versa to attain this equilibrium and what of the other cultures of the world in our recipe? (To my mind there has been sorely little cultural interaction between India and the countries of Africa and South America in recent times, evidence perhaps of the dominant flow of capital, goods and information between the countries of the North and the South and not within the South.) If we are to judge from the artists working in India today, this globalized society can look towards India as the model for a successful synthesis of a diversity of influences into one amalgamated culture, one which values heterogeneity, complexity, hybridity and contradiction as hallmarks of a free, fair and whole society.