Recounting a chance meeting with an artist in rural India, and by tracing the life of Charles Biederman, Santanu Borah discusses the assumptions that cloud the recognition of an “Artist”
The romance that seems to be wedded to the idea of the long-suffering artist keeps away important knowledge about our visual and cultural life. Most artists reside and grow in oblivion. And in this larger pool of artists, as statistics would have it, survive the ones who are probably far more unique and penetrative explorers of the aesthetic realm than some of the masters that we eventually come to identify with as “the Artist”. But the truth is far simpler. “The Artist” comes in many shapes and sizes. S/he is, most often, far removed from what we think an artist is or ought to be.
While travelling on a bicycle on the lonely roads of a cyclone-ravaged Puri in Odisha, I came across a family that was indistinguishable from the teeming majority of India, who look undernourished. The family was engaged in the business of carving buddhas, animals and other assorted gods from granite and other varieties of rocks that I know little about. I decided to purchase a small buddha bust from this family, and got on to the business of finding the bust that most reflected my predictable urban “uniqueness”. That’s when I met one variety of “the Artist”, who happened to be the “boss” of the shop. He was driving away birds from a field with a slingshot. As I learnt a while later, the field was not his but of a mid-level local landowner. The Artist and his family had been tilling this field for over 30 years, and it was their main source of income.
While I instantly tried to summon up words like “injustice” to rationalise the condition of this Artist, which also happens to be the story of millions of Indians across India, he surprised and shut me up with what he said next in a Hindi that was as imperfect as the idea of the Artist itself: “You see, it is better that we don’t own this land or farm, though we could have had it easier as we would probably have more money then. But that would mean we would have to employ people and maintain books of audit, which would mean we would not sculpt stone every day and nor would I draw or etch every day. That is our main strength. And to remain strong, we have to do it as often as possible and do things that make our work better, like learning stories from the epics and folk songs. A good story makes for good drawings or stonework. Our work is very good, that is why you see so many outside tourist (sic) value our work, especially foreign ones. However, as farmers we are average. Probably, as landowners, we would stand out even less. Our side business is our main occupation. It runs in our blood.”
The Artist in this case did not seem to worry about the injustices that I thought he was a victim of. He just lived his life and did what he had to do. The dignity with which he recounted his life to me was truly enthusing as it did not betray any pain. It was so matter of fact that I stopped feeling sorry for him. After a chai with this gentleman with dusty chappals, I began to understand the kind of depth he operated from. When he sketched a bird, it actually took flight in his heart and his inner eye. When he painted the muddied fields, he knew how the mud felt when he planted paddy in it. He knew what he drew. It was his life, not just an idyllic picture. Our short conversation ended in about half an hour, as he was not on holiday like me. He had work to do. As I cycled away, it occurred to me that the Artist was beyond the romances that journos, critics and gallerists create to make them saleable. I even felt that the Artist of the kind I had just met, would feel like a creature out of his habitat if cameras flashed in his eyes and random magazine-friendly questions were thrown at him.
When I think of artists of this vein, I can’t help thinking of Charles Biederman, a resident of Minnesota that very few knew about while he was alive. Biederman was your onest-to-goodness rebel. He did not engage in outlandish behaviour that would create a myth or a legend around him. He simply believed in “pure art” and that led him to distance himself from auxiliary necessities of the art world, like the right network, curators, the cognoscenti, critics, galleries and so on. He would ask gallerists to visit his farmhouse that was a long way away from the cities, if they wanted his work – something you rarely see today. He also dropped out of School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1929, despite winning the prestigious Paul Trebeilcock Prize due to ideological differences with the faculty. His desire to not take regular art classes and dwell in formalist ideas frustrated his teachers as they thought he was prodigiously talented. To top that he wasn’t the nicest of man and could resort to what can be best described as a raw streak of arrogance that was patently disliked by the art world, including artists. He would readily denounce the Meccas of art like Paris and New York as places that crawled with folks who were “washed up and phony”— clearly something that would be bad for any artist’s career. Much later on, he is best known for describing himself as the “best unknown artist in America”.
His stock kept growing and in the 1950s, he introduced the word “structuralism” to describe his art so that it would not be mistaken for Constructivist and De Stijl works. During this time, he also wrote extensively, besides corresponding with the physicist David Bohm. True to form, he rejected his “guru” Fernand Leger and moved on towards a simplified and geometric understanding of nature. Eventually, he even gave up painting to make three-dimensional reliefs, so that natural light could be a character in the stories he created.
He danced to his own beat and lived to be 98. He did as he pleased and filtered out whatever his life did not need in the pursuit of his art.
He remained unknown for the most part but still affected the cultural landscape profoundly. As he once said, he sought to observe nature as a dog does – without poetic exultation or frenzy, but as quietly, plainly and naturally as possible. He was the Artist of his own kind, after his own mind.