Street Art. Beach Art. Wall Art. Mall Art. Art lovers have never had it this good. The recent India Art Fair in New Delhi and Art Chennai have brought art out of the galleries and into the public space.

As Sanjay Tulsyan, the convenor of Art Chennai, puts it: “Be a part of this exciting cultural wave that is ready to hit Chennai’s shores.” For nine days in February, the third edition of Art Chennai has been swirling around the city’s streets and citadels of commerce and culture to showcase a multi-disciplinary range of artistic talents.

Remember the old heresies of artists, poets and writers having to live in splendid solitude communing with their inner selves? Take the tragic history of Ramanujam, one of the most sought-after artists from the Cholamandal Artists’ Village today. Though Ramanujam and his dog are probably the most recognised icons in his body of work, people still tell you stories of how he died of institutional neglect, drinking poison along with his dog. Today’s Ramanujams would be out on the streets painting the walls of colleges. In all likelihood, even the dog would be painting; such is the enthusiasm of the public to be seen to embrace the new artistic millennium.

It begs a number of questions: has Indian art finally come of age? Or — to use a term that Girish Shahane, the brilliant young curator of the Art Chennai initiative, has coined — is it a question of “Bright Noise”? By bringing together a number of artists working in different fields using diverse forms of communication, is any kind of dialogue possible? Or are we entering a super-market of competing voices where market-driven initiatives, endorsed by their promoters — read curators — decide what’s best for the consumer? After decades of being lulled into a semi-comatose stupor by state-driven art, have the commissars of culture been replaced by the curators of multi-diversity?

Subodh Gupta — who has single-handedly turned the term “monumental” on its head by his stunning “monometal” creations to become the Damien Hirst of stainless steel buckets, lotas, and the homely tiffin carriers — had this one-liner to offer in a discussion on Art: “Art is a mirror of the times”. (Subodh Gupta on NDTV).

Hirst, let it be noted, is best known for his cabinets of curiosities of embalmed bovines but he’s also created art works of multiple objects, painted dots, or pharmaceutical capsules arranged serially just as you might find in a shop window. Some of these works remind us how crucial packaging is to contemporary art. Or how signage and graffiti have taken over the purview of meaning. Instant art is very comforting. For it requires nothing more from the viewer than an instant nod of recognition, or a shrug of rejection. Today, just as you may see multiple packets of potato crisps, of noodles, or instant soups arranged in attractive serial displays, “more is less” art too arrives with a manifesto of intent with its loud proclamations and dissolves in a puff of ultimate irrelevance.

Sensitive commentators of the current art market may well scoff at the “more is less” theme parks that have inspired political leaders from one end of the sub-continent to the other to erect statues of themselves, or their surrogates, imaginary, legendary, or otherwise.  Somewhere, at some remote place, there are craftspeople chipping stone, hammering metal, or pouring wax into moulds to create monumental effigies that are as Gupta has pointed out, a mirror of our times.

Just as we cannot argue with a stainless steel bucket, or even a multitude of stainless steel forms welded together, we cannot initiate a dialogue with scores of Mayawati look-alikes clutching a handbag. Though let it be also said, that there is a certain transparency of purpose in this image. She’s not hiding her need for a symbol of power. Just as in the past our rulers needed their seven-tiered umbrellas and chowrie bearers to stand by their side fanning their multiple stone images.

It’s the anonymity of these types of image-makers that is disturbing. This is where we as consumers of some of these art forms should feel a sense of disquiet. When the artist fades into the background and ceases to be involved in the process of creating a work of art, or making those monumental leaps into the darkness of uncertainty, not knowing what will emerge from the fire of his, or her imagination, but paints or sculpts to satisfy a passing trend or fashion as dictated by commercial considerations, there is a terrible sameness in the product. Airport art, hotel art, convention hall art tend to have the same deadening anonymity of the steel and glass facades that make up the exterior of the building. They speak of nothing.

Or to put it in the words of Susan Sontag, the American thinker, on the importance of allowing the artist to be the nay-sayers, or followers, of what we might call the “Not This. Not this,” path towards self-knowledge: “And even when art is not oppositional, the arts gravitate towards contrariness.”

That perhaps is the best argument for allowing art to come out of the galleries and museums into the market place. For as the often-controversial Kochi-Muziris Biennale, that took place in Kochi on the cusp of last year, demonstrated, the city itself became the site of the artistic explorations. Legend and myth, trade and commerce, tradition and technology, ritual and performance entwined themselves into one thick cable of many diverse strands, speaking in as many voices as there are sounds.

Whether in the marketplace, or in the museums, or in our private spaces, we need to liberate those voices. We need more than ever to listen.


For the peopleFebruary 15, 2014