A not-so-modern view on modern art

A not-so-modern view on modern art
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First Published: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 10 03 PM IST

Art for art’s sake: Ambika Soni at the opening of the NGMA, Bangalore. Shailendra Bhojak / PTI
Art for art’s sake: Ambika Soni at the opening of the NGMA, Bangalore. Shailendra Bhojak / PTI
Updated: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 10 03 PM IST
What I want to know is, who invited the man? Ambika Soni was in town. After years of stagnation and infighting, Bangalore finally got its own National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). The inauguration was hurriedly put together. The day before the opening, half the artists said they hadn’t received invitations. The word on the street was that the Congress party wanted this done on their watch, before the elections. Sure, but why do such a shoddy job? And whose idea was it to invite the minister of medical education, Ramachandra Gowda, to inaugurate a modern art gallery? That’s like inviting Ramalinga Raju to open an ethics convention; or asking Anbumani Ramadoss to inaugurate a cigar bar. Not to get carried away by the Seinfeld-ian analogies but that’s like inviting a Luddite to Electronics City; or Swiss precision watchmakers to the Kumbh mela.
Gowda was in fine fettle that day as he spoke before some of the most esteemed contemporary artists of Bangalore. His instinct for appropriateness was on display.  “Modern art should not be used to distort heritage and culture,” he said and proceeded to berate the “pseudo-intellectuals who distorted the traditional arts of India”. Here we go again. Back to the culture wars of India.
Art for art’s sake: Ambika Soni at the opening of the NGMA, Bangalore. Shailendra Bhojak / PTI
Artist M.S. Murthy heckled the minister mid-speech. The minister had best shut up, he implied, given that he knew nothing about modern art.  Gowda’s cordial response: “Get out… I ask you to leave… You are great and I will fall at your feet.”
It was when Murthy was being led out by the police that it occurred to me that what Gowda had initiated was a great piece of performance art. Perhaps it was pre-planned, although given how the organizers botched the invitations, I doubt it.
Soni begged the crowd not to walk out and sensibly suggested to Gowda that art was best left to the artists.
Gowda is entitled to his opinions, he just chose to voice them at the wrong place and the wrong time. To disparage modern artists at the opening of the NGMA is like disparaging the Ramayan at a Bharatiya Janata Party rally.
Gowda seems to be a cultured man. I have seen him at the superb Ram Seva Mandali Carnatic music concerts organized in Chamarajpet, Bangalore. Thankfully, he doesn’t do much there beyond sitting in the front row and nodding to the music. But talking about modern art is an entirely different exercise, even for Gowda.
I studied sculpture for five years. I admire the sciences. Both these areas are after the “truth”, but use different methods. Modern artists—painters, sculptors, printmakers—aren’t concerned with absolute truths and scientific logic. Their quest is for an internal truth, a unifying “voice” that is reflected in their work. When Marcel Duchamp plonked a urinal in an art gallery and proclaimed that “art is anything I say it is”, he wasn’t being facetious. He was alluding to the language that all artists need to find; the vocabulary that they need to invent.  Whether it is Bharti Kher’s bindis on fibreglass or Vaikuntam’s rural Andhra motifs, most successful Indian artists delve deep into the Indian vernacular and add their own unique take on top of that. The resulting work looks vaguely Indian but not like a Raja Ravi Varma painting; it looks familiar but unlike anything we’ve seen before. The whole effect is disconcerting and frequently evokes the reaction, “What’s that?”
I love abstract art but am married to an engineer who thinks in graphs, numbers and flow charts. When we first got married, my husband educated me on worldly matters. Simple things such as giving directions. Turned out that saying, “Keep the yellow line to your left and you’ll get from Connecticut to New York” wasn’t enough. People need landmarks and specifics, he explained to me.
I gave him an arts appreciation course. I told him that it was okay to hate a painting or sculpture. But don’t try to understand it. Trying to figure things out may be fine for thermodynamics but was the totally wrong approach for art. Does the painting speak to you, I would ask, and he would stare back at it—and me—quizzically. Don’t think, just feel, I would urge. Yes, but what is it, he would persist. He didn’t actually use words such as “pseudo-intellectual” but he would understand why minister Gowda used those words.
My take is slightly different. None of us would presume to walk into a chemical engineering lab without learning the vocabulary and concepts that are fundamental to it. It is the same with art. Learning a bit about modern art—its history, its drivers and ethos—will enable you to appreciate it better. What appears “pseudo-intellectual” at one stage will start resonating when you delve deeper. Take me. I know. I come from a family without any background in art. My parents enjoy art as long as it is realistic. A fruit should look like a fruit and a swan like a swan. After studying the arts for five years, I think very differently. What minister Gowda calls traditional arts usually refers to realistic figurative art. Frankly, it bores me. It seems redundant when you have cameras that can capture things far more realistically. Abstract art, on the other hand, I love. Gorgeous vibrant art like Kandinsky’s; the early Razas before he got too geometric, Adimoolam, Gaitonde, Akbar Padamsee, and young artist Nupur Kundu. I don’t like intellectual art—Atul Dodiya doesn’t push any of my buttons. Neither does Reena Saini. Like developing a fine wine palate, art appreciation really has to do with knowing what you like. And, I hasten to add, keeping your mind open.
I read in the papers that Murthy and other artists are calling for Gowda’s resignation. That may be going too far—he, after all, deals with health and has little to do with the arts. Or should.  I would just send him Arnason’s big fat History of Modern Art, and tell him to read it cover to cover.
Shoba Narayan allies herself completely with the “pseudo-intellectuals” who minister Gowda disparaged. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Mar 06 2009. 10 03 PM IST