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To understand abstract art, try doodling

To understand abstract art, try doodling
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First Published: Thu, Jan 20 2011. 09 21 PM IST

Piece de resistance: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Divya Babu/Mint
Piece de resistance: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Divya Babu/Mint
Updated: Thu, Jan 20 2011. 09 21 PM IST
Have you Delhiites been going to the India Art Summit? Wish I could. Eighty-four galleries from 20 countries, 570 artists, including several solo shows, an estimated 60,000 visitors, and several interesting speakers, including Anish Kapoor, who is talking with Harvard’s Homi Bhabha at noon today. I would come to Delhi just to hear Kapoor talk about his work. This is an artist at the peak of his prowess—like tennis player Roger Federer in 2007, singer M.S. Subbulakshmi in 1987, fashion designer Valentino Garavani in 1989, and the world’s best chef, Rene Redzepi of Noma, now. The summit’s director Neha Kirpal has done a nice job, mixing star artists with non-intimidating ones, hoping to draw art collectors as well as novices.
Piece de resistance: Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate at Chicago’s Millennium Park. Divya Babu/Mint
Joan Didion famously said we tell ourselves stories in order to live. Ancient cultures made art in order to feel human: Witness the cave paintings of Ajanta, Ellora, Altamira and Lascaux. As civilizations modernized and professions became specialized, the visual arts too became an individual effort, rather than a collective one. The best temples of Asia, such as Angkor Wat, were built by groups of sculptors and builders. The carvers of Hampi were content to remain anonymous because they believed in the higher calling. Their art was a way of connecting them to the divine and they didn’t need individual recognition for their efforts.
It is only in the last few centuries of human existence that artistic signatures have gained value. It is only since the 14th century that we really know the names of Vermeer and Caravaggio. Once the market took over from the monarchs who patronized art, the model became more fragmented and some would say, competitive. Artists operating today are therefore involved in two parallel if contradictory quests. On the one hand, they have to discover their inner voice or the inner truth that infuses their work and makes them distinct from, say, a Cindy Sherman or a Thota Vaikuntam. On the other hand, they have to worry about how the market perceives and changes their work.
This tug between inner and outer worlds is the artist’s angst and it is the central obsession in their lives. You want your work to be seen; to sell. But you don’t want the market to pollute and dilute your artistic voice. The artists who conquer this contradiction do so through a combination of talent and serendipity. Kapoor’s distilled site-specific sculptures are ethereal and wonderful. But the fact that the world has woken up to and appreciates his abstract simplicity rather than abstract chaos along the lines of Jackson Pollock helps. Kapoor is more Constantin Brancusi than Alberto Giacometti, but the fact is that Giacometti’s figurative art could have “won” over the current success of abstract art. Kapoor’s flowering of talent came at a serendipitous time and this, I guess, is what our Indian astrologers call destiny.
I was a metal sculptor for five years. It was the happiest time of my life. The gift of art is that it allows you to take primordial nameless images that are before words or before music and convert them into something tangible. To beat a sheet of metal into curves; to apply heat and bend it to suit the image in your mind offers the kind of pleasure that words don’t. I gave up art when I began moving from continent to continent but someday I will take it up again. And then I will begin singing again. Metal sings and when you sing to it, it blooms.
Those in the art business—curators, auctioneers, historians and gallery owners—work with a contradiction too. On the one hand, they have to work with an elite group of clients who are knowledgeable in the jargon and history of art. Yet, at the same time, they have to make art accessible to the broader public to attract the next generation of art collectors. This is difficult, because if you talk to people who aren’t in the artistic milieu, they find it hard to relate to contemporary art. A tiny percentage of the general public visits art museums or galleries and if you take them into galleries, they often stare at abstract paintings bemusedly and then ask the oft-repeated question, “What does this mean?”
The last time I took a group of schoolchildren into an art museum, an interesting variation of this question came up. There I was, going through my usual spiel about Renoir and Raza, when one kid piped up with the question, “How do I understand this painting?” The painting in question was a beautiful piece of abstract art by Ram Kumar. It was devoid of anything figurative. There were no hooks from reality that the viewer could hang his understanding on. Hence the question: How do I approach this piece of art? How do I get it?
I have thought about this question for years and I believe that I have come up with an answer. You want to understand art? Try doodling. When you look at a piece of abstract art and think, “My five-year-old could have done this. And better,” I say to you, “Try it.”
Doodling is what we all used to do. It is what kids do before their work takes shape. When you try to doodle a piece of abstract art, you realize how difficult it is to conceive and make; you realize that you have to make a call as to when it is finished; you realize that it is not so simple to create something “nonsensical”.
Carry a sketch pad to the Art Summit. When you stare at a painting that you consider weird, pull out your pad and doodle it. It will not just help you understand art better; it may put you on the road to becoming an artist.
Shoba Narayan’s current favourite pieces of art are Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate and Dhananjay Goverdhane’s Village Lady. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jan 20 2011. 09 21 PM IST