Anita Dube Archives

25 - 29th March, Faculty of Fine Arts Gallery

Artists: Jyothi Basu, Anita Dube, T. K. Hareendran, C. Pradeep, C.K. Rajan, M. Madhusudhan, Alex Mathew, Pushkin E.H., K.P. Krishnakumar, K. Reghunandhan, K.R. Karunakaran, Anoop B., D. Alexander, K. Prabhakaran

A dialectical situation arises in the cultural arena. A group of artists consciously reject the practices of the ‘mainstream’ and mobilize into a radical new-left collective to search for a pedagogy of art; an alternative ‘philosophy of praxis’. This critical act turns the compound questioning eye on everything, seizes the present moment, stands crude, naked and knife-sharp, and will not allow anyone to pass.

Antonio Gramsci in his ‘Prison Notebooks’ lucidly states our position - “creating a new culture does not only mean one’s own individual “original” discoveries. It also, and most particularly, means the diffusion in a critical form, of truths already discovered, their “socialization” as it were, and even making them the basis of vital action, an element of coordination and intellectual and moral order. For a mass of people to be led to think coherently and in the same coherent fashion about the real present world, is a “philosophical” event far more important and “original” than the discovery by some philosophical “genius” of a truth which remains the property of small groups of intellectuals.”

The philosophical question haunting history and consciousness of artists, more acutely in modern times with the global expansion of capitalism is, what is man? And, what can man become? In as much as man does not exist alone but consciously and intellectually interacts with other men, the natural world and the worlds of things to transform them, he is a political “species being” who creates history. History is therefore this process of becoming or humanization of man. In the swamp of class-society, the swamp filled darkness of repression, all ‘human substance’ is petrified. Yet through the swamp voices have risen; vital potential voices of ‘man’. In radical art, in radical thoughts, in radical philosophies, radical literature, radical scientific achievements, revolutionary struggles: pushing against the wall. A politics of resistance and discovery, a continuous human search for truth and knowledge to enlarge the world and its meaning, struggling for a classless freedom for every man - as a necessity, and the ultimate freedom from that for a realization of true humanism.

In art, taken as aesthetic strategy and intellectual and philosophical struggle (located absolutely in the material and philosophical conditions of the present, carrying a national and global consciousness of today, to change this), the search for a persona and voice and a search for an authentic history are interlinked. They demand an uncompromising consciousness of ‘nationhood’ through which an artist can speak to his people and at the same time stand in the world arena shoulder to shoulder with the community of universal human and artistic truths. The criteria and meaning of ‘nationhood’ has become significant under the pressures of Imperialism and Social-fascism, especially if we see this not in a causal relation to history or as a populist slogan, but as closely connected to the idea of the freedom of ‘man’ which can only be realised within the concept of a nation.

Indian Nationalism, for all its passion and sincerity has been unable to develop this philosophical and revolutionary potentiality contained within the idea of nationhood. It has remained fatally attached to the limited perspective of gaining independence and preserving it. The Congress leadership, submissive to what George Steiner calls “the imagined garden of liberal culture” originating in 19th century England, has failed to fully undertake the process of decolonization and radical independent modernization. In the tacit conviviality of private enterprise, government, national leadership, bureaucracy, educational institutions, cultural platforms, in the attitude of the bourgeoisie, the educated petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia, there emerges under the veneer of liberalism, secularism, nationalism, quasi-socialism and scholarly practise, the philosophy of the dominant majority, the Hindu philosophy, which has turned the state, its supporters and its slogans into fascist ones.

Today, Indian society is a complex class and caste society, hooked onto diabolic mechanism of world capitalism since the early 19th century; susceptible to its dominant logic in the political, economic and cultural arenas. It is therefore, I believe, a gross mistake and a view from across the line, to overlook this fact in any dialogue on Indian history, culture and art.

In the forty years of independence, our Art, reflects these very problems. Out of a colonized consciousness of fear, arises a concurrence of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie classes (from which the artists are drawn), with the democracy and its myth of progress and freedom, in which the role of an artist is marginalised and tolerated in the same fashion as the ‘opposition’, as a sulking pet dog. The artist learns to ‘perform’ as a juggler or a cynic the ‘labour of sisiphus’ [1]. He struggles defensively without fully comprehending the forces he is struggling against and therefore what he is struggling for. The questions that arise are therefore formal or pseudo questions, far away from the real issues.

During the National Movement, an authoritative nostalgia was widely generated in the arts, for the lost coherence of a centre that held, over and above the objectivities of historical fact and processes. Notwithstanding the perspicacious and sensitive scholarship of Indologists like E. B. Havell and Ananda Coomaraswamy and artists like Abanindranath Tagore, they created an overpowering mythical vision of Indian cultural history and art traditions from a feudal bourgeoisie point of view. In the process they rejected the most humanistic thoughts of the time arising out of the philosophy of dialectical materialism, but turned instead to idealist organic streams of thought which were incapable of understanding the world under capitalism as a totality. The artists associated with such scholarship, in the Bengal revivalist movement, dispersed strategically to all the prominent art schools in India, at Santiniketan, Lucknow, Delhi, Lahore and Madras to entrench this parochial vision on a national scale.

The afterlife of the same vision continues today in the philosophy of the ‘Living tradition’, which seems to be a fetishistic form of the earlier Nationalism. It contains an inability to live in one’s own time, and is also a strategy to survive in it. K. G. Subramanyan, searching for a ‘total’ holistic vision of art as against the ‘fragmented’ sensibility of the modern [2], locates his philosophy on the idea of an “electric plurality” within the traditional hierarchic interpenetrationofthe‘little’ and the ‘larger’ manifestations in art and culture. In an essay ‘Do we need an Art Movement’, he writes “If one walks through the state of Orissa, for instance, village to town, you can see a whole spectrum of these simple wall decorations of untrained tribal housewives, the work to the village potter, metal worker, muralist with greater skill inputs the works of various skilled craftsmen like the silversmith, whose filigree work is no less refined than a ‘Lippold’ and weavers whose geometricism and colour sense will do credit to any modern artist or designer, then the well-known temples with their astounding sculpture. You can see this in many parts of India. The ordered circuits of their activity as against the adventurous and self defeating cross circuiting of the modern scene I have described should certainly make us think and recall Coomaraswamy’s statement that while artists can be special kinds of men all men can be special kinds of artists (without each being a Michelangelo or a Cezanne). In fact some of the specialities of certain levels of these activities come from their simplicity or unambitiousness, even unconcern about being art”.

Today, in our situation, it is difficult to accept Subramanyan’s great nostalgia for the collective practises of proto-capitalist, moribund village and town economies. What is his idea of historical process? When he speaks of the potter, the weaver, the tribal woman as fixed in history, with no right to a choice of expression, all in the name of an “electrical plurality”, a grand hierarchic design which should not be disturbed, he speaks with a paternal false humanism of a feudal bourgeoisie. Obviously for him state capitalism and class society are eternal unchanging institutions [3]. Yet, capitalism having destroyed at the root a collective way of life, has destroyed the raison-de-etre of folk art. Therefore to speak of a living tradition in art and culture, outside the perspective of socialism is to parody, or make a pastiche of the same. This is increasingly evident in the cultural policies of today where folk art and culture are being preserved and marketed as precisely a parody, to satisfy the increasing historical appetite of the bourgeoisie.

Folk art can no longer economically sustain in any honourable fashion, the craftsmen involved in it. What then is the reason for its survival if not as a political act of resistance against the phenomena of ‘forgetting’ that capitalism entails. Organic historic memory is a preserve of the these pockets of culture, one which cannot be seen formally of appropriated or sold in a sophisticated urban context outside the organised vulgarization of history which has become a symptom of our times.

The other mainstream modern Indian Art carries an ambivalent relationship, one of admiration and rejection, to the whole revolutionary drama of ‘Modernism’ played out in Europe between the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. Fundamentally the resistance is located against the radical-intellectual strains within modernism especially its apotheosis of science, its contemporaneity, its knowledge of the world made available through research in anthropology and sociology. Its objective materialist engagement with reality, history, truth, utopia, its close connection to philosophy, literature and the other arts, its resistance to the freezing of the ‘human substance’ under capitalism, expressed in psychopathological escape, moral protest to attempts at objectively and scientifically interpreting reality as a totality, in its multifaceted dimensions, both individual and typical. Art under modernism became a measure of humanistic concern in the blood-stream of an artist engendering a clash with the old syntax of visual language, its untenable philosophic content, in the changing times.

The Indian artists, influenced by the sensibility of the older Victorian and post-Victorian bourgeoisie could not fully penetrate this materialist humanist tradition. For them its forms and ethos were “variously ugly, dissonant, obscure, scandalous, immoral, subversive and generally anti-social” [4]. And yet this same has perversely fascinated them. By appropriating modernisms attractive features as a ‘style’ and a method of avant-garde art practice, its original spirit was in fact ‘vulgarized’. Ironically they have usurped the anarchic classless freedom of the modern artist not as struggle, but simply as a corollary to their profession. This conveniently place them outside the problems of ‘real’ history, outside questions in class terms, somewhere between the workings of subjective consciousness and phenomenology. From such a position the imaginary, personal and historic events and characters are put in inverted commas as part of their commodification which can serve the artist as ‘referents’ to make all kinds of critical gestures, even gestures of anarchy and protest.

This is related in fact to the canonization or institutionalization of ‘modernism’, its reduction to a set of dead classics in Europe around the ‘50s’ when the Indian artists contacted it. The waning of its effect was giving rise to a whole new phenomena of post-modernism. This philosophy was the cultural logic of multinational capitalism, in which a new populist rhetoric was slowly taking over the older modernist, metaphysical concerns with truth and utopia. Ideologically it was celebrating a commodification of culture and demonstrating that the omnipresence of the class struggle which had haunted modernism was now in retreat.

When we examine broadly the features of the post-modern (after Fredric Jameson’s brilliant analysis of it in an essay ‘the cultural logic of capital’), we find that with the exception of a few artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and Binode Bihari Mukherjee, the majority of our artists have submitted in a lesser or greater degree to the overpowering logic of the same. What is this philosophy then, which is freezing the blood of artists all over the world. Frederic Jameson writes “… aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally; the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel seeming goods (from clothing to air planes), at even greater rats of turnover assigns an increasingly STRUCTURAL function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation. Such economic necessities then find recognition in the institutional support of all kinds available for the newer art, from foundations and grants to museums and other forms of patronage”. Post-modernism is therefore a triumph of capitalist aesthetics, one from which Indian artists without knowing it have been unable to escape.

In a literal sense post-modernism brings with it an obvious superficiality. It focuses on surface and features of the surface, smoothness, or textures and marks and multiple surfaces which is reminiscent of mechanical reproductions. Colour and principles ofconstructionareapotheosized and the art product begins to resemble a commodity. In the market with a new anti-human autonomy over ‘man’. All search for ‘real’ history is replaced by a pseudo historical depth. In the absence of the old artists nomadic ego which compelled him to struggle for a distinctive subject and a style as unique as his own physiognomy, ‘the producers of culture have nowhere to turn to but the past’ [5]. There emerges a “random cannibalization of all styles of the past, the play at random stylistic allusion”. [6] Here the past or history becomes a mere referent, concerned with ‘textuality’ and the ‘glossy qualities of the image’. All this is prompted by a growing “consumers appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself and for pseudo-events and ‘spectacles’ [7]. In post-modernism then, parody and pastiche, kitsch and ‘camp’ tastes rule. In the assembly line, in the marketing copy, in the museums and galleries, all art all philosophies are made to look alike, to complete. Glamour irons out all radical differences. In the myth of individual freedom, individual choice reigns supreme and opportunities appear endless.

The Narrative movement, in India, in recent years, taking character, from the British example and continuing a tradition of colonial patronage and approval; is the Indian version of an archaeology of historicism emerging from the post-modern.

Through the history of art, Narration has been a special method which places the `individual' in the 'historical' axis i.e. it dialectically confronts the `inside' outside' perception of reality of the artist through his protagonists, to face the special temper of his times. However, within the narrative mode also lies the danger of dramatic incidental storytelling, of creation of arbitrary situations and facts which deny the political and intend to surpass history. I believe, the great Narrative tradition whether Indian; from the Ajanta murals, to the sculptures at Sachi, Ellora and Mahabalipuram or European; from Piero della Francesca to Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment', to Bruegel to Courbet right upto Beckmann and Leger, does not fall into a populist rhetoric by compromising individuals and events and history of their times. The narrative paintings of today do not seem to escape from this very populist rhetoric, which I have mentioned earlier, is post-modernisms triumphant 'historicism' which can consume and in the process devalue almost anything, even the past.

The paintings of this 'Narrative' movement appear to stand in a critic’s court to argue their social and political consciousness, their scholarship and painterly virtuosity. The events and characters portrayed are subordinated to principles of structuring and surface design, and carry a causal relation to historical processes. With the use of multiple references what we have called ‘textuality', with the use of pseudo historical content, with the use of narration, with the use of a rhetorical tone, a myth is created which says that, that which is being portrayed is reality and the 'historical'. I fail to see how, without seriously examining the politics of visual language and subjects, (i.e.. their particular existence under bourgeoisie aesthetics) how it works, for whom and from whom, to attempt the 'historical' is to 'vulgarize' the same. Further, to pledge a preoccupation with the human figure and to be unable to draw and paint it freely and imaginatively, with a depth of observation and knowledge, certainly speaks for the shrinking sincerity and ability of artists, one that can never be justified with any theoretical argument.

Any art tradition, Indian or Western, offers a philosophy of understanding ‘man’ in his surroundings. Within each exists a definite method of observation, of study, of gathering knowledge, a developed linguistic system by which this can be expressed. In any case, whatever his or her choice, an artist’s skills must be sharp enough, his means viable enough, to penetrate the world around him in its material and philosophical truth.

Related to this whole new phenomena of art practise is a growing cultural leadership has acquired a determinist role in the arts. Pure-intellectualism indulges in polemical complexities and exercise in thought in a ramified atmosphere. As professionals and specialists they articulate their thoughts outside class-terms. Antonio Gramsci discussing the role of such scholars writes, “The Pure intellectuals as elaborators of the most developed ruling-class ideology were forced to take over at least some Marxist elements to revitalize their own ideas and to check the tendency towards excessive speculative philosophizing, with the historical realism of the new theory in order to provide new weapons for the social group to which they were allied” [8].

We do not want to see the relationship between intellectuals (artists as special kinds of intellectuals) and the masses in mechanistic terms. In a theoretical leadership of intellectuals of the faceless masses (outside any real contact) we see distinct fascist tendencies. The only alternative to these existing modes of art practise, appears to us in a collective organization of artists to recover lost pedagogic-didactic values of art. By organizing radical activities outside the dominant cultural itinerary we believe we may stand somewhere between mass consciousness and the pure intellectuals, directing in the process both towards a more meaningful and truthful engagement with reality.

In this brief critique of the post-modern and apotheosis of the spirit of high modernism, I do not in any way suggest a step back-wards. In fact features of the post-modern are definite cultural symptoms of our times on which we stand. Yet we cannot deny within it a loss of values. Ideologically the formation of our group is related to all these issues I have argued above.

Our group takes character on the decision of its members, not on anything else. In the crisis of our times, we believe that a philosophy of praxis other than one of an isolated artistic search is demanded of artists avoid the inevitable petrification of life and art under capitalist competition and the exercise of individual ambitions. Our commitment towards a political pedagogy in art, places a heavy responsibility on us. It is no easy decision. Only via a politicization of consciousness and a reaffirmation of true nationalism perhaps, we can return to our real past, understand history outside the will of the dominators with the knowledge of the most advanced global philosophies and science. As artists our real bathe lies in our work, against all forms of kitsch; national kitsch, international kitsch, political kitsch, social kitsch, social-fascist kitsch, feminist kitsch. The jargon of generalizations is overwhelming. Sameness, mundanity, banality make us nauseous. The battle, as much as it is outside, is within us.

In such a large group of artists sharingaparticularhistory, sensibility and vision, it is quite remarkable that there emerge distinct directions of individual enquiry. The old monadic ego is not dead. The search, and resistance of my friends, visible in their Art, will clarify I believe, what I have written.

A sleepless wind is raising a sleepless song in sleepless heads in sleepless nights.

Notes

[1] This phrase is used by Rosa Luxembourg to describe the trade union struggle which she considers a defensive struggle in which the proletariat seeks to achieve the best conditions possible but within the Capitalist System. The labour movement and parliamentary reform movements she feels occupy themselves only with one side i.e. the formal side of democracy without questioning its ‘real’ content.

[2] This is an unnecessary polarization since the modern with all its fragmentation is constantly preoccupied with the utopia of ‘total’ man. The fragmentation Subramanyan refers to is probably a symptom of the post-modern and its waning of values. But Subramanyan’s own works, his murals, his terracottas and his glass paintings for all their wit and cleaver references to the ‘little’ tradition paradoxically do not escape many aesthetic features of the post modern namely flatness, impenetrable surfaces, a turning to the past as a search for historicism etc. – which I will discuss a little later.

[3] According to Rosa Luxembourg – the necessity of determining the final goal of socialism provides the teleology by which it becomes possible to understand the present as a process of becoming. Without this teleology bourgeoisie society would have to be accepted as essentially eternal, and social analysis would be reduced to empirical inductive methods which are incapable of dealing with capitalism as a totality.

[4] Frederic Jameson: The Cultural logic of Capital; N.L.R. 146.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Antonio Gramsci. Marxism and Modern Culture: quoted in Marxism and Art. ed. Maynard Solomon, Harvester Press.
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