Art Criticism

I want to speak briefly about issues of critical writing and criticality in India, my reference points will be to some foundational developments and my own position as a critic-curator. I will also dwell a little more on the recent period.

The Agency of Crisis

The critic in India is heralded along different paths. Other than the media critic there is the artist-critic, who also doubles up as ideologue, or theoretician, the critic-curator, as well as the critic-biographer who has become the prolific writer of the artist monograph. The critic-curator and the critic-biographer are a contemporary phenomenon. Yet despite the proliferating types of critic and critical writing, there is universal agreement that art criticism is in a state of crisis.

It is ironic but no accident that this national seminar comes in the wake of the cultural tourism and the massive opportunities for art criticism that surrounds the mad proliferation of art fairs and biennales in a globalized world. We are in the throes of an art world food chain that moves from artist to independent curator to dealer/gallerist to critic to museum curator to art historian. In this cascade of opportunity, perhaps the language of art criticism has not been prepared for the problem of pleasure, or the problem of excess.

Art criticism of various kinds has been identified but it moves from two extremes - of art journalism to academics and, very often, they are pitted against each other. The academic critic dismisses art journalism as a vested interest of commerce; media structures after all are owned by private business interests.

The argument against academic criticism is that it is obscure. In Critical Mess, ed Raphael Rubinstein, Michael Duncan states: “Academic theory can be held largely responsible for the impotency of contemporary criticism”. The essential question is, whom does the art critic serve? We may expand Duncan’s statement to look at the locus of art criticism today. The practice as we know it traces its roots to what Habermas describes as the “literary public sphere”, one that defined public opinion. Today the art critic’s space competes in a shared field with theory, art history, aesthetics and opinion formation through curatorial writing. Recent writing in the west unequivocally suggests that as a modern practice, art criticism has not graduated to the authority of a discipline. I refer here to the two round tables organized by James Elkins and Michael Neuman with leading western world art critics and the ensuing publication titled The State of Art Criticism (2007). The overarching argument in the volume is that art critics have recanted from their own practice since they do not judge the art work but only describe it. At the same time art writing is flourishing through publications like catalogues - soft and flabby, without teeth and outside culture debates. By saying that “Art criticism is diaphanous; it is like a veil, floating in the breeze of cultural conversations and never quite settling anywhere”, Elkins suggests that art criticism does not in fact have a location.

Art Criticism: The case of India

I would like to briefly examine the case of India. Historically the artist-critic has tended to flourish and compete with the media critic. Whereas the media critic traditionally had a location in a mass publication, the artist critic would write to determine or challenge the course of art history, to establish difference. The singular artist who set up an engagement with art as critical and artistic enterprise was Abanindranath Tagore though Rabindranath is a parallel example.

Abanindranath Tagore’s association with the Bichitra Club and the Indian Society of Oriental Art created space for debate and engagement, and the setting up of a language of criticism. Art writing was intrinsic to his practice as well as a necessary aspect of pedagogy. In his essays on art, Abanindranath set up a dialogic exchange with art history but also with his own practice, and this is a model that we see replicated later by KG Subramanyan. The Abanindranath case is somewhat spectacular because of the penumbra of writers, critics and artists that surrounded him, each of whom espoused the Abanindranath model. The avowed intent in the Abanindranath commemorative volume published by the ISOA was to establish him “as an artist and an art critic”. In the publication produced 10 years after his death, among the other essays, we read Pramathanath Bishi’s analysis of his literary genius, and Abanindranath’s own essay on Shadanga or the six limbs of painting. There is his student Benode Bihari’s essay that heralds the role of Abanindranath as a nationalist artist critic within the context of the regional, hinting hereby at the tension between the authentic indigenist critic and the western metropolitan or media critic. BB Mukherjee takes on the English language press critic and writes: “Among the newly educated society everywhere there prevailed in art criticism sarcasm in place of argument and fascination in place of aesthetic judgement. To them the verdict of an Englishman used to be the last word in matters of art”. It is important to see here Benode Behari’s equation of art criticism with the cultural aggrandizement of the English language press. He then quotes Havell and Coomaraswamy to argue that Abanindranath and his pupils represent “a phase of national awakening”, and he concludes: “It is the influence of Abanindranath that has made us modern. And now that we have become modern we turn to understand the classical Indian art”.

My intention in mapping this brief history is two fold: to illustrate the model for the artist as critic/ideologue, and then map the movement into the present day when it manifests as the relationship between the local-global. The artist-critic has flourished where there is a school, or a shared ideal, or what for the most of the 20th century, was the artist group, the precursor of the artist’s collective. Artist-ideologues who occupy the critical space after Abanindranath Tagore, are KCS Panikker who simultaneous with his paintings series Words and Images initiated an entire aesthetic of abstraction in the Madras College of Art post-1966; KG Subramanyan who with Moving Finger and other writings interjects as critic at the site of pedagogy, in this case M S University and Santiniketan. KG plays his own doppelganger with the fictitious Mu Chi, a sort of post-Okakura interlocutor. His freewheeling somewhat self deprecating dialogue with Mu Chi also brings the whole East Asian influence on early 20th century art - as argued by Okakura, Rabindranath and Abanindranath - into full circle. Among the most influential of the artist as critic are J Swaminathan in his publication Contra; his writings in Link wherein he directly confronts the academic realism of Ravi Varma, what he calls the sentimentalism of the Bengal schoolandtheimitativenessof India’s abstract expressionists. Swaminathan’s view of the newspaper critic was dismissive, even as he assumed the mantel for himself. In Contra, he described art critics as “these peripheral pen-pushers of the newspaper world who bring the attitudes of a flunkey to art appreciation”. Gulam Sheikh, and Bhupen Khakhar, who edited Vrishchik in Gujarati, and Jogen Choudhury’s writing in Bengali are other examples of the influence that the artist as critical writer has wielded. The artist-critic has also come to occupy a moral high ground, especially where art aspires to the goals of nationalism, beauty, aesthetic value, and the over-determined category of ‘Indianness’. This high ground shifts to that of protest with Vivan Sundaram and SAHMAT where critical values cohere with those of the secular community, and to praxis and mediatic engagement with RAQS and their association organization Sarai.

The question arises around the position of the critic in India, whether it has been enhanced or depleted by the presence of the artist critic and more recently the curator-critic. Criticism in India is a modern discipline, although writers like Mallinath in the 9th century have been credited for his critical/analytical writing on Kalidas. India has a tradition of royal hagiography, Puranic literature, poetry and commentary; when Keshavadas wrote the Rasikapriya in the 17th century, it attracted 300 commentaries. Criticism as a discipline comes with newspapers, art schools and the influence of John Ruskin in the 19th century, and has flourished where print media activity was strong. It also carries with it contemporary social and political flavour. The period of 1905-1920 which marked the nationalist struggle was also the period of the nationalist newspaper such as Bande Mataram edited by Aurobindo Ghosh (1906), Madan Mohan Malviya’s Leader (1909), Pherozeshah Mehta’s Bombay Chronicle, New India and Commonweal of Annie Besant, Comrade in 1911 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Independent (1919) edited by Motilal Nehru, The Tribune of Lahore (1919), and among the monthlies, Modern Review by Ramananda Chatterjee in 1911. Several of these as editor-ideologue were also free wheeling commentators on aesthetic values in society and on the cultivation of taste. In Lahore, Bombay and pre-1940s Calcutta, the English and regional language press worked closely to cover exhibitions, and the line between the writer as promoter of an art, national aesthetic and as a critic was, often very thin. In Bengal, there were a number of art journals, such as Purabi, Pravasi and Basumati; and Rabindranath Tagore and Ramananda Chatterjee’s position on the academic style of Ravi Varma and GK Mhatre were played out in the public domain. Ramananda Chatterjee and Saumyendranath Tagore wrote with an implicit sympathy for Abanindranath and his followers and what came to be known as the Neo-Bengal school. In this period, art critics were in the forefront of defining Indian practice. The sources for work were the numerous art salons and societies (Bombay, Calcutta and Simla), as well as the British Empire Exhibitions. Sarada Ukil started the Delhi School of Art in 1926, followed it with the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society, and then the journal Rooplekha. In this period of nation building, often the art institution was the site for the art journal. Through journals, such as Pravasi, Basumati, Rooplekha, Marg, and papers like The Times of India, The Hindu, The Bombay Chronicle, with critics like Mulk Raj Anand, MS Randhawa, and The Times art critic PG Konody, criticism established a tone that was often chatty, unashamedly critical, or ecstatic.

The list of newspaper critics of over the 60-70 years is long and exhaustive, but I would like to mention two or three periods in which the media critic has worked actively with the artist to promote a new way of receiving art. I am limiting myself to the English language press. Consider the significant shift between the Bengal art journal and the critic’s role in post-Independence Bombay as dominant forms of critical discourse. The Bengal school received regular support from Bengali journals and ISOA publications. Upto the 1970s, the ISOA-sponsored books on Abanindranath, Gaganendranath, and Nandalal Bose are examples in which writers from polyvalent disciplines contribute to create a bedrock that is conceptual and ideational; this is in comparison to newspaper criticism with its overriding preoccupation with the modern. In contrast, Rudi von Leyden in The Times of India, Charles Fabri in the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore and The Statesman in Delhi and, later, Richard Bartholomew in Delhi were influential in promoting kinds of art practice. Von Leyden and Nissim Ezekiel on the PAG, Fabri on Sher-Gil and Gujral, and Bartholomew as leading critic from the 50’s to the 80’s with his serendipitous espousal of Ram Kumar, are some examples. The critic also played a role in demolishing established reputations, putting into play conflicting claims at the site of the modern. Writing a review of Bengal art in the 1940s, Von Leyden wrote: “Ram Kinkar is unsuccessful in modern experiments...the school work is so disappointingly mediocre or even bad that it shocked many who expected much from the names with which it is connected...(some of the works are) horrifying experiments of the indiscriminate mixing of styles”. Here the example of Amrita Sher-Gil’s success is instructive. Sher-Gil gained national recognition at least because of the espousal of her work by critics and writers over six decades - Karl Khandalavala’s book published in 1946, and her enthusiastic reception by Mulk Raj, Charles Fabri, the Marg volume of 1972, biographies by Iqbal Malik and Yashodhara Dalmina, and now a book by Vivan Sundaram. No other artist, not even Rabindranath has been so supported by generations of critical writing. Bartholomew is worth a serious study because he straddled institutional and media practice simultaneously. Richard Bartholomew was director of Kunika gallery from 1960 to 1962, and critic of The Indian Express 1958-62, of Thought from 1955-60, and then The Times of India from 1962 till 1980. He was also Secretary of Lalit Kala Akademi from 1977-85. He drove a wedge into critical practice by simultaneously being the director of a privately owned gallery, the critic of The Times and Secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi. In this way, he sets up the model of the critic-curator as we know it today. He also initiated critical biography with his monographs on Krishna Reddy and MF Husain (1971). By lecturing on Indian art in the USA in 1970-71 on a JDR III fund, Bartholomew established a unitary profile of the critic. Even though he wrote newspaper criticism, Richard Bartholomew was perceived as “sympathetic”. At the time of his passing, Husain’s glowing epitaph described him as “Richard the poet, painter, photographer, art critic and above all a truefriendofus all, theartists”.

The history of Indian art has been determined by critics who played a proactive role in determining an aesthetic or critical realization. I refer here to O C Gangooly on Gaganendranath Tagor, Stella Kramrisch and her espousal of Sunayani Devi, Karl Khandalavala and his support for Amrita Sher-Gil, Richard Bartholomew and Ram Kumar, Joseph James and South Indian sculpture, which he espoused for its classical/ modern aesthetic, and Geeta Kapur and her vision that straddles the articulation from the modern to the postmodern. These set in motion the position of the critic-biographer, and the list of writing here is long - Kapur’s essays on Bhupen Khakhar or Nasreen Mohammedi can be singled out. A distinct aspect of Geeta Kapur’s practice is that she has overseen at least two major periods of artistic and critical transaction from the modern to the contemporary, from the post-modern to the global-local. Her work has largely been supported by state and museum structures and, in that sense, falls within the modernist paradigm of institutional support. I am referring to the critical two or three decades from Pictorial Space in 1977 to the curated exhibitions of the Festivals of India to her 100 years of Indian Art in the NGMA.

Critical writing is deeply dependent on economies, both of the state and the market. The Indian art critic’s position lies between these two streams of the institutional and its precondition of presuming a kind of triumphant overarching national space and the media with its somewhat less committed positions. The third variant since the late 1990s is of the market, which would like to appropriate but has actually laid redundant both the institution and mediatic structures as we know them. There is also the phenomenon of the artist-curator who dispenses with the accompaniment of critical writing, positioning himself as an interjection into the mainstream.

As we know it today, the art critic is compelled to create systems, even where no systems exist. Twenty years later, we may look back on this time and find a pile of excessively argued, unedited glossy catalogues masquerading as art criticism for our times. Criticism is about the creation of taste. But the critic is also interpreter who provides context - historical social, artistic. And in the best cases she is also an inspiration to practice as witnessed in Clement Greenberg’s position in American abstract expressionism.

In the present context the identified areas of crisis in art criticism may be summarized:

Art history and criticism is dominated by meta-criticism rather than the taking of strong stands and unequivocal appraisal. .

Art criticism flows into cultural criticism rather than stands as an independent discipline.

The hermetic nature of art criticism is such that only academics can read and understand it.

Curators turn exhibitions into academic propositions of political positions. They have emerged more powerful in creating public opinion than art critics.

Going forward, perhaps we need to understand art criticism not only as a discipline but as a philosophy; a rhetorical activity embedded in debate around the subject of public meanings. Here, finally, we are confronted with two streams, and I put these as propositions before you that when a public sphere of the Habermasian kind has vanished, even as art journalism flourishes, then what can be the role of the critic? I refer to readings of art criticism by two leading critic-theorists, James Elkins and Irit Rogoff. Elkin’s argument in Art Criticism: Writing without Readers opens thus: “Art Criticism is in worldwide crisis. Its voice has become very weak and it is dissolving into the background clutter of ephemeral cultural criticism.” While Elkins argues that art criticism has a heightened visibility through broadsheets catalogues, blogs, art magazines and so on; but as an intellectual discipline, it is dying and must function at the edges of theory or the fringes of academia. As a source, it is never cited. This despite the fact that the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) has 4,000 members in 70 countries. Elkins' own argument is that the authority of the critic lies in judging a work of art.

What then is the undertaking of the critic? This is both a question and a lament.

Perhaps it is time for us to acknowledge that the lines between art critic, theorist and writer have been permanently blurred. The critic as one in service of interpretation or explication appears to have made way for a more autonomous figure, one who does not only work in a retroactive mode. “The old boundaries between making and theorizing, historicizing and displaying, criticizing and affirming have long been eroded…Now we think of all these practices (curation, art making, criticism) as linked in a complex process of knowledge production instead of the earlier separation into creativity and criticism, production and application,” says Irit Rogoff.

In my own practice, I find the laying out of the skeins of such a journey. This is in my work of a newspaper critic in the 1989- 2006 period, of a curator and editor since the 1990s with particular address of women’s practice and representation, as well as work with photo archives and performativity, especially in photography and video. In the late 1980s, the modus operandi for any critic was report on any art event overnight - actively forming opinion in a hierarchy of public taste. In the mid-80s, India was entering its first phase of the emergent critic-curator with the large festivals of India phenomenon. It was also a period when the artist’s position in activism, in distancing himself from state sponsorship of the arts became apparent. The visual arts became a locus for social consciousness and, by extension, of social history, politics and critical theory. There is a definite movement in the brief chatty and highly opinionated reviews of the 1970s, to the discursive critical arguments of post-coloniality, economics, the geopolitics of South Asia of the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a critic, I wrote because I believe so completely in the public function of criticism, in the pleasure and possibility of language, and in the making of critical discourse.

However, the space for criticism has shrunk ; there is a penumbra of failed functions, in terms of the art editor, the publication of critical writing and its wide dissemination by publishers, the lack of support by state museums to critical writing and meaningful curation.

In this journey with regard to critical writing, there is both a sense of enhancement and loss to a reworking. This is the movement that Rogoff speaks of as a movement from “criticism to critique to criticality”. The movement “from finding fault to examining the existing condition with its human and political ramifications” in which the writer is finally not an observer alone, but an equal


[1] Contra November 1966, J. Swaminathan.

[2] Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 1850-1922. Occidental orientations, Partha Mitter, 1994.

[3] “From criticism to critique to criticality”. Irit Rogoff, 2003. What is a Theorist?

[4] Art Criticism: Writing without Readers, from The State of Art Criticism, James Elkins and Michael Neuman, 2007.
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