Two Decades: A Critical Insight by an Art Critic and an Artist
Keshav Malik and Yusuf in conversation with Saba Gulraiz
Keshav Malik doesn't need any introduction. Being an art critic, he has secured a position that enjoys a high respect in the literary and art circles. He indefatigably reviews, edits, and lectures. Being a renowned poet, he shares a common vision and sensitivities with the artists. This interview finds him candidly overviewing the Indian art spanning two decades. His critical outlook posits a useful base for further enquiry into the arts of our times.
Saba Gulraiz: How important you feel these two decades are for the Indian art?
Keshav Malik: These decades are notable for the emergence of numerous artists, as well art galleries. But whether the artistic values of these often quickly produced works are able to measure up to the quality of the best works of the of the previous generation is in some doubt.
SG : What new idioms you've seen animating in the expressions of young generation artists?
KM : Installations apart, the new metros of the country and not nature, appears to animate or excite their imagination. But dead industrial material is hard to be digested in the artistic stomachs of the young, no matter what, their new found passion for the world is on speedy wheels.
SG : Are they vulnerable to the influences of international culture?
KM : Artists should be open to all influences. They should observe well. But still must remain independent, and in accord with their own nature. Some of our artists are too overcome by alien influences, but whose full contexts they do not understand. Then they produce hybrid works.
SG : What are the direct implications of globalization and market-culture upon the seriousness of art?
KM : Material wealth is useful if it allows us pause from endless practical activity for the nurturing of our inner spirit. But short of that, the market does not necessarily 'trade' in great ideas or great thoughts. It seems to me that the day's market has designs on the very soul of innocent people. It wishes to change the psyche of the simple but honest and make them avid for recasting their identities or make them turn out material objects of a slick kind. May be thus the market alone profits vastly. And so even as the public and the weaker of the artists are beguiled, they change the colour of their skins.
SG : The coming of the web and internet has favored the growth of the new media art, digital art, computer graphics etc. How are these arts seen today? Has this made art more communicative?
KM : Certainly this way the novel and fresh means are useful, but given that we mainly live by the instrumental, rather than the ideal values or pragmatism, the artists are spiritually weakened in their inner fiber. Thus their art works rarely reflect the timeless and art eventually has become a high class entertainment. Only few artists appear to reflect their full being. The web is more informative rather than communicative.
SG : Do you think avant-gardism has become the primary concern of the artists today? Isn't it pushing the spirit of art behind?
KM : Avant gardism had a meaning in the early twentieth century especially in France. 'Avant gardism' was born in a very different context and culture. If the word implies a search for fresh forms and contents, it's justified and valuable. But if only originality is implied, the results can be queer, meaninglessly strange. Many of our artists here thus fall into a trap, and end up composing oddities and then the spirit of authentic art is left behind.
SG : Do you think painting has remained the most popular art form during the years?
KM : Yes, it has, but not always for artistic or aesthetic reasons. In half the cases at least, it's the investment value, as we know. The lovers of art mostly can't afford art works. They carry art's souls in their heads and hearts. This is perhaps better!
SG : We have seen both the times of boom and recession in the art market. The time of the boom catapulted the art from India in the international market. Now we are seeing the troubling times of recession. How do you see these market swings affect art?
KM : There can be no effect of the so-called recession on art, because art is not a material object, it can only have effect on an artist as a person. The greater the artist as human being, he makes do with little. That is enough for him - - fame, name and money don't trouble his spirit. And he continues to work regardless of the market's highs and lows.
SG : Do you feel recession will eventually act as a catalyst for a better change?
KM : It may, in the sense that it will weed out the adventurers and free booters in the art world, except the true artists in spirit. Some of the latter may do authentic art that is not horizontal but vertical and time defying.
SG : We have also seen a transformation in the galleries. Many new galleries have come up in the recent times. Do you think this has really democratized art in any sense?
KM : Democratized art? The transformation in galleries is often in surface values, of chic display, and glamour. But the gallery people are too often uneducated in the learning of the creative imagination. Admittedly all our motives are mixed, but theirs are far too mixed for ‘business’. I mean for the business of art. There is a bit of cheating here: for this way art remains another commodity and the concerned seldom support good, but presently not very popular art works.
SG : Do you think what we are missing today is a critical voice that could put art into scrutiny? …like to say something about the conventional type of previews and reviews?
KM : Yes, many clever curators of art are now on the scene, but not many commit themselves to what they love, if they do so at all. They get to be like advocates, presenting even non-art item as of 24 carrot gold. The great newspapers swept the critics of the arts out of their pages ten years ago (including this writer!). The market was growing and the critics were hurdles in their way.
SG : …like to mention any remarkable exhibition that you've seen in these years?
KM : Not past exhibitions here were several of note, enriching one's spirit. The work of Biren De (of Delhi) stands above all others. Though he has done few works is very slow his works express the human's deepest inner being. It's a masterly sublimity as is also evident in his life stance.
SG : How do you see this country's artistic future?
KM : Right now, despite some good works, at least plastic art in India is but a hothouse plant. Till such time that the two streams of the so-called urban art and the tribal arts mix, communicate, city art will not make an impact on the body politic and the overall society. Art has vital functions to perform, that is, to cleanse our imagination of its illusions. But since the entertainment and electronic media fill the vacuum (and they are so powerful) how can serious arts make much headway? This one is somewhat of a moot question and must have priority.
Yusuf is a well known name as a contemporary abstract artist. His unique approach to art has earned him this place of eminence. Both his close association with the vanguards, Raza and Swaminathan among others and his discreet guidance to the budding artists, from all over the country, offer him a position from where he can eyeshot the changes in India's artistic horizon.
SG : How would you review the last two decades of art in India?
Yusuf : For reviewing Indian art, we will have to see the changes that have come about over these years. We can start with globalization. In the past, when signs of globalization weren't much visible in India, the art scene was different. There were only art collectors in the market scene. The whole process was slow paced and steady. But when the globalization gathered momentum in the 90's, the whole scene was changed with the intrusion of investors in the field. Collecting art works was no longer conventional. Finding in art a good investment potential, more and more investors joined the bandwagon and changed the whole direction. Now art was being treated as a commodity, a property. Their strategies and gimmicks raised the price of art. They started buying works in dime a dozen of a particular artist to endorse it as a product. This changed the parameters in which the price was not determined by the quality but by the more saleable brand name of the artist. This devalued art, while the artists had been valued.
SG : You mean these fads and hypes have affected the quality of work? Did serious art go unnoticed in the trends where art became rather a commodity?
Y : No I don't mean that, as the artists seriously involved in their art were still doing quality work. Their main concern was their creativity. Serious art never goes unnoticed. However, those who took art as a hobby and followed the prevalent trends to reap the benefits of art market through their showmanship, lobbying and hype through media could manage to hold the scene for awhile. They collaborated themselves with this new community of investors for the promotion of their art product. Now it's a good time, when boom is over, for reassessment and rectification. One more factor that popped up during these years was the political interference. I am not saying that, political pressure did not exist before, but after the Ayodhya dispute, political forces tried to impose their agenda on art, trying to saffronize it. See, how one of our most important artists had to leave the country, how his exhibitions had been disrupted and vandalized. All of this is very unfortunate.
SG : Can such things curb the freedom of expression?
Y : No, a true art is never shaken by such pseudo forces. However, those who are susceptible to political ideas give in to the dictates of such forces. Thus, their approach becomes political rather than artistic. Third important change that I've seen in these two decades is the emergence of installation as a new genre of art in India. Initially, its purpose was to promote the industrial products including utility items like cans of coke, tyres and bottles etc. Gradually, it has been accepted as a visual art. Traditionally artists were restricted to painting and sculpture. Now with the inclusion of Performance art, Audio and Visual art, as a new media art, a new dimension has been added to give a new way of looking at things an extension to our visual language as against our conventional gaze.
SG : What role do you see of science and technology in art? Do you feel it has expanded the area of art in India?
Y : I feel science and technology has definitely added a new dimension in our act of seeing. It has enriched our visual experiences. The places like Masai Mara or underwater world which were beyond the reach of our vision have become a visual reality. Media has made this possible.
SG : Now in the modern global India we are encountering other cultures, Indian artists have become more liberal to accept a new hybrid culture. How do you look at these changes? Do you affirm the view that art should be culture specific, should have a social agenda?
Y : The changes you are talking about don't have immediate effects. Nothing changes drastically. Cultural changes are always gradual, it's a slow phenomenon. Every cultural transition leads to a new degree of awareness, a new thinking to meet the new requirements or to address new audiences. I don't see any harm if this helps adding new elements in art. For me art is not an instrument to shape the society. Many who see art as a vehicle of social change or reform might affirm the view. In art, I don't see any purpose other than its own creative instinct. What purpose is latent in a flower's bloom? Did Picasso's Guernica bring piece in the world? How can an artist bind himself to some limited imagination, extending only to socio-political or cultural domains!
SG : As you've said earlier that the last few years of the 20th century have opened up new pastures for the artists, please elaborate your views on this.
Y : Certainly advanced technology and globalization have laid open a fresh ground for the young artists. New mediums and materials have given an extension to their art. Not only this has changed our way of looking at things but you see, how things like Tattoo art, that in the past was hardly known as an art form, has become a popular fashion among today's youth. These years have also created a favorable environment for the tribal and folk art which was hitherto confined to their tribal locales.
SG : Would you like to say something on the conceptual and spiritual aspects of Indian art today?
Y : What is the difference between a subject and a concept? Many times people mistake a subject for a concept. A concept is a continuous propagation of an idea or a subject. If we talk in this context, I don't remember any artist working on a single subject for a long time. As far as the spiritual aspect of art is concerned, I feel there should be no contradiction between Man, Vachan and Karam (thoughts, words and deeds). I feel an artist, whether doing figurative or abstract, should be honest to his art.
SG : Over these years, did you observe any transition in the role of art centers and academies in the promotion of art?
Y : Art centers are certainly very important in the promotion of art in any country but unfortunately in our country they have a very marginal existence. Same can be said of the academies. Inception of Bharat Bhawan was a good initiative. In its initial years, when it was in the secure hands of artists like J Swaminathan and BB Karant, it was successfully executing its programs. Today, when the center is passed to those who come from a separate field and have no sensibility or understanding for art, it is almost stagnant with no creative things happening.
SG : In the wake of the dramatic changes taking place in the art market over the last few years, do you feel the issue of sustainability and stability should be an artist's concern?
Y : Thanks to the media that today art is seen as having a good potential for material success. The time when I started painting, earning money from art wasn't even a distant thought. Market or price can't decide artist's/art's sustainability. We know calendar art is being sold like a hot cake but such an art can never sustain for long, can never get a place in art history.