Monday 16 April 2012

‘Hop, Shop n Install in Art’- Most contemporary artworks churned out by artists convey a vacuum of conviction, involvement and struggle, finds Professor Prabhakar Kolte.

Part I

I would like to start with my review of some so-called artworks of an international standard.

In one painting a blind man was shown. It was a replicate of a blind man. Just like a blind man he had black goggle on and a belled cane in hand. A super white cane! The lower end of it had a strip exactly the colour of  ‘post office red mark’…there was nothing more appreciable in this painting. As I looked around, wondering who could be the artist who painted in this particular style, I found him standing quietly behind me. He said, “Any comment, Sir?”

I said, “No comments, but I have a query. Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, Sir,” he said.
I asked, “What have you painted?”
In reply he said, “It is quite clear, Sir.”
I said, “Yes, it’s evident who is blind.”
Baffled, he said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “Hey, A blind man does not have eyesight but that doesn’t mean he does not have vision. Truly, you should have painted his imaginary world. Before painting, you should have blindfolded yourself like Gandhari, at least for four days. Then maybe, there would have been no need for me to question you. You have just painted the verbal description of the outer appearance of a blind man. An artist needs a vision to paint the imaginary world of the blind man. At times, it’s easy to paint but hard to achieve vision and only if that happens, the whole world assembles in the artist’s vision.”
After this, there were a few moments of silence.
“It must have taken quite a few days to paint this…,” I asked.
He replied, “Oh no Sir. I have not done anything. I got hold of a student working on ‘realistic paintings,’ told him my concept, gave him the blind man’s photographs and got this done. Of course, I paid a good amount! He completed it in four days. Nowadays, all artists do like this, Sir. It’s the age of Conceptual Art.”

“And do all of them have to paint in a similar manner?” I asked.
“What difference does it make, Sir? People buy them. They like and even understand this art.” He said.
I reminded him, “But you never did this when you were studying in School of Art.”
“It’s alright to do anything in college, Sir, but after you are out of college, there are lots of problems, Sir. There is solid competition. A work done the day before becomes stale the very next day. If you remain behind, you perish. It’s a fast life, Sir. It was different in your times. Utterly romantic! Now there is no time for romance.” Saying this he pushed me back a hundred years. From this it is apparent that in college you do not do anything substantial and even after coming out college you continue doing insubstantial work.

I realized that his ‘different problems’ were not at all related to art. I did not say anything for sometime. Then I said, “Hey, then why did you even make so much effort. You should have hired a model, made him stand here, wearing goggle. It would have been a live installation. Last year, an artist in London tied a live dog to a post in a gallery and left it there to starve… Live till Death. The dog died within few days, writhing in pain but that won the artist the Turner Award.
“Sir, you won’t believe this, the same idea struck me but I did not dare to execute it,” he said.
“Meaning?  You were going to bring a live man and starve him to death!” I asked him with some degree of alarm.

“No Sir! As you said Sir, I thought of using a live model to play the role of a blind man.”
“Time doesn’t forewarn to dare. You have to realize it. Only a courageous person is able to realize this. Duchamp realized it, audaciously he placed a ‘commode’ in the gallery and created history. But do you have any idea how much he must have struggled on the intellectual and emotional planes? Surely not…you read history only to pass examinations. You never evaluate the philosophy of the historical events, you never investigate the reasoning behind those events and therefore that sense of reasoning itself does not project in your works. Anyway, there are no schools where you can learn to dare. If you have a sentient character then you become cognizant and if you are cognizant, then there are chances of awakening your consciousness. But you youngsters are in a hurry to die; everyone wants to enjoy the bliss of death without facing the trouble of living.” I went on blabbering and he went on hearing it unsentimentally.

Truly, the world has changed, and that too so fast that I am still unable to come to grips with it. Artistic experience, self-realization, conviction, reflection, evaluation, criticism and fostering, these words and their meanings, which were heard in the art world till the recent past, seem to have been blacklisted.
Frankly, without getting a visual experience, which is the real proof of art, everyone wants to secure his position in history. Nothing is impossible, now even a place in history would be up for sale. There would be advance bookings for the place and if any artist can promote himself effectively, the sponsor would even buy the place for him in history, of course in exchange of paintings. Brooding over this, I moved on and stood in front of next painting.

I almost felt that the earlier painting was better than this one. Here, numerous shaving blades were pasted to each other to give the ‘feel’ of a five yard sari with pleats, the technique was the same i.e. Imitation. Only, instead of paints, blades were used.

In another work, the artist had copied an old master’s painting Draupadi’s Vastraharan. In place of Dharmaraja, he had depicted himself in modern attire, playing Dhyuta, a game of dice. Naturally, my attention turned towards Draupadi in that painting, and true to my speculation, the face was of the artist’s wife! The image of a modern man playing Dhyuta in the ancient court of the Kauravas was so fascinating that people who had come to Mumbai for sight-seeing on that day curiously crowded around that painting. The contrasting epoch in the painting was entertaining. But the technique was quiet like that of the earlier painting, of Imitation.

The next artifact was possibly of Dharmaraja’s faithful canine. A canine seemed to leap out from the wall. The artist had mounted it so trickily that it seemed the head would fall at any moment. But even after a long time, it did not fall; all the same, the observer could not stop expecting it to fall. The body of the canine appeared so real that it seemed like a cadaver was cleared and filled with hay and hung up on the wall. Obviously, here too the attempt was to make ‘Imitation more authentic than Real’. 

The next painting was nothing but a huge photograph, which was first printed on the canvas with the aid of computer software and then painted. The face in that painting was that of the artist himself. He was poised in the style of a famous actor. Therefore, the painting projected ‘reverie glorification’.

I was a bit shocked by my next experience. A stout cobra lay lethargically in a corner. Though it looked real, it was a painted fibre cast and a board was kept in front of it with a warning: ‘Do not touch, it is real.’ Thought guessed it was artificial; the board created a dilemma. But that too did not last for long. It reminded me of painter Rene Magritte and his painting, ‘This is Not a Pipe.’ He had painted a smoking pipe and had written below it: ‘This is not a pipe’.

Whoever has read the comments of Michael Foucault on the philosophy of this painting of Magritte’s, must have observed the great difference between Magritte’s intellectual nobility projected in his painting and the proof of frivolity presented in the board of caution kept in front of the cobra. The creator of the cobra must have seen Magritte’s painting but instead of attempting to understand its philosophy, he simply placed the cobra in place of a pipe. The artist might not have meticulously observed the disparity of a visual and its subtle connection to the word, ‘pipe.’

The next sculpture was that of a standing hippopotamus. It was made totally out of buttons. It was just like the sari made with blades. In our childhood, in order to familiarize us kids with different kinds of cereals, out teachers would give us assignments to cut cardboards into different shapes like human, flowers, leaves, animals and birds which we found in our environs. Then we were made to paste different cereals on the shapes and decorate them. Memory of that activity, which was both entertaining and informative, inspires amazing happiness even today. Coincidentally, a group of small children had gathered around that button sculpture!

One artist had joined numerous toy spouts and created one similar big spout.
Yet another had sensed Gautam Buddha’s head in a tree trunks, so he had cut that part and installed it. On the part that looked like a head, he had painted the meditative composure of the Buddha with partially closed eyes. In spite of painting the Buddha’s eyes, there was not even a rare chance of any change in the vision of the artist.

In one of the assembled artworks, dining plates, which are otherwise laid on the table, were served with real food and placed under the table. One artist had got a fibre cast of a nude human figure, arranged lights inside it and suspended it from the ceiling. Another one had collected real human hair, sandwiched it between two transparent glasses and placed it on the wall. On the front glass at the lower end like a tag line he had given the information in minute handwriting about the parts of the body from which he had taken that hair. It was almost a hairy geography of human body!

In one of the paintings, the human figures were painted as in South Asian leather puppets, and modified. The dressing style came in for considerable alteration, with goggles on eyes, wrist watch on wrist and Nike footwear.

One artist had got hold of a rocking chair and pasted a football on top of the backrest, spread some rags around it and attempted to make a scarecrow. If he could have made some arrangement to rock the chair involuntarily, then the birds might have been amused. But due to the lack of a basic urge to develop ‘artistic enthusiasm,’ that modern artwork remained merely a toy and could not excel beyond it.

Next to it was a revolving lantern, like the ones that were seen earlier during Diwali. The only difference was that it was very large. On its inner circular staff, human effigies were cut, which with the help of light from the centre of the lantern, left their fearful shadows on the outer circular staff. In earlier times, lanterns would convey a sense of respect being offered to Light. But here, the lantern of the past was very maliciously reincarnated and it also made us realize the extent of the busted ideology of that artist.  

The next artwork cum installation was a candid eight-feet-tall drinking glass. It reminded me of the glasses in which water was served in the past in Iranian restaurants. Iranian restaurants slowly closed down, the glass became big, antique and orphan too! This artifact inspired similar thoughts.

When I came out of the exhibition hall, I was quite tired. My mind was blank, the flow of thoughts receded, but still the waves of questions ebbed and flowed in my mind.

I thought that what we nurtured as a hobby during childhood and did as assignments as art students, when we did not have the remotest idea about whether to label it art or craft, all those things are present as art today. After an introduction to art, whatever little imitation was done, the same or similar kinds of professional imitations are displayed as art in a gallery. Why should artwork displayed in a gallery be called a work of art? Is it just because they are made by famous people? What is the relation between famous people and artworks? What actually happens when artists become famous because of artworks? What modifications take place in the relation between the artist and his art? What do artists expect from art? What does society expect from artists? What does art expect from artists and society? Artists can speak, society can be vocal but art is dumb, so should its disability be used to be atrocious with it? In art anyone can do anything, sell anything, buy anything and there is no more agonizing issue than this.

Part II

Almost all artists start their careers by imitating artworks, and we have numerous examples of this. But there are only rare instances of them coming out of this imitating phase. And the veiled wish to acquire fame speedily, just like the creators of the famous artwork, adds to this inability. Therefore, instead of ‘developing an idea,’ ‘finishing an artwork’ gets more importance. The artwork-making process has one secondary aspect that is technical knowledge, which is conventionally nurtured and replicated. As a result, due to the cumulative attention to technical perfection in the creative process, the purpose of the artwork gets trapped in this technical aspect and suffocated. Therefore, artists developed the custom of getting suffocated and suffocating others too. It is not enough for an operating surgeon to know just the technique of dissecting the body. He should also know which part of the body, how much and why to dissect along with the knowledge of ailment that has to be treated. Obviously, there is a difference between operation and post-mortem. Likewise, sensitivity is necessary for an artist while creating an artwork. In creating an artwork, technique has to be applied and even the purpose has to be projected. But now because of the superfluous hypocrisy of technical skill, Technique has become more important than Art.

As a result, the already existing tendency of the artists to do the work has got preference over observing the work. This has also affected society, which is more interested in knowing how the artwork is created rather than what is created. Naturally, the material used in making an artwork, its strength, quality and size, its durability, artist’s bio-data, his status, all these aspects are now considered important. And due to this, instead of the Value of art, the Price of artworks has stabilized at the core of the art deal.

Price means Value — contemporaries have given this convenient meaning and firmly rooted it. And the artists have got used to making nice, durable, successful and especially ‘beautiful’ artworks. Instead of creating art, the tendency to produce art has spread rapidly. And from that, the journey of art has left the art world and reached the art market, from where it has further strayed into the art business. The speed and expanse of straying increased so rapidly that it got associated with world trade. It became Global.

Global themes started projecting in the artworks and that too related to events from Middle and South Asia, Europe and America. And the reasons behind this were also considerable. A wealthy American declared that he would invest $7,000 crore in buying ‘socio- political’ themed artworks. Instantly, artists started producing artworks based on that theme, but that mischievous person might have played a wicked game with the artists, because after that announcement, nothing more was heard about him.

But the effect of his announcement was quiet visible. One of the paintings even became very popular. The artist was moved by the life of a woman of a particular sect shown in a famous West Asian movie directed by a famous director. He visually presented his thoughts on the saga of that woman. In our country, every hour women face hardships. Women have to live apprehensively in exploitative and painful circumstances. This Indian artist never saw the situation of these women as global. Why? Is it just because no famous international director ever made a film on them? Is this what is called freedom of expression? Is it the right to reject that which is not saleable? It’s like no sorrow over mother’s death at home but an international heroine should not die. What an obnoxious psyche! Such a psyche is tolerated in our country. Many paintings of that artist were sold. He became famous within a short span of time. A theory to become famous faster developed from this selfish approach, simply place famous personalities in your paintings and your road to fame is clear.

In our country, during the seventies, one of the senior artists had plotted this way and now it is apparent that many artists followed his path. Such rapid-success achievers had raided Gandhiji’s character a few years back. Gandhiji sitting with Jawaharlal Nehru, in conversation with Vallabhbhai Patel, spinning yarn on the  charkha, following a little boy  by holding one end of a stick, the other end of it being held by that little boy, walking with arms resting on two young ladies’ shoulders, bending to lift the salt etc. Such frozen moments from Gandhiji’s life were painted. One artist painted Gandhiji’s words ‘Hey Ram’ which he had uttered in his death bed. The artist had given a particular shape to the sound of words ‘Hey Ram’ and presented it visually. The painting showing Gandhiji lifting salt had raised price of salt at that time, so once more the signal for Satyagraha over salt reverberated across free India! But since only Gandhiji had the right to conduct Satyagraha and as it ended with his death, salt became costly and went on becoming more costly. Nowadays, due to land acquisition, the salt labourers are ruined but the artists never feel like making a painting on them. This is the tragic end of Gandhism.

From this, there can only be one conclusion: To gain publicity, it is necessary to be in touch with famous personalities through paintings. Greatness, fame, success, all these are magnified terms nurtured by established and worldly-wise artists. And to achieve these, struggle with artworks and compromising on exaggerated concepts has become a part of the daily life of today’s artist.

To give Gandhiji a breather, one artist painted a series on men and women of Gandhiji’s times. Those paintings were painted in the style of movie hoardings. Watching them, a student asked me, “Sir, if these hoardings should be called paintings then what should actual hoardings be called?” I said, “Until someone brings them to a gallery, till then call them hoardings.”

Part III

‘To Survive’ and ‘to Live’ are two different angles of viewing human life. Of the two, in today’s detrimental world, survival has hogged a lot of importance. A tendency is developing to make the process of survival more comfortable, happy, stable and having status. Therefore, in a society which equates survival with living, life’s principles are based on the benefits of money, status and fame. Due to the habit of leading a financially and socially safe life, the adventurous spirit necessary for exploring novel paths of life seems to be receding with every passing generation. Therefore, the narrowly contented, middle-class, working category is on rise. As a result, society seems to be developing a ludicrous attitude. It is therefore no wonder that the artist who comes from such a society is also ludicrous and sly due to generations of experience.  

Such a society faces a recurring question at every turning point: ‘What next?’ Creating art is a subjective matter, where modes of earning are quiet rare. Therefore, after completing one’s education in art, the very first thing, the struggle to Survive, suppresses the artist mentally, intellectually, emotionally and morally. In search of ways to earn, the artist himself, knowingly or unknowingly, falls prey to various pressures, starts compromising and goes on developing unexciting attitudes. He does not even get the expected moral support from his family. So, in spite of being with everyone, he is still lonely. Frankly, sacrifice, struggle, confusion… all these things seem funny to him.
(Digital artworks by Tathi Premchand)
But this is the right time for him; to mould himself according to his own will and turn in the right direction. Much like seeds that need to be sown in the right season to grow into plants, this is the right time to sow the principles of life in one’s own personality. Once sown, these seeds need to be properly tended to yield the right results. But in our futile and gluttonous society, the number of such artists is very few and that is the stinging truth. Therefore, in such society, selfish, opportunistic, self-centered approaches do not stop budding. As a result, the process of enriching cultural treasure and passing it over to our next generation has been all but busted. There is a vacuum of a thoughtful and morally supportive cultural treasure.

The artist turns out to be lout and of yielding nature He starts feeling smug by treading the set paths. Like in the West, the inspirational or enthusiasm booster ideology did not develop here. And due to the lack of thinking capacity in artists, the modern philosophy of visual art is failing to gain prominence. As a result, the number of mediocre artists making a career out of art is growing day by day. Artists are attracted towards popular art. Therefore forget ‘Art for Art sake,’ even the ‘Art for Living’ aim has suffered a setback. ‘Art for the People, for the Entertainment of the People’ is ruling; such assured means of a monetarily profitable option is seen to be chosen by the artists.

The category of artworks that I mentioned in the first part of my article is based on this option. In such a society, along with the others, even artists seem to be in hurry to become rich and acquire luxury. In their hurry, valuable help is provided by the computer. But instead of making the computer their slave, artists themselves have become slaves of the computer. While they kept on saying ‘Seize the world in your hands,’ they themselves do not know when they got clutched by the computer. A pin- code became their identity in the global race.

Part IV

The artworks that I described in the first part of my article, all those artworks are just Ideas for me, sheer Aborted Ideas!
Thinking of an idea, deliberating over it, visualizing it and sometimes purposely, or at times with natural inclination, developing it… This process is not followed by the artists. Instead, I find that artists are inclined to Imitate their ideas as it is. What’s the point in copying the image which is already set in mind and formed by uniting two different types, shades, shapes and faces?

Twenty years ago, an army officer would send his juniors to the jungle and make them cut those parts of trees which he saw had shapes of human, animal, birds, flowers and leaves. He would get those portions cut and sent across to his bungalow. After further processing of that lifeless wood, he would technically perfect them and display them in a gallery on pedestals that were more beautiful than the artworks. I remembered him and realized that there is no difference between his mediocre view of art and the so-called today’s contemporary artists’ modern outlook. The time has come for the artists who tag their artwork with terms like Post-Modern, New Wave, Off Beat, Different, Creative, and Most Contemporary, to do some self-assessment. The recession period in the art market must have emerged for this. If they do not strictly do their self-assessment, then time would never forgive them. Not only that, they may not even get another opportunity.

Besides wishing them well, I also want to tell these artists: If you are settled in the art market, then it is difficult. Some kind of instability is necessary for an artist. The apprehension about the future, the life from which painting is comprehended, blossoms, unfolds, and the attraction that develops towards leading a life, towards trust and self-confidence, makes you strong. Strengthened hopes due to getting less than expected, and a sincere yearning to present something visually that is totally related to you and that persistent wish go on all these things forge you. And if all these aspects that are vital in creativity are missing, then life itself would be unexciting. Then forget creating an artwork, you would not even be capable of recognizing it. The rise in the art market in the recent past has done a good thing, it has blurred the difference between classical and commercial art. But at the same time, the bad habit of calling commercial art ‘classical’ has become an established practice. It has done a grave damage to Fine Art by promoting only commercially viable art, establishing salable art as true art. It is like nourishing a leech instead of original tree on which it grows. 

Truly speaking, philosophically, human creativity is like an ocean and the waves arising in it are the various art forms. Only for our selfish convenience do we give them different names.

That which is closer to formless is ‘immortal’ and that which is away from it on the other end is ‘mortal.’ And the various attributes of these two contrasting yet attracting characters are the supreme visual luxuries of original creativity. Which attribute one should adopt depends on the taste of the individual and that choice is a basic freedom. To safeguard this freedom, one needs a conviction and a wish to involve in the selected attribute. And the expressive form of this unyielding wish is artwork. In today’s international world, I would deliberately like to mention two artworks in which we find this hearty involvement. One of them is Joseph Beuys’ Tram Stop and another one is  Anish Kapoor’s ‘S’ Curve (this was exhibited recently in India). My thoughts, presented in this article, are highlighted by these artworks, which project the said artists’ philosophy of art, which are contemporary and have an intellectual perspective because of their involvement in the attribute that they selected.  

In Joseph Beuys’ Tram Stop, the feel of initially slow but rapidly increasing visual vibration makes us realize his complete involvement in the assembled art sculpture. This is the first installation of the art world. The ground is dug up and an iron pillar is erected at the centre, with head carved in wood (of artist himself) placed atop, stretched tram rails lie on the sides and the water connection under the ground is joined by a tube to the rail above the ground, all these settings meet in a cusp as we find human bones peeping out of the excavated mud. It reminds one of Europe’s political history, memories of a tyrannical past flash by. The dust of numerous houses ruined in the World War and the victims, whose blood had seeped in their own motherland, are symbolized by the wet mud and the bones, the tram rail is a metaphor of eternal speed; and the erected column at the centre and the presence of human head atop, together constitute this one installation. That is why though it is Beuys’ autobiography, it does not remain so, it becomes general. It’s as if Europe’s entire past rises in the form of that column and waits for tram. People come and go but the tram stop permanently awaits the arrival of the future and so, just like itself, the Stop also makes the observer stand still.
The magnitude of Anish Kapoor’s huge, attractive stainless steel artwork clearly indicates that it  was not made manually, but moulded in a factory. Nevertheless, Anish’s fastidious supervision acts as a cloaked tool, guiding it meticulously to its precise form and striking finishing. The shine, quality and worth of the steel used in making the sculpture are witnesses of the artist’s conviction. The huge form of the sculpture and its accommodative quality, which integrates it with the surrounding environment, along with the human verve, mesmerize us; while experiencing it, Anish’s unlimited powerful ideas and intellectual wisdom amaze us. Along with live human beings, the surrounding animate and inanimate objects are entertainingly mocking. Without seizing their freedom, the artist transfers his extraordinary imaginative power into the sculpture’s matter. Without compromising on magical skill or quality, he gives protruding shapes and curves at proper places and in proper proportions. Therefore, as we observe the sculpture, so does it observe us and the innocent joy of observing and gazing is experienced by us in a very childlike manner.

I regret to state that, today most of the art forms look like artifacts, they are forms without aesthetic content because the artists do not ‘think art’, they ‘make art.’ Basically, artists need to express visually through colours and content which should create a vibration in the observer, who should feel the painting. But now, artists fail to create that stir, they do not communicate visually, so they need to explain their artwork in words burdened with personal philosophy. The paintings are written with colours and forms and sculptures with readymade objects. They make, assemble or manufacture art. I really don’t understand whether they themselves know what they do and why they do whatever they do.


  1. Thanks for sharing Pankaja JK.
    A powerful message indeed!
    makes one to introspect,question the substance
    of contemporary visual art,visual language and practices.
    Best wishes.
    - Jayant.

  2. Art world is nothing but a battle of judgemental frames...

  3. Awanti Seth-Rabenhoej5 August 2014 at 08:17

    Artists have a role to play in society, and until artists, figure this out and take on the responsibility, art will remain empty and will stand for and communicate nothing, just copied ideas. Now whether the role of an artist in society has to be taught or comes on its own is for each individual artist to think about, figure out and get going.

  4. >> Last year, an artist in London tied a live dog to a post in a gallery and left it there to starve… Live till Death. The dog died within few days, writhing in pain but that won the artist the Turner Award.<<
    Can anyone point me to this work of art? The closest I got was David Shrigley’s work “I’m dead”, but that was a stuffed dog, which is not quite what is implied here. Moreover, it was in the Turner shortlist, but did not win the award. (Laure Prouvost won it.)
    More detail at -

  5. Creating original and unique art is more complex than most think. Having some technical knowledge and the means to materialise an idea, are just the beginning of an inner struggle of being an artist. Creating art and making art to make money with, are two different thing. The 'romantic dream' of being an artist is killed off by the realisation of harsh realities of survival. Only the ones who have the innermost urge, dedication and patience to go on regardless, can be capable to creating something unique. But that takes hard work, many years and there is no gaurantee of fame or fortune during or after their lives. Most of the 'artists' are confused here and that is why there are so many imitations and less Art.


Thanks for comment JK