Artists: Notes on Art Making

Published in Art Journal, Fall 1999, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 49-57

When working in New Delhi in 1985, I saw an exhibition of watercolours by Laxma Goud, a prominent Indian artist, at the Lalit Kala Akademi, the national institution for contemporary visual art. Rumour had it that the late U.S collector Chester Herwitz had purchased the entire exhibition. Herwitz was a familiar figure in the Indian art scene; for several years he had regularly visited India, travelling to all major cities collecting contemporary Indian art. He spent liberally, buying art in bulk, so to speak. Herwitz’s perception of the way the market for art develops, and his faith in the work of contemporary Indian artists, proved correct. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the non-existent market for contemporary Indian art suddenly boomed. In 1995, Sotheby’s held a major auction in New York of Contemporary Indian paintings from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Charitable Trust (Sotheby’s catalogue: 6724 “Herwitz”). Of the 220 artworks put on auction, 180 were sold for between $1,500 and $4,900 each, perhaps ten to fifteen times their original purchase price.

This anecdote may be interpreted in several ways, and I will revisit it at the end of this article. At present, I will focus on one inference that is pertinent to my subject: the unduly exaggerated influence that collectors, curators and museums based in the West may have in determining the representation of contemporary South Asian art in the International arena. This situation is the result of a specific historical and theoretical condition centred on the concepts of modernism ad modernization-concepts that have framed and continue to determine prevailing perceptions of South Asian art during the post-independence period (India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947). In the context of contemporary South Asian visual art, the concept of modernity produces a framework that is multi-layered and complex, not a rigidly structured and progressive narrative. This perspective enables us to ask substantially different questions of the modern period in South Asian art that do not remain locked into continually referencing developments in Western art.

Part one: Modernism and the Past situation

Among several repercussions of World War II was the occurrence of two events of immediate pertinence to this argument. In the years immediately following the war, India and Pakistan gained independence from two centuries of British colonization to emerge as modern- nation states. During these years as Serge Guilbaut phrases it, “New York stole the idea of Modern art.” This period, the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s when the centre of the art world shifted from the war ravaged urban centres of Europe to New York City, is generally regarded as the high point of modernism in Western Art. On August 8, 1949, Life magazine featured Jackson Pollock as “the world’s greatest living artist.” Of course as Guilbaut notes, the circumstances that led to and made possible this recentering of modernism in the United States are several and complex, including the politics of Cold War Diplomacy, McCarthyism, U.S. economic prosperity, and the aggressively persuasive writings of the art critic Clement Greenberg.

Greenberg’s narrative of modernism was a teleology wherein a series of developments in European painting from the 1860’s onward were highlighted and interpreted as stages in a progression toward a unitary goal which was to arrive at the essence of painting as a medium. According to Greenberg, this goal was reached in the early 1960’s as a result of the efforts of successive generations of uniquely creative Europeans and U.S artists, who, as originators of radical breakthroughs in artistic problems, were elevated to the status of genius. Audience access to modernist art was also similarly exclusive, since a specialised knowledge of art history was a pre-requisite. In subsequent post- modernist critiques of modernism’s exclusions, Greenberg is often identified as the main culprit, whereas, in fact, modernism’s biases about the definition of art and the role of an artist have far deeper historical roots. Greenberg was primarily synthesising and codifying dominant attitudes that various artists, philosophers and critics had expressed from the 1880’s onward. It is significant that these ideas about art were generated in a political context of imperialism, which enabled and ratified the exclusionary focus on the West as the centre of modern art production in a global cultural sphere.

Little wonder then that although the direct political hegemony of the imperialism ended during the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s as a succession of Third world countries gained political independence, the cultural hegemony of the West was maintained via the discourse of modernism. While the newly independent United Nations, and though they created administrative systems that supported modern institutions, they were, as Geeta Kapur notes, firmly excluded from modernism.

Art historical discourse of the 1950’s and the 1960’s summarily dismissed the contemporary art production of Third world nations as at best a mildly interesting spin-off of avant-garde explorations that had already reached their full articulation in the West. Several authors have remarked on this double standard whereby influences were acceptable only in one direction; that is, if Western artists were inspired by the art of other cultures, the adaption did not diminish the originality or creativity of the work. By contrast, if the influence occurred the other way, that is, if artists in South Asia incorporated stylistic developments of modern Western art in their work, the results were evaluated rather contemptuously as provincial or out-dated replicas of Western culture.

Modernism’s contextual distances of the Third world art was simultaneously a historical distancing. Thus, as far as art historical community was concerned, the value of Indian art was restricted to the pre-colonial period; in the more than three decades after independence a primary theoretical focus of Indian fine artists has been a search for identity.

Until relatively recently, support for contemporary Indian art was minimal in both international as well as national contexts. For instance, the Sarabhai family, prominent members of the business and scholarly elite in India, regularly commissioned works from a series of European and U.S artists, including Le Corbusier, Alexander Calder, and Howard Hodgkin, among several others; by contrast, Indian artists were hard put to find such generous patronage. This situation changed only in the late 1980’s when Sotheby’s, in conjunction with the Times of India newspaper, held a major, well publicized auction of contemporary Indian art in Mumbai(Bombay). Works by senior artists and relative newcomers in the field were sold at unprecedented prices. This alteredinvestorsinIndia,sending prices in the art market rocketing upward.

Part two: Modernization and the Present Situation

Within the framework of modernism, which puts a premium on innovation and originality, being a few steps behind is just as bad as not being there at all; repetition signifies artistic death. By contrast, in the situation of modernization, being a few steps behind is viewed more positively, if patronizingly, as being on the right track.

The teleological conception of history that I mentioned with reference to modernism is paralleled in theories about modernisation. This latter term assumes that there is one universal model of social, economic, and technological development-that established by Western countries. All other nations and societies are at various stages, following the West on a single path of progress. The globe is accordingly divided into developed and underdeveloped nations. Significantly, this perspective about modernisation, which retains currency even in the present, was most popular during the 1950’s, the period also claimed as the high point of modernism.

Moreover, during the 1950’s, the government of the newly independent Indian nation under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru decided to embrace modernization as public policy. The Nehruvian government patronised the industrial sector and urban development, making these the pivot of economic growth. The goal of modernization was articulated through a series of projects known as Five Year Plans, whereby all state institutions would be gradually modernized. The intent was to reform or replace traditional, or rather existing, systems perceived as retrogressive so that India could compete effectively in the world economy.

Immanuel Wallerstein’s centre-periphery model of the global economy critiqued the negative aspects of modernization. The Marxist perspective theorised that the modern world system was divided into core and peripheral countries: the former, located in the West; the latter, in the colonized or formerly colonized territories. To maintain their position of political and economic supremacy, core countries drain their periphery of resources, thereby controlling the manufacture of goods which are then made accessible to the peripheral countries at higher prices. According to Wallerstein, modernization is synonymous with neo-colonialism because the unequal relations between the core and periphery countries have the effect of keeping the latter in a state of perpetual backwardness by producing a continual dependence on the advanced technology.

The theory of centre-periphery is pertinent to my argument because several writers on contemporary Third World art, such as Rasheed Aareen, Gerardo Mosquera, and Geeta Kapur, find a parallel power differential in the world of art. The situation is often explicitly described as a neo-colonialism of culture. These authors point to the tremendous impact that processes of selection, exhibition, and representation by the art community based in the West have on determining the new trends in Third World art. As Mosquera observes, this massive imbalance in the power to represent is most apparent when exhibitions of Third World art organised in the West then travel back to the home countries. Artists are in effect being told the slots they must enter in order to survive in the art world.

Categories such as International and post-modern have attempted to transcend or complicate this fixed, unequal differentiation between core and periphery. For the past two decades, postmodern theory has welcomed, indeed has been fascinated by diversity. Not surprisingly, the categories for ethnicity and otherness within contemporary art have multiplied during this period. But has postmodern critique of modernism significantly altered the representation of Non- western art in the international scene? Certainly, writings on contemporary South Asian art have increased incrementally, as have venues for its display. However, in the international context this art arouses interest only for its representations of a specific cultural milieu. I would argue therefore that the mere addition of categories is largely ineffectual in subverting the ethnocentrism of centre-periphery dynamics.

Solutions proposed by authors such as Mosquera include increasing the type and degree of collaboration between art communities based in the West and those in Third World locations. For instance, he suggests that local participation in determining the theme and content of exhibitions should be prerequisite for all serious exhibitions. I agree that such measures are necessary; in fact, these objectives should have been met a long time ago. However, these solutions, to a large extent, merely serve to replicate the centre-periphery paradigm at more localised spheres of influence. For example, in India, artists based in the power centres of Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay) are much better connected to the international circuit of funding and representation that artists in South India, who are perceived as less innovative and permanently lagging behind the northern artists. Ironically, works by the latter are devalued in the same vocabulary an in the same terms-- provincial, repetitious-that contemporary South Asian art as a whole is devalued on an international level. What is the way out of the present impasse?

Part Three: Modernity-an Alternative Perspective on South Asian Art in the Post-Independence Period

Most scholarship on modern South Asian art has focussed exclusively on a miniscule section of visual culture, displayed in museum and gallery contexts, catering to an exclusive audience, and produced in the shadow of Western art catering to an exclusive audience, and produced in the shadow of Western art catering to an exclusive audience, and produced in the shadow of Western art historical discourse. This has very successfully masked the vastness and diversity of visual cultural production in contemporary India.

A concept that developed in tandem with the history of modernism but was applied to a more amorphous group of phenomena was that of modernity. In “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863), Charles Baudelaire observes that essential meanings and universal truths of a society, including concepts like modernity, lie buried in ephemeral phenomena. Access to modernity therefore is never direct; it cannot be collected and catalogued. As it becomes visible, it dissipates. For Baudelaire, the perfect conduit for modernity was the flaneur, the idle stroller. As the Flaneur wandered through the streets of the great bourgeois capitalism, he witnessed modernity from the corner of his eye, so to speak-in fleeting impressions.

For the last thirteen years of his life, before his death by suicide during an intensely oppressive period of fascism in Europe during World War II, Walter Benjamin was a flaneur in the streets of Paris. He witnessedmodernityinthefragments, juxtapositions, and disjuncture’s of the urban environment. He compiled these impressions in over one thousand pages of notes. This unfinished work, referred to as the Arcades Project, can be read as a testament to the enduring, subversive power of the popular, the apparently inconsequential moments of everyday life that flicker past like the moving images of cinema.

From the beginning, the context of modernity was global. Both Baudelaire and Benjamin were writing from a location, Paris that was a power centre of an empire that stretched across the world. However, neither made this global dimension an integral aspect of his discourse. In the late twentieth century postcolonial theorists gave worked to rearticulate this area of absence. Stuart Hall suggests that although the global dimension of modernity is “powered in my ways by the West, globalisation may turn out to be part of that slow and uneven but continuing story of decentring of the West”. Arjun Appadurai theorised this vast and neglected dimension of modernity, the globalisation of the cultural sphere, as occurring through massive flows - of peoples, finance, technology, media and ideas-whose movement across the globe modifies what he terms ethnoscapes, finanscapes, techno capes, mediascapes, and ideoscapes. Of direct pertinence to visual culture is the term mediascape, whereby the circulation of images and information on a global level has dramatically increased the databank of visual and aural resources for peoples in most locations of the world. This creates the possibility of appropriating and recontextualizing these resources to continually redefine the production of local cultural and social practices. All appropriations are inevitably indigenized; as a result, aural and visual resources in the global mediascapes are in continuous, complex mutation. Furthermore, such appropriations are particularly unconstrained in popular, commercial contexts. Here there is an audacious disregard as to the sanctity of the sources, as well as a constant alertness to the latest innovations of techniques and imagery. The results are startling and inventive, often displaying a fantastic hybridity.

The lens of modernity enables the scholar to zoom out from a tightly focused concentration on fine art to a wider dimension of visual culture that saturates public arenas and is accessed by a vast cross-section of society. Examples of visual culture in such arenas include the cinema, public parades and ceremonies, theme parks, local photographic practices, posters and pamphlets, magazines and other visual print media, commercial billboards, and signboards, paintings on vehicles and on the sidewalk, as well as local fashions.

The scholarly and theoretical questions that these images elicit are substantially different from the one we presently ask when discussing the work of fine artists in India. For instance, the questions repeatedly posed in discussions from modern Indian fine arts are: Which major western artist or art movement does the work reference? In what way is the content and imagery specifically Indian? How does the ethnicity of the artist, his or her Indian identity, affect the production and reception of the work? Such questions dissipate in the case of urban, public arts that do not participate in a similar dialogue with Western art history. Instead, one begins to ask, what are the reasons for the popular appeal of this imagery? How is it perceived by its local audience, and how does its power function? How have the components of this hybrid form mutated in their new context and why? How does this art practice participate in a global economy of cultural production? The focus of these questions is on how the local transforms the global to reinvent the local society, rather than to replicate the western example.

For instance, I undertook a case study of hand-painted advertisements for the entertainment cinema industry and political parties in the state of Tamil Nadu. These images are part of the culture of cinema that is fragmented kaleidoscopically in every interstice of the urban environment: in local fashions, in the sounds of the city, in the usage of language, in scraps of paper and other debris.

My primary research method was in the form of ethnographic interviews: thirty interviews with artists and their clients and one hundred interviews with members of the cinema audience.

My analysis of these advertisements found that the spectacular quality of these images, wherein the figures appear to literally start out of their frames, extend the experience of viewing cinema from the darkened, private spaces of the theatre into the sunlit glare of the streets. Here the images of fantasy-beauty, celebrity, health, wealth, revenge, and revolt-straddle garbage dumps, ragged piles of possession of the poor, and share the sidewalk with the homeless, the voiceless, the powerless. On the streets of cinema advertisements frame and expose the decaying metropolis, the Manichean aspects of modernisation.

In my conversation with the producers of these images I encountered a most interesting conception about art. For these artists, art was embedded in the process of creating the works rather than in the objects themselves. The artists were unconcerned with the ephemerality of their creations, and most often did not even undertake a photographic documentation of their images. On the other hand, several artists emphasized that their talent was a vara prasadam (God-given gift); they maintained rigorous methods of training and worked according to a set of aesthetic standards.

For me, the greatest education was in discovering the socio-political context of these images. In the state of Tamil Nadu there exists a historical relation between the cinematic industry and political parties that extends back for over five decades. This has produced an exceptional diffusion between the arenas of filmic illusion and political reality. The power of these advertisements derives from their ability to occupy this realm of permeability. Since the film and political advertisements employ a common medium of visual communication and are closely juxtaposed in public spaces the images serve a powerful function of conferring a cult status on political leaders in Tamil Nadu.

Given the richness of this topic, I am astounded when I recall that during my training as an art historian in India, these images did not even enter mu consciousness. It was during my education in the United States, when I was introduced to the history of art history, that I began to question the disciplines exclusionary biases. I realised that the segregations of race, class and gender in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. To my mind then, the unquestioned perpetuation od such segregations by art historians studying South Asian art of the modern period signifies the entrenchment of colonistideology.

Thequestionremains: How does the analytical concept of modernity illuminate works of fine art produced for elite markets? To dully address this question would require further research and another article. Here I am only able to point to the fact that since the early 1980’s, Indian artists have actively engaged with contemporary popular culture in ways that are both critical and celebratory. The myriad of forms, aesthetics, and politics of popular culture resurface in extraordinary inventive ways in the productions of fine artists. Perhaps this lens of modernity will help to critique distinctions between categories of popular art and high art while focussing attention on popular experience-that is, the media space of visual culture in urban India.


I would like to conclude by returning to the anecdote with which I started. In a most cynical light the anecdote could be interpreted as the work of a pioneer discovering a new founder for the art market. Despite this cynicism, I must state clearly that I wholeheartedly welcome this new trend in the international art market. Apart from the Sotheby’s auction in New York that I mentioned, there has been a series of extensive, well published exhibitions of contemporary South Asian art in prestigious museums in New York recently. At least two galleries in the city exclusively show Indian art. Considering that Indians are one of the wealthiest minorities in the United States, I am pleased that this community has now been given the confidence to invest in the work of South Asian artists; a large percentage of the buyers at the Sotheby’s auction in New York were from the South Asian immigrant community.

These developments have boosted fine art production in India. Now there are successful galleries in all major cities in India, substantially increasing the avenues for the display and representation of an artwork. This exposure and indications of greater economic security have encouraged talented young Indian artists. Therefore, I firmly believe that art criticism should participate in and further develop this situation.

However, I also contend that the role of an art historian should be considerably broader than that of an art critic. It is imperative that we refuse that we refuse the exclusive focus on the work of fine artists. That makes us complicit in masking the fact that the current interest in the Third World art is primarily significant as a new frontier in the art market. A more insidious effect of this exclusivity is that we have no option but to continually reinscribe Western art history as the overt or subliminal determinant for every scholarly question we ask. Instead, studies of post-Independence South Asian art should encompass a far wider perspective. We should, in a sense, chart out new frontiers in arenas of research. These arenas, which are outside the parameters established by art history, may enable us to formulate new paradigms for scholarship and produce fresh perspectives on the production and reception of visual culture in contemporary South Asia.

Published in Art Journal, Fall 1999, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 49-57
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