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The state of art and criticism

Moving shoulder to shoulder with the professional elite of the art world, an art writer or critic fails to tread a different path of his own and forgets his professional ethics.

Published: 11th October 2021 12:03 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th October 2021 12:03 AM   |  A+A-

People view the photographs displayed at Rohini Art Gallery

One of the most important ideas that reshaped the concept of art in its post-modern manifestations was the refutation of the artist being celebrated as a prophet. The artist-prophet was placed in the centre of some type of cultic practice that was ruling the roost in 20th-century modern art. It is by exploiting this cultic practice that the art market had proliferated and legitimated its expressions. However, the idea that meant to uproot the artist from his prophetic world did not have a long-lasting effect. On the contrary, post-modern art reasserted the significance of the artist and elevated his position from the prophet to God. And what is known as the art world today mainly operates around the godly stature of the artist. The gallery owner, curator, dealer, critic, art writer and the media, with their enormous skill in manipulation, have been continuously engaged in making and exploiting the image of the artist as an extraordinary genius for each one’s professional need.

Moving shoulder to shoulder with these professional elite of the art world, an art writer or critic fails to tread a different path of his own and forgets his professional ethics. He forgets the basic idea that the critic should first of all position himself with the public. Under the pretext of writing for the art public, he ends up writing to feed the interests of the artist, art dealer and gallerist. In a single word, he writes for the art market. The market requires the printed words of the writer to render a work priceless or valuable. This basic demand for art writing does not motivate the writer to assess the work from an ethical or aesthetic point of view. He is rather carried away by the idea that a given work has to be interpreted in favour of the rules of the game. In such a condition, criticism as a structure of thought—which includes explanation, analysis, interpretations and critical judgment—comes to be no more.

Without following academic rigour and theoretical concepts of any kind, art criticism in the real sense of the term has now migrated to the comfortable niche of art writing. Its visibility is felt everywhere in the form of appreciation, report, catalogue text, monographs, study, journals and so on. In such forms and contexts, art writing does not seem to demand any kind of historical, aesthetic or critical awareness that constitutes the writer’s heightened sensibility for looking at a work of art from a certain position. Rhetoric and verbosity with a faint attempt to historically contextualise the work come to form the main tone and tenor of art writing. Failing to communicate any visual or conceptual aspect in convincing terms, art writing leaves the reader in the lurch more often than not.

There is an unprecedented spate of artworks that proliferate globally in any number of expressive mediums legitimated within the art world. However, the art world is in fact the sum total of a closely intertwined operation of art practice, production, exhibition and market forces. Within this nexus of operation, art is hardly thought of as what once it was. Social instability, alienation, personal unrest or anomie falls outside the concern of art’s thematic sphere today. The surface of the work literally falls flat and depthless, being devoid of meaningful images. Fredric Jameson therefore says with reference to Andy Warhol’s work (Diamond Dust Shoes), “Now a kind of superficiality in the most literal sense [is] perhaps the most formal feature of painting today—a strange, decorative exhilaration, the glitter of gold dust, the spangling gilt sand that seals the surface of the painting and yet continues to glint at us.” This depthlessness corresponds with a zone of purposeless free play with materials and symbols. Still the art works are circulated in the global market. As Julian Stallabrass says, “You may have a German collector buying, through a British dealer, the work of a Chinese artist residing in the US.” This international trade basically serves not the purpose of art but of monetary benefits “including investment, tax avoidance and money laundering”.

In spite of all these facts, one is still confronted with an influx of art writings that tend to labour on theorising, interpreting and legitimating the work produced by market forces. Like the image and symbol bereft of meaning in the works, art writing has become equally depthless to become a sonorous verbiage. It is at this moment of crisis that art criticism with academic rigour and intellectual honesty is expected to resurface in order to reclaim its real function. But running against our expectations, art writing, as hinted at above, is rampant. Although its visibility is felt everywhere, the most striking paradox is that art writing is hardly read but only ‘seen’. One who seriously approaches art and its theoretical studies scarcely reads art writing; sometimes one flips through the pages looking here and there while waiting for a bus, train or flight. No one is keen to save the art writings appearing in voluminous books for future reference. As James Elkins says, “There just isn’t enough meat in them to make a meal; some are fluffy, others conventional, or clotted with polysyllabic praise.” So much so that Elkins makes an interesting observation: “Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored.”

In this sense, art criticism/art writing marks its decay.  But that is not strictly true because “its business is booming: It attracts an enormous number of writers and often benefits from high-quality colour printing and worldwide distribution. In that sense, art criticism is flourishing but … out of sight of contemporary intellectual debates. So it’s dying, but it’s everywhere. It is ignored but everywhere it has the market behind it” (Elkins). Most of the renowned Indian art critics are also part of this system. That is the most perplexing reality that we confront in Indian art today, because we are left with no criteria to differentiate the good from the bad.

Chandran T V, Art critic & author. Teaches art history at the College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram (chandrantv67@gmail.com)



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