Friday, November 25, 2005

Minimal art

Art? Exhibitionism? A joke? The old debate on what constitutes art has become relevant all over again. Amrita Shah THE INDIAN EXPRESS Thursday, December 20, 2001
LAST week I was invited to watch a little known local artist ‘‘paint while he danced’’. The event took place in a large room in South Mumbai with an approximately eight by eight foot canvas forming the stage. Pop songs spilled from a tape recorder while the artist, a slim young man in a white leotard suit, sprayed it with shades of acrylic paint from tin cans. Orange, yellow, green, pink. He flung the paint in graceful arcs and then rolled in it. The riot of colour turned black. He flung some more, rolled some more — a process that was to be repeated several times over the next 90 minutes or so. The ‘show’ ended with one messy canvas; one very messy artist and several amused faces. What was it? Art? Exhibitionism? Self indulgence? A joke?
I was intrigued to find similar things being said at a far, far more significant event taking place around the same time, many miles away. Last fortnight the Turner Prize for the year 2001 was given away in London by pop star Madonna, amidst the usual furore that has come to be associated with the prestigious British art award. At the time of the announcement of the shortlist itself, playwright Tom Stoppard had described the works as ‘‘artless, self indulgent and without spiritual meaning’’. This year’s prize winning entry however, seemed to stretch the limits of incredulity, consisting as it did simply of a room in which the lights went on and off.
Several visitors confessed to having passed through the room completely unaware of it being a work of ‘art’ and of eventually giving more attention to the plaque describing it than the room itself. Another shortlisted entry, grandiosely titled, ‘Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent’, evoked a similar response — visitors assumed it was a dusty storeroom left open by mistake. By now the Turner’s penchant for sensationalism has been well established (previous winners include a pickled sheep and a painting with elephant dung). This year was no different.
Observers found much to condemn in the current selection. Some criticised the absence of women on the shortlist, the role of self promotion and the influence of wealthy patrons. The idea of an award itself, with its pressure to nominate as many as four to five artists every year, came under attack as did the glaring lack of painters on the shortlist. With one filmmaker, two installation artists and a photographer vying for the award (one entry featured a home video in which the artist’s alcoholic father wakes up and receives a cup of tea from his wife) the old debate on what constitutes art became relevant all over again.
What is art? And what did the prize winning work signify? The communications curator of London’s Tate Gallery (where the show is held) claimed loftily that the winner, Martin Creed, had made ‘‘minimal art minimal by dematerialising it — removing it from the hectic, commercialised world of capitalist culture’’. The artist himself claimed his work was ‘‘emblematic of mortality’’. Another supporter found it unusually ‘‘ephemeral’’.
Ephemerality? Mortality? Haven’t these ideas been around for a while now? Isn’t there a faintly anachronistic air about the whole affair? Yes, but in a good way some claim, maintaining that what artists like Creed are doing is what the famous artist Marcel Duchamp was attempting to do when he exhibited a urinal in 1917. Not everybody agrees. Tom Stoppard, for instance, believes that what Duchamp did constituted a valid attack on the orthodoxies of the time while the current crop of conceptual artists, he believes, are themselves an orthodoxy ‘‘championed and supported by the establishment’’.
There is some truth in this view. For it is not just the artists but even the establishment that appears to be stressing irony over achievement. The Tate director, for example, was emphatic that the award was not designed for the ‘‘best’’ or the ‘‘greatest’’ but for the ‘‘extremely interesting’’. The choice of a pop star, not any pop star, but the image-hopping Madonna, to present the prize seems further evidence in the same direction.
And perhaps the aim is merely to popularise art. As many as 58 per cent of respondents in a pre-award poll maintained that none of the shortlisted artists deserved to get the award. At the same time, the event and the room with the lights going on and off generated an unprecedented amount of publicity. As David Lee art critic and self confessed opponent of the award’s philosophy admitted ‘‘it does get people talking about what is art’’.
In India where serious discussion on the arts rarely enters the mainstream, the Turner Prize debate may seem a remote thing. But as the dividing line between art, showmanship, life, etc., blur increasingly, these are issues affecting people everywhere.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Shan Bhatnagar

Art will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind borne out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality. Shan's work reflects an unconditional surrender to every mood, form and colour, revealing hidden depths of meaning behind each work of art. MITA KAPUR The Hindu Magazine Sunday, Aug 21, 2005

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ways of Seeing

The Indian Express Sunday, April 11, 2004
There is this fascinating book called My Name is Red by the Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk. The book is poised in the midst of a changing world. The sacred state of being that created miniature, painted elaborate borders and gilded manuscripts is being threatened by revolutionary European methods and techniques of painting. A whole philosophy hovers behind what is happening in this confrontation of civilisations.
On the one hand is the devotion to established rules and norms of painting, a total obedience to what has been formulated that leaves no space or scope for the individual voice, no possibility for different strokes. This state of being also required an ethical and moral integrity to accept this system. The threat to this world comes from the European painting methods of the seventeenth century, of many voices and styles, of the artist as individual, of different strokes for different folks.
This is the argument I wish to use. Before the artist became an individual and found expression in his own imagination, or in a particular style and technique, things were very different for the one who created. The artist belonged to a larger system of visual codification, which was in keeping with norms that were already established. Since there was no personal style in the system there was therefore no signature, only the following of a convention which developed around faith and religion. A lot of activity was around the architectural grandeur of churches, mosques, stupas and temples, the carvings to be found therein or the paintings and mosaics that decorated them further.
The result everywhere was of great beauty brought about by faith, talent and virtuosity. And, of course, no identity. The implication was that the self was not as important as the gift to God and the joy to be evoked in the viewer. The notion of artist as individual, as a person to reckon with, as star and celebrity really began with the Renaissance. Some of the artists were renowned, knew the rich and powerful and accepted commissions based on their ability and artistic expression. They had their own style, their own way of seeing and of interpreting reality.
There are artists in India today who state that their art so strongly bears their style that they do not need to sign. They say their style is their signature. For buyers the signature is important. There are those who buy signatures, not paintings. And it goes without saying that a fake will definitely need a signature to establish credibility. There are artists who develop different styles during their artistic career. Each style implies the release of passion and intensity. Once that is spent, the style too, is exhausted and loses meaning. Then the artist moves on to another style. There is a need to establish ownership to each style, hence the signature. Certain young artists today declare that they are too busy experimenting with medium, method and material to pause and develop a style that they get identified with. But they require a signature to establish claim.
How confused everything is, as we go round and round. There are as many opinions as there are people and no way of knowing the right from the wrong.

All-beauty and All-bliss

Because thou art, men yield not to their doom,
But ask for happiness and strive with fate;
Because thou art, the wretched still can hope.
[Sri Aurobindo, Savitri: 7.4.507]

Because thou art in him, man hopes and dares
Because thou art, men’s soul can climb the heavens
And walk like gods in the presence of the Supreme.
[Sri Aurobindo, Savitri: 7.4.513]

Because thou art, the soul draws near to God:
Because thou art, love grows in spite of hate
And knowledge walks unslain in the pit of night.
[Sri Aurobindo, Savitri: 7.4.520]

Because Thou art All-beauty and All-bliss
My soul blind and enamoured yearns for Thee;
It bears Thy mystic touch in all that is
And thrills with the burden of that ecstasy….

Time voyages with Thee upon its prow –
And all the future’s passionate hope is Thou.
[Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems: 154]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Art is made to disturb

William Drenttel + Jessica Helfand, Culture Is Not Always Popular: AIGA National Design ConferenceConference Theme: The Power of DesignVancouver: 25 October 2003.
Jessica Helfand: At a faculty meeting not long ago, a colleague of mine suggested that smart designers need to resist the impulse to over-intellectualize things, as though such efforts are counterproductive — if not entirely paralyzing — for the designer seeking to make work. Upon hearing this, I was immediately catapulted back to an episode in high school — which, sadly, had been permanently etched on my memory — when a teacher suggested that in order to be more "popular," I might consider using fewer big words around my peers. Specifically, he noted, around boys.
  • Even for this talk, we were encouraged to be "engaging" and "visual." The implied caution? Don’t use big words, don’t be too intellectual. Remember, this is an audience of visual people.
  • Where does this come from — this notion that thinking and making are seperate acts? That graphic design must be inherently anti-intellectual because it is a creative enterprise? And why is being "popular," — and by extension, participating in "popular" culture — understood somehow as antithetical to an engagement with the larger world of ideas?

William Drenttel: Designers talk about creating a body of work, but they seldom talk about acquiring a body of knowledge. They take pride in being makers, but seldom identify themselves as thinkers. They claim to be emissaries of communication — to give form to ideas. And while we would like to believe this is true, it seems to us that all too often, we, as designers, are called upon merely to make things look good — rather than contributing to the evolution and articulation of ideas themselves. This is an age-old criticism of design, but it seems especially relevant this morning as we talk about the Culture of Design.

  • We believe the "Culture of Design" has become implicitly about branded culture: culture that we can see, that we can name, that we can buy and sell and package; culture that is synonymous with style; culture that resonates with novelty and which, by conjecture, dismisses history as mere nostalgia; culture that determines and drives our reactions to the constantly changing pulse of modern life.
  • But we do believe that we are fundamentally restricting the pluralistic character of design by adopting a fixed vocabulary for process. Not everyone in this room sees "generating value" as a rationale for what they do. By expanding the very definition of design, are we simultaneously narrowing the rich variety that makes design such an exciting profession?

JH: But it is sobering, nonetheless, to consider how culture awards real contributions. The French cubist painter, Georges Braque once said that art is made to disturb, while science reassures. Design, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle: it is both and it is neither, playing both ends against the middle: and it is this middle-brow, middle-class, middle-of-the-road intellectual apathy that diminishes the real power of design: its power as a humanist discipline. We believe that to engage that discipline — and the many cultures it serves — means simply being better educated. This has perhaps less to do with culture, and more to do with having a cultivated mind; less to do with technical virtuosity, and more to do with intellectual curiosity. Less to do with popular culture — and more to do with culture, period.

WD: Francis Bacon once said that knowledge and human power are synonymous, and it is in this spirit that true power is perhaps ideally achieved: it is power informed by learning, collaborating and considering how the ultimate quality of our lives is made, whether in reference to our health or our schools; our environment or our foreign policy; our aspirations in science or in space; or our humanitarian achievements, as people, in war and in peace.It's that simple. And it’s that complicated.

Art Attack


For years I used to be in awe of art. Not 'awe' as in respectful bewilderment, but deep dread at the thought of encountering, and having to comment on, mystifying masterpieces. In corporate foyers, my host would halt in front of an expensively mounted work and pause knowledgeably. In an upwardly mobile (if inwardly puerile) world, style can be bought from a designer and clipped accents picked up from the nearest call centre. Talking intelligently about art is the most difficult skill to acquire, and I had nearly given up being able to do so, until inspiration struck. The secret lay in approaching the problem the way a boy scout would, i.e. by being prepared.

I prepared myself by spending a sabbatical pouring over anthologies and memorising the artists' signatures. An assiduous fortnight later, I could tell the impressionist's squiggle from the post-modernist's flourish. When next I stood before an abstract outpouring of colour, I was ready. "Ah", I said, stooping low (in both physical and moral sense), and shooting a glance at the corner of the frame. It even seemed to wink at me conspiratorially. "Husain", I said, turning to my host, "has such candour. Even his hubris has a touch of innocence about it". As important as knowing whom one is talking about, is knowing what to say. Comments like 'how beautiful' and 'so pretty' have no place in the art con-noisseur's (hyphen intended) lexicon.

Ideally, your words should be as mystifying as the paintings themselves. With practice, I also learnt not to rush headlong into comments. Instead, I would murmur, "Subtle, very subtle", and pause reflectively before coming up with: "Hebbar seems to be in continuous dialogue with his own archetype". The admiration of my listeners was palpable and my culture quotient soared. When I had eloquently declared that Bhupen Khakkar 'connected to forbidden quarters of the soul', that Akbar Padamsee's 'world-view was the healing balm people needed', and that sculptor Adil Davierwalla's stark lines were 'fraught with myth overlayed with contemporary sensuality', the world hailed the arrival of a true aficionado.

Just when I thought I had mastered all the possible perils of art appreciation, a new one reared its head. I am actually beginning to like some of the stuff. THE TIMES OF INDIA : October 11, 2005

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Shock Of The Old: Rethinking Nostalgia

Jessica Helfand

Nostalgia has always been a bad word for designers. Like “retro” and “vintage” it smacks of a sort of been-there-done-that ennui — looking backward instead of forward, nostalgia presents as the very antithesis of the new. Even hard-core historians resist its emotional lure, which can, in an instant, dramatize the truth and distance it from fact. Nostalgia skews by privileging episodic time over chronological time: in this context, “memory” is cast as a curious, dangerous and rather unreliable lens. Or is it?
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, nostalgia was seen as a disease, an ailment to be cured. (One doctor described it as “hypochondria of the heart.”) Over time, it came to typify the porous romanticism of bygone eras — Victorianism, for example — conjuring visions both sentimental and ornamental. The streamlined reserve of the International Style obliterated such decorative excess, inaugurating an age of uncompromised neutrality: later, we called it modernism and applauded its appeal to functionality and its celebration of formal rigor.
But the notion of longing never really went away because at the end of the day, it remains an essential human condition. Equally human is our need to mark time: so we keep calendars and agendas and diaries and albums, all of them gestures of physicality and permanence, tangible, graphic reminders of our own evolution, participation and engagement with the world around us. (My current research has revealed, among other things, evidence of an astonishing range of visual imagination from civillian diarists proving, rather conclusively I think, that DIY began a long time ago.)
It is easy to classify such efforts as lacking in authority since they are, by their very nature, autobiographical: if they’re the micro, then the macro — the big world vision — would seem to require more public forms of expression. As designers, we tend to orient our thinking to the broader demographics, visualizing messages that are read and recorded by multiples. But multiples are made up of singulars: in other words, in order to truly understand how to reach people visually, why wouldn’t we start smaller? Why aren’t our efforts more centralized, more specific to one person at a time? And in the spirit of such inquiry, why wouldn’t we consider, as the grass-roots cultural anthropologists that we really are, what makes people feel and notice and care and think — and remember?
The short answer is that in principle, memory is a fairly unreliable search engine. And while it has received substantial mileage in televised courtroom dramas, where witnesses are asked, under oath, to recall events “to the best of their ability,” it is generally thought to be deeply personal and highly flawed. Yet it’s those personal flaws — the ones that our logic tells us should be overlooked — that sit right up there with nostalgia as qualities we typically resist, loosely on the assumption that our work needs to read to a wider audience rather than resonate with a smaller one.
Nostalgia is fuzzy and utopian, privileging an imagined past over a real one. And indeed, nostalgia can be kitsch — playing on the collective recollections of a generation and teasing the psyche through the occasional retro replay — but why can’t it be more than this? Big branding conceits — Old Navy bringing back '60s hip-huggers, for instance — is one way to mobilize nostalgia as a catalyst for sales, but it's a collective memory and besides, we’re all sort of “in” on the irony. Can’t the use of personal memory in the public realm be more transcendant, more emotionally raw than this?
A potentially controversial new report released this week claims that sleep, often maligned due to its its obvious link to idleness, might be another opportunity for understanding the role of memory: more sleep may actually bring about more clarity — not less. ‘In different stages of sleep,” writes Kate Ravilious in this morning’s Guardian,“our brains piece together thoughts and experiences, then file them in a structured way, giving us clearer memories and ultimately, better judgment.” File and structure might not be the first words to come to mind in this discussion, but to the degree that point-of-view remains a key ingredient in so much of what we produce visually, why would we disparage the role of memory in our work? Human memory is more than merely fallible — it’s intangible, difficult to pinpoint, virtually impossible to quantify. And yet, bearing witness lies at the core of a very particular kind of history: it is a history that, more often than not, depends on the collective stronghold of a series of highly individualized stories. (Consider the tradition of oral and visual histories — The Shoah Project, for example.)
I’ve had a growing concern over the past few years that designers in general — and design students in particular — seem predisposed toward a kind of virulent antihistoricism. It’s as if a bow to history precludes innovation, that looking back prevents you from looking forward. Such analytical disparity is perhaps deserving of its own post — but for now, I’d like to suggest that the tension between nostalgia (old) and novelty (new) is one of authenticity (personal) versus authority (public). The designer, as maverick, maker and visual missionary, is perhaps culturally predisposed toward The Next Big Thing. But it’s the last little thing — and maybe the thing before that — that really interests me. And which, for that matter, makes me rather nostalgic. Posted by Jessica Helfand on October 27, 2005 08:25 AM Jump to Most Recent Comment

Saturday, November 12, 2005

A pleasure for the soul

The Indian Express Home > Front Page Saturday, November 12, 2005
INDIA EMPOWERED TO ME IS When art, the custodian of a nation’s culture, gets its due
Our policy of public art spaces has done much to keep alive the spirit and creativity of a fledgling artist alive. Look how booked are some of the Capital’s galleries at the Lalit Kala Akademi, India Habitat Centre or India International Centre. This is a contrast to the West where several artists die unsung, sheerly for lack of places that encourage the art, regardless of whether it makes money or not. Certainly, much has gone right with the way art has been patronised and nurtured in our country. Some, like I, have reaped the benefits of it. But I can’t be oblivious to those who couldn’t and why it is so. As an artist, I feel those forces that go into the making of the cultural fabric of our country need to be strengthened. I will start with the museums. Because it is museums through which art reaches people. When India became free, this need was felt and it was proposed that apart from a national museum, there should be museums in our states.
The hurt of the hour is that most of the good art is being hoarded by NRIs (contrary to opinion, actual foreign buyers or international media glare is yet to arrive). And it has become a prey thing by galleries which, by rigging prices and creating hype around it, have made it a fashion to judge an artist’s value by the price he/she fetches. Mere merit seems to have taken a rest. Behind it goes much exploitation of the artists, whose work is hoarded by galleries at a pittance than than its authorised price. Artists get little out of it. If there had been acceptance of my proposal, we would have filled our museums and the artists would have got their rightful share of it.
All of this may sound like lamenting, especially when you read every morning about the astronomical prices artists are getting. Even if that were true, what I say means that the artist should also get a part of that high price. The UNESCO has laid down a law which stipulates that an artist should also enjoy his share of an increased price that a gallery gets. I am afraid this often doesn’t happen with private galleries. And artists would rather not complain for fear of losing favour with the gallery. More than just being a pleasure for the soul, art is a vital keeper of a nation’s culture. It is important we look into the issues I’ve raised. Wouldn’t it be truly wonderful when families, friends, students can include a tour of our museums as their weekend plan and come out of these refreshed and inspired?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Arts Infrastructure Initiative

Shakti Maira
The Hindu, Sunday, Nov 06, 2005
Most people equate the arts with art products or events — performances, exhibitions and institutions. Yet the exhibitions and performances are only the visible face of the arts, they are just the "means", not their "ends". The purpose of the arts is broader and deeper — they are the medium through which a society thinks, feels, remembers, imagines and communicates. The arts are a vital social software and intrinsic to the "infrastructure" of the nation. They are the means through which something very important occurs — the transmission and transformation of values and shared meaning across people.
Consider what being Indian would be without the telling and enactments of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata? Without the cross-pollination of weaves and designs of sari weavers from Bengal, Banaras, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu? Without common ragas, taals and bhakti sangeet, and without the Taj Mahal, Khajuraho and Ajanta? Without the Chola and Bastar bronzes? Without Madhubani, Warli, Rajput and Pahari miniatures? Without lingams and shikhars? Without the Tagores and Mahashweta Devis? And without the Hussains, Anjolie Ela Menons, Pandit Jasrajs and Amjad Ali Khans, to name but a few?
The arts form the web of ideas and values that make us a people. They are the channels that sustain our histories, that shape our attitudes and sense of identity. The museums and auditoriums are just one part of a larger network of cultural communication that integrates us and makes us civilised. The arts are social infrastructures, no less important than the infrastructures of justice, trade and commerce, roads and railways. If there is a call for greater investment in infrastructures, the arts must be part of that demand.
To begin with, we need a different mind-set towards the arts. If we could view the arts as an important part of our common social infrastructure, then we can think of the kind of partnerships we could create between private and public capital, between industry and government. The answer is neither low-performing government arts institutions nor market-driven and commercially motivated arts institutions. It is something that I imagine we have the brains and hearts to do in India — a model of shared responsibility and co-operation between the players, and with the more dominant role for industry through recent economic liberalisation — it must step-up to bat for the arts.
To begin with, they will need to foster interest and conviction in their members for the value of the arts in long-term business success. They will need to encourage their members to deepen their engagement in the arts beyond the PR or vanity motivated sponsorships of art events. They need a broader and wiser perspective on the work that needs to be done in the arts infrastructure — including research and documentation through fellowships and teaching chairs in universities; the archiving and maintenance of arts heritage; art education in schools (that should interest industry as it is a powerful way to develop much needed skills of spatial and lateral thinking, creativity and problem-solving, communication and teamwork); specialised training (through support of gurukuls and art colleges); hosting of events in India and abroad of classical and contemporary arts.
Working in a co-operative model need not preclude those who have a special love for the arts to take their own initiatives, as a multinational company did many years ago in classical music. But the main thrust should be collective, well organised, and managed through a new initiative of enlightened industry associations. Few cultures have achieved the development in the arts that India has. We need to support, market, and celebrate them in India and beyond. The returns to the bottom-line are implicit and will undoubtedly follow. Shakti Maira is a contemporary artist and author. E-mail him at:

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Art Notes

Bronze Age 3600 years ago
This a very powerful and symbolic image. I am thinking about how I could incorporate it into a painting. Please do not tell me it look like a Smiley until you read up on it. posted by Bob Abrahams on 17 October 2005 at 10/17/2005 1 comments

Art Glossary

Pertaining to that which arouses sensitivity to beauty and emotion, as opposed to the practical, intellectual, or scientific. An aesthetic response is an appreciation of such beauty, and an aesthete is a person who subscribes to this philosophy and regards themselves as having special sensitivity to beauty. The Aesthetic Movement began in the late 19th century in England with leaders being Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. The slogan was "Art for Art's Sake" meaning being that conveying a sense of beauty superseded all social and moral considerations. The word aesthetic is derived from the Greek "aisthetika", meaning perceptibles. Credit: Kimberley Reynolds, "Illustrated Dictionary of Art Terms" Credit: "Random House Dictionary" AskART

Friday, November 04, 2005

Art Renewal Center

June 7, 2001 -- Fred Ross, Chairman of the Art Renewal Center,
addressed a crowd of over 700
The art of painting, one of the greatest traditions in all of human history has been under a merciless and relentless assault for the last one hundred years. Every reasonable shred of order and any standards with which it was possible to identify, understand and to create great paintings and sculpture, was degraded ... detested ... desecrated and eviscerated. Modern artists are told that they must create something totally original. Nothing about what they do can ever have been done before in any way shape or form, otherwise they risk being called "derivative". How utterly absurd.These critics like to say Bouguereau's work is really only derivative, harking back to earlier artists. Only in the 20th century has such a thing ever been scorned. To this I have one thing to say: WHAT, dear friends, IS WRONG WITH BEING DERIVATIVE?
That's one of the core beliefs of modernism that must be soundly vanquished by common sense and logical analysis. Nobody can accomplish anything of merit if they are in fact not derivative. Only by mastering the accomplishments of the past and then adding to it can we go still further. Every other field of endeavor recognizes this truth. Without the knowledge of the past we are doomed to everlasting primitivism. And, as far as holding our works up to the old masters, that's what we want to have happen. If we are to accomplish things of true merit and excellence, we must germinate and nurture great masters in the next millennium, too. Bouguereau was quite aware that his work would be compared on the altar of past accomplishments, as did his contemporaries. It was precisely because they mastered the techniques of the past, built upon them and then opened them up to an avalanche of new subject matter and Enlightenment ideals, that they accomplished the greatest half-century of painting in art history.