In the fourth installment of this six part series, art critic and curator V. Divakar talks about the “exclusive artists” who have hijacked the real art that happens across India. In conversation with Santanu Borah. Read Part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here
In order to understand what disruption in art means, it is important to talk not only to artists but also those who observe artists and art. It was only natural that we speak to V. Divakar, a curator and art critic. He also edits a bi-monthly called The Baroda Pamphlet, on art and culture. Besides that, he manages an experimental art collective called ‘Knots’ in Baroda. His other interests include films, music, books and star gazing. At the Conflictorium, he curates exhibitions on various themes and facilitates the artist-in-residency programmes.
Divakar has the education to back him up in his curatorial practice. He did his master’s in art criticism from M S University in 2005. After that he worked in Bangalore as an art history lecturer for five years.
He has been a part of Conflictorium since 2015, which talks about conflict and addresses various issues through art and culture. It is now a 9-year-old full-fledged museum.
Now, let us delve into the question we are looking at: What is disruption?
“Disruption is a radical change in art. Fundamentally art is a disruptive process against complacency or normalcy or numbness in society. Like Banksy said, art is something that should disturb you, not make you comfortable,” he says. “Unfortunately, art practice has become a part of the market-oriented idea. You don’t have only one sort of idea or understanding, but disruption is about breaking down the established notion of art. We are a caste-based society and, unfortunately, art practice in general also moves along the same lines. Only true art can disrupt these established notions,” he adds.
Talking about the overall art firmament of India, he says that if you took India as a whole, every year over fifty thousand artists pass out of art schools, but only 15-20 artists are considered to be important at the end of the day. “If you look at the mainstream you will see a only handful of artists and they are from the upper caste framework, what you call the savarna caste. Practically, there has hardly been anyone from other backgrounds. In the 70 years of our Independence, we don’t really have anyone from the tribal background or the oppressed class who are taking the centrestage. It’s only maybe in the last five years that some artists are getting some kind of wider acceptance,” he says.
“The tragedy is that there are innumerable artists but the system is so casteist and classist that it does not allow artist from less fortunate backgrounds to get to some position of status. Nor do they get even some exposure into the mainstream idea of what an artist is,” he says, talking about the elitism in art.
However, he understands that the elite or those who control the art world may not be doing it deliberately. “It is a conditioned, systemic approach, not that people are innocent or ignorant of it. Many people know about it but no one wants to disrupt the system. In the end the art world is like a lottery system and people do not want to miss out on opportunities. The art world is not really a democratic system. While the idea is that everyone can practice art, but can everyone really practice art? The art world is controlled and maintained by a select few who decide what the framework of what it means to be an artist is, no matter how proficient they may be. The art world has its own diktats and there are rules of the game,” he adds.
According to Divakar, art should disrupt this system which has become numb to the real art that is happening in various parts of India. “The art world is so numb that most of the biggest names in it does not take significant positions on culture and society. Very few artists take strong positions. We are living in a crisis-ridden society. Very few art professionals, critics and artists take positions which actually hold a mirror to this elitism,” he says.
In Divakar’s estimation, the “cognoscenti” do not want to disrupt the flow of how things are right now. “For the people in positions of power in art, there is a certain sanction or acceptance for certain aesthetics, verbal aesthetics, or certain ideas that make the cut according to them, while the multitude of other ideas that exists out there are overlooked. For instance, many artists talk about Gandhi but very few talk about Ambedkar. That is a safe space to be in, because it is accepted by all. But there are so many artists working on Ambedkar and social justice, but where are they being seen or heard? Only a few artists or critics actually talk about it. The fact is those innumerable artists are faceless and their ideas do not find the space they deserve, because there is a certain sanction for a certain aesthetic product. It is that simple. We produce what is consumed, often it is meaningless consumption. Only uncritical stuff is sold and consumed. Dynasties work in art like everywhere else,” he adds.
Divakar’s work at Conflictorium seeks to shake up this closely guarded established notion of what is considered art. “We do not necessarily do what is established. We act as a platform for different voices to be heard and many unheard issues to be raised. We look at what the lesser-known people have to say about social structure that is critical or crucial. We create space for unrepresented voices,” he says.
“We are looking at significant voices who may not be a part of the upper reaches of the art world. We are not worried about selling. We want to know what a piece of art is actually saying. Are they mirroring the needs of the community they come from,” he explains. He also believes that an artist is not separate from art. “Anyone can talk about social issues but where it comes from matters a lot,” he says.
Talking about what he likes in art, he says that as an individual he does not think a good piece of art needs to necessarily look at grand things. “A piece of art can also talk about something simple or personal or even historical, but it needs to connect and appeal to you,” he says.
However, he is certain of the fact that there is nothing that is not political in art because art also depends on who is looking at it. “Art must obviously be political. There is no argument. The personal is political,” he adds.
Divakar feels it is a folly that many think an art practice is something extraordinary. “An art practice is a normal human endeavour, like any other human endeavour. Art is a simple thing, a method of expression. A human quality will automatically connect with people. In short, it is a human thing,” he says.
Talking about the diva-esque attitude of some famous artists, he says there are many others who do good work. Not only the few celebrities out there. “You know everyone wants to mystify their practice. It is like the concept of god. But it is actually simple. Really good artists know how to talk about their art simply. It is a visual language and it is not necessary that whatever you are saying is cent percent dot on. We are all different people so there will be a gap somewhere, but we can still understand each other. But if you do not want somebody to understand you, you tend to mystify your practice and make it unapproachable. For instance, you speak Gujarati or English but they are just different languages and every language is a different way of expressing,” he adds.
Dwelling on the language of art critics who have puzzling language and often use it to celebrate artists who may not deserve it, he says, “Unfortunately, the language in which we talk about art today is English. It is not our mother tongue. It was forced upon us. Only maybe a small percentage can get it, the privileged maybe. It is a wonder that not many notice how many people are already out of the dialogue because of this. Many critics use embellished, often incomprehensible, language to describe art. But it is possible to say a work is good in simple language.”
However, he clarifies that he does not mean that he wishes to reduce the complex issues of art into something simplistic. “There is a problem in art writing, but you can talk about complex issues simply. Unfortunately, we have only a very few critics who make things simple. Art writing, in many cases, is like reading the Vedas. However, the Vedas are almost dead and nobody really reads them. The art critic cannot be like a high priest who only caters to a privileged few. It not only does disservice to art but also to culture in general,” he says.
According to him galleries are in the business of art and profit-making is inherent to it. It is clear because it is an investment at the end of the day. So, it is quite likely that they might not always act in the interest of art. Which is why he believes that independent artists will have to create their own platforms to be heard.
In fact, he goes on to say that the so-called “art world” is an exclusive club. However, he adds that this exclusive club is actually a small thing because most artists are out of it. Only a small fraction of artists are in this exclusive club. So, it is fallacy to think that this small group of people will actually matter eventually. “Let this small group of 15 or 16 per cent people enjoy their exclusive space. While the virtual space can be democratic, still it is manipulated. And look at the books written – it is always about the same set of people. They are the mainstream, the alternative and the radicals. They are part of every system that we know about. They need their spectacles and their biennales. Not that biennale’s are not always showing under-represented artists, but the process of selecting artists is not democratic. A select few decide who is good or bad. But there are innumerable artists who are around, who are operating with meagre means. Everything is sucked out by the exclusive club. But you can practice outside it. You don’t need it. You can remain apart from the gallery system. Is a tribal artist educated in some big art school? If you look at it really, the mainstream is the 85 per cent who are not in the elitist exclusive club. It’s not the other way round. It’s an undemocratic system,” he elaborates.
So, whom does Divakar consider to be artists who are disruptive and yet out of the mainstream? Art according to him is not a cult of celebrity but a “human-making process”. These are his picks: Shibu Natesan (who is now well known), Raju Patel, Hiren Patel, Sriju Radhakrishnan, Sanjiv Mondal, G Mahesh… “This list is very long. We only have to open our eyes and hearts and take a good look around,” he says.