Somehow or the other we have been able to convince ourselves that art has a place in life being an important aspect of our cultural inheritance. We also seem to think that contemporary art must be appreciated because it is one of the embellishments of life which need to be admired, possessed and valued by the present-day society.
It is difficult to pinpoint what art is all about. It is equally difficult to talk about modern art. Which kind of art is better than which in a society where consumerism and production are most important factors for our relationship? Free flow of art expression and its evaluation is still more difficult. Evaluation takes place mostly on the basis of promotional efforts through the media and its impact on the interest of the public.
There are also a number of agencies such as various Art Akademies and institutions which have been busy sponsoring projects related to art, holding camps and seminars to create increasing awareness of art in the society. There are a number of private organisations and public undertakings which have also come into the picture and continue to support the efforts.
As it is, what is known by modern art or contemporary art is a very complex phenomenon. This is particularly true if one compares it with the art of the bygone human cultures and civilisations. Modern art has come to stay with us, to start with, as a rebellious movement of a small group of people. These were only tendencies of collective outcome reflected in the individual. They sustained their work as they projected their ideas and focussed the attention on a group activity. It was analytical and had a scientific background. There was hardly any audience for them. I am referring to the time when, during the last part of the 19th century, art movements had become increasingly evident in Europe.
We are concerned particularly with Modernity in art. Of course it is connected with the idea of what is termed “modern” generally. It means something progressive, something which was not done earlier. It is also in sharp contrast to traditional art which was not earlier. It is also in sharp contrast to traditional art which is considered drab and somewhat repetitive.
In other words, the concept of modernity as against traditionalism need not exist simultaneously. There is a difference between what is modern in life or industry and what is modern in art. Though there are some similarities between these two concepts, both of them are related to the process of responses and challenges thrown up by the development process. Modernity in life started long ago with industrialization and about the same time Modernity in art also began its journey. When it started, it was called impressionism, pointillism, etc. Now these words and ideas are outdated in Modern Art.
From the beginning of the 20th century till today the face of Modernity has changed many times. What was modern in 1910 was not modern enough in 1930. In 1950 the scene was again and transformed. Today Modernity is understood in a different context altogether. It is intensely individual and fashionable and based on personal choice or fancy.
Essentially, various modern art ideas first generated in Europe which continued its search for visual images and their implications on the human sensuality until 1950. However, from 1950 onwards, the scene of modern art and its movements shifted to America which now assumed leadership. Within a short span of 30 to 40 years, the American idea of Modernity has continued to pull and push in different directions. Various trends known as pop-art, op art, environmental art, Earth art, Anti-art, etc., have been practiced individually by many artists in American sub-continent. The trend has spread its roots in other parts of the world including India. Some of them essentially reflected self-assertive, faddist, tendencies in the individual. Some of them were fashionable outbursts of art movements. They were supported by high powered publicity and media coverage by various vested interests. However, this does not mean that there was no aesthetic value in such art.
By this time art as an expression had lost its relevance to one’s collective conscious and unconscious urges and aspirations. It was no more a part of any cultural heritage. I would like here to distinguish modernity from contemporaneity in art. What is understood as modern is similar to what is contemporary. But there is some difference. Contemporary is not time-space bound. What is Contemporary in any period is not necessarily modern. The term modern is used today specifically for our era emerging from industrialisation to technological culture. Contemporaneity is usually a context of relationship of society at any given period.
The most important thing that has happened in the outward character of modern art is the artist is left alone to perform in search of his own expression. Medium and technique can be acquired by a little practice. If the character of modern art has to be deeply rooted, a great deal of inward and outward struggle is involved. He is left alone as he has no readymade background of a culture and social support accepted by a community. He is caught more or less in the same process as any individual in any contemporary society. But he does not know where he belongs. He feels tormented inwardly and struggles outwardly. He has no sense of cultural affinity anywhere. There is an inner vacuum created by circumstances. He feels helpless, but constantly struggles to assert, impose and build his image.
Some of these aspects of contemporary man are closely linked with the character of modern art. Except for technique and medium his expression in art comes from within himself. Intense search and intense struggle in this process takes much longer time for maturity compared to the traditional art practiced by traditional artists.
There is a big gap between the common man and the artist. His work is not easily accepted by the society. Generally, modern art has no relationship with religion. Religion and Tradition, based on the ideas of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam etc., have nothing to do with modern art. Even if there are a few artists who work on traditional concepts, they have acquired a new meaning because of contemporary character. The aesthetics involved in modern art is transformed and frees itself from traditionalism. Art and its evaluation, its meaning and its real work is a complex phenomenon. Its value cannot be or need not be judged by gain and loss and the money paid for its purchase. It has value as much as the spectator understands or perceives its creative nuances. It lives for its own sake and the delight it offers enriches your life. This is true of modern art as well as the traditional arts of mankind.
I have touched a few points on the western situation. We have seen the close link between life and art briefly. Similar trendsarealsoseen in other forms of human expression such as literature, music, dance and drama particularly in advanced societies. All creation is a natural flow of energy. This energy is canalised through the cultural and religious conventions prevailing at any particular time.
However, in case of modern art, these conventions are non-existent. The artist is responsible individually to express and the search for such expression comes from his environment. This search gets transformed into a work of art by tuning his sense - perception. This is one of the reasons why the art of each artist is so different and usually one’s art has the stamp of one’s personality. This fact can be observed in the modern artist’s technique - in his handling of pigment or line and choice of the subject, the form and the colour application. For instance, a work of Picasso can be immediately recognised from a Chagall, or a work of Amrita Sher-Gil from a Husain. There are a few artists who work in the modern idiom -- artists who have a strong grip on the past heritage of mankind in visual arts. They not only have a perception but also a deep understanding of the quality of human expression. But few of them have utilised their essential sensibilities for transforming the time-space bound art expression into the modern art of today. Picasso stands supreme among them. When traditional art is no more a living reality with us, we have been searching for an art form relevant to our times. It is for the first time in human history that the artist has to struggle hard to express his feelings and discover his own kind of expression. It is also for the first time in the art history that the artist has no direct guidance or help from a master who can command him to do work in a certain way. Also, for the first time, he is freed from the pressure of religion.
With all that was happening to the human society inwardly and outwardly, circumstances forced him to struggle, work hard, feel tormented, frustrated, alienated from the mainstream of the socio-economic ethos of the contemporary society. A significant factor, the outcome of this development, is the new aesthetics emerging in modern art.
This aesthetics has a perceptive visual reality as understood by the artist and expressed through his sensibility. In this new aesthetics the artist is under the impact of different art forms of past cultures. It can also have the quality of assimilation of prehistoric or tribal art, folk art, or child art. Freedom to think, feel, perceive without prejudices and act in harmony with his or her own way is the characteristic of one engaged in modern art. The same situation is inescapable for the viewer also if he decides to look at a modern art work and appreciate it. Otherwise any modern art work would be a strange puzzle to him. It is one of the reasons why there is a big communication gap between the common man and the modern artist. Factors of the contemporary aesthetics are based on the language of form, space, colour and line and texture for its own sake. It has also a scientific base. One can take any one aspect of these visual sensations or combine them for strengthening one’s art expressions. It need not have any story-telling element at all. Similarly, the handling of the pigment or drawing of the line itself can be a satisfying art form.
The factors that govern modern art all over the world are the same or similar. In our situation, modernity has to be compressed in time between 1930 and 1960. It had an element of revivalism, to begin with. This was partly influenced by the nationalist upsurge from 1920. Though no national leader was directly involved in inspiring the reformist or the revivalist, the cry was, “go back to our roots”. There were many artists who painted the life in villages. It was a very superficial attempt to discover the heritage. However, a few of them picked up the vital folk traditions. Jamini Roy was one such example. He really touched the core of our cultural ethos. In fact, during the period between 1930 and 1950, there were many painters who tried to emulate the folk art traditions indifferent parts of India. Soon after Independence, our modernity began to show its face -- those among the moderns who had gone abstract or non-objective completely had nothing much to do with Indianness because of their inherent character of universality. However, those who had figurative or objective elements in their work had modernity geared to outward as well as inner expression. Today, serious artists are only a few, as is always the case. But a large number of artists, both non-objective and objective, are fakes and very poor imitators of the West. A modern artist should be assertive and win over the media for promotional purposes. If he does not do this, someone else has to do the job. There are a number of young and elderly artists amongst us who have to learn this job to make a success. This is part of the artist’s profession -- whether he is a competent or a mediocre painter. Of course, if one is talented, the task becomes easier. On the Indian scene, Husain, Souza and Gujral, and Swaminathan in a lesser degree, have effective exposure in the media. This aspect adds to the lustre of their artistic achievements which I admire.
The art scene in India today is more confusing than it confusing than it was thirty years ago. Many styles are practiced by the numerous artists - Figurative, nonfigurative, objective, non-objective, faddists, charlatans, etc. All of them have galleries to show them and patrons to buy their works.
Various aspects of American expressionism are peculiar to the American subcontinent. It is also known as abstract expressionism. Similarly, the popularity of Tantric art in India has its root in Indian consciousness. Indian artists have been struggling to discover inspiration from their inner recesses. This form of art was perhaps the outcome of collective subconscious of Indian culture. Expressionism in Europe and expressionism in America are also not the same, though there have been very strong movements of modern art both in Europe and America.
Let us take a little closer look at modernity - its concept, context and character. For discussion purposes it should be easier to link modernity and the character of art as one entity and concept and con-text as another. In modernity the character of the art form as practised today reveals maturity. When we discuss concept and context, the focus is on socio-economic aspects. Changes in circumstances have pressured the producer - consumer oriented society into a situation where the economic man has the final say. The context has acquired a new thrust with the result that new concepts and ideas - have been thrown into the active life of the people and artists in particular.
Some of these concepts are half-baked and short-lived. They function as long as the interest of the artist and the community needs themfortheirself-satisfaction or egocentric involvement. New concepts are born because the context is constantly changing and is changing very fast in the present day culture. There is great deal of uncertainty and instability about the art forms practised today. The same thing is true of life in general. It does not mean that they are not genuine or they don't have any human value. When they are practised by sensitive and perceptive individuals, they have a great significance for our culture and should find a place among the museums and art galleries. These temples of con-temporary society are where one goes to pay homage to great masters who have understood the inner core of the human condition.
Modern artists represent various trends which carry along with them the entire human culture, integrated into their sensibility and understanding. Though such examples are very rare, still they do exist. But there are more trends visible among the artists who convey their personal experience related to contemporary society and its condition. In higher spheres of expression in modern art both these types are equally important. But only in the case of those artists who have been able to transform the visual and material into the art form.
Art form is a collective conscious activity. There can be emphasis on the individual consciousness or the collective consciousness and in some cases both. Interaction with nature and emotional involvement between man and man are crystallised in all art forms. The same is also true of modern art.
Any culture, if it has to grow, must penetrate into the inner life of man. Large sectors of culture all over the world are concerned only with the development of outer man. Inner man is dwarfed by the explosion of technology. Man has automatically become somewhat blunt and insensitive. His reactions to events and experiences have become predictable and prosaic. This situation is not very helpful to the growth of creative values. It is absolutely necessary for an artist, modern or traditional, to discover the within of things with the help of externals. All matter is false unless it is in tune with the spirit. Modern art is a culture by itself sustained by sophisticated classes in an industrialised society. It exists only among a small group of people who are genuinely involved in creative thinking and activities. Demand for such culture is the thirst of the inner man uniting with the universal spirit supported by an affluent group or an enlightened government. It must be kept alive through media publicity and social action also. Museums and galleries in different parts of the world also have a vital role to play in this context.
Many a time it is no doubt highly individualistic, elitist, exhibitionist, self-promotional and even ego-centric. In modern art, generally, one must admit too much importance is given to success, competition and money. It is more often than not at the cost of creativity.
To sum up: Modern art is fashionable art for people who can afford it.
It is certainly not for the common man, nor is it people's art.
It is purely individual, motivated by contemporary sensibility.
It is neither folk, tribal nor religious.
It can be appreciated only by those people who are attuned to modern outlook on life.
Search for a synthesis of spirit and matter in all its purity and intensity is one of the important aspects of modern art.
It can also be appreciated by those who are in rapport with the artist's personal vision and sensitivity.
It can serve the general masses if it is displayed in museums and galleries helping them to come closer to the visual perception of contemporary ethos.
It can enlighten the public on the futility of the material aspect of life.
It will help them to realise and tune-in the spiritual awakening necessary to make life worthwhile.
It is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of human activity in the technocratic civilization of man. The nation can only help to create conditions where artists can live freely and engage in creative activity.
Evaluation of art is a delicate process which takes time to crystallise. Society has to make a special effort to keep pace with it. But it grows on one through constant exposure to it.
Published by Lalit Kala Akademi, March 1991