This ‘dumbing down’ is particularly lethal for the arts because the discourse about arts in the media is brought on par with the language of selling soap or toothpaste.
Harin-da would have sung a different tune had he been around now. It is possible today for an average middle class urban Indian, modestly inclined towards the arts, to spend virtually every evening of the year at art openings, book launches or poetry readings or be a fixture at the avalanche of music, theatre or dance festivals.
Or, like those more severely afflicted, swing from city to city in pursuit of the transformative moment at the now ubiquitous film festival, enjoying as much of a dizzy high as the stock market. Why, even my native small town Thrissur, now boasts of a fairly robust ‘international’ film festival. Makeover
The artist too has undergone an image makeover, shifting out of the slot reserved for the slightly eccentric, unsavoury and almost lunatic fringe and smoothly sliding into the world of designer clothes, cocktail parties, page-3 capers and even sharing canvas-space with the big boys of the corporate world.
Unless, of course, you happen to be studying or teaching art at some place like M.S.University, Baroda. Then you need a helmet and an insurance policy to survive the onslaughts of ‘democratic’ mob interventions in the arts.
But to get serious, ‘art’ and its practice and meanings have undergone tectonic shifts in the past half-a-century. We need to come to terms today with an entirely unprecedented context within which ‘art’ needs to find a new justification for itself.
The organicity, autonomy and subversive potential of art, seems severely threatened in our times. On the one hand, there is a comprehensive ‘dumbing down’ of intellectual culture by media networks, as they become the “new missionaries of corporate capitalism”. This ‘dumbing down’ is particularly lethal for the arts because the discourse about arts in the media is brought on par with the language of selling soap or toothpaste.
With the global merging of culture, entertainment and the economy and the pushing of all societies into the ‘mega store’ of cultural wares, two distinct consequences follow — one, the co-option of art within the larger ‘Spectacle Economy’ of ‘Visual Culture’; and second, the conversion of the discourse on art into a discourse on ‘design’.
The tools of Structuralism had helped us realise that, like other forms of cognition, art too exists squarely within the ‘politics of cultural representation’. Inevitably now, art has become a crucial element within ‘visual culture’. Since, it is obvious that all ‘representation’ is grounded in social practice, ‘visual culture’ stands for our contemporary world of heightened spectacle pervaded by visual commodities, information, entertainment.
This might have pushed ‘art’ towards the idea of the ‘image’, which obviously, is the primary form of ‘commodity’ in today’s ‘spectacle economy’ of global proportions.
Radical French critic Guy Debord, in his seminal work The Society of the Spectacle, defined ‘spectacle’ as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes an ‘image’”. Reverse phenomenon
As critics have pointed out, now a reverse phenomenon can be acknowledged: “The ‘spectacle’ is an ‘image’ accumulated to the point where it becomes ‘capital’.”
This means even ‘dissident’ positions might have the ‘sanction’ of the ‘spectacle economy’. The exploitation of the unconscious hardly remains a project of the artist alone. The markets too play there — through supply-side aesthetics. When the ‘aesthetic’ and the ‘utilitarian’ are subsumed in the ‘commercial’, everything — from industrial products to artisanal objects; dress codes to disposables; art works to posters — all become an expression of ‘design’.
The system encourages this because there is no ‘resistance’ within contemporary design. Bauhaus and other design movements were accomplished according to the spectacular dictates of the ‘culture industry’ and not the progressive ambitions of the ‘avant-garde’. ‘Design’ inaugurates a routinisation of ‘transgressions’.
To the extent that ‘art’ cohabits with ‘visual culture’ and ‘design’, it runs the risk of being consumed by its own representational nature and assuming the function of a ‘social discourse’.
Because then, only certain kinds of tame, platitudinous, status quo-ist meanings emerge out of it. Of course, one does not need to remind the artist community that ‘representation’ stands for a specific ‘construction’ of meaning and the cultural policing of its boundaries. We are all aware of the effect this had on M.F. Husain, Surendran Nair, Arpita Singh or Bhupen Khakhar.
Artistic discourse in civic space today is distorted by vested or manipulative intent and posturing. Which is why one can suggest the need for artists to move from mere ‘representation’ to ‘engagement’ — what philosopher Umberto Eco called “a semiological guerilla warfare at the borders of meanings”. Only then can art compel conviction. Wide gap
But what can be called ‘art’ in the era of 24 x 7 television? There is already a wide gap between a totally self-involved, self-absorbed, introverted art world and an anaesthetised general culture of the nation immersed in a universe of sit-coms or dot-coms and an assortment of ‘item girls’ and cricket gladiators.
Art seems to be trapped in a nation enacting the twin script of ‘carnival’ and ‘survival’ — a disjunction between ‘utopian desire’ and ‘dystopian reality’. However, there is a major change today in the ‘’art-object’ too, as much as in the mentality of the aesthete or consumer.
Artistic conventions have become less familiar, let alone shared, consensual or contractual. There is also an explosion of art practices. New practices; new materials; new hybridity; new confrontations. It is the time of heterodox, ironical, funky modes with profound cultural cross-dressing and crossovers.
As public buildings and cultural centres are being made safe for shopping, spectating and spacing out, that wonderful Princeton scholar Hal Foster has, in fact, suggested that the composite shopping mall is the most visible ‘art-object’ today and shopping itself the most aesthetic activity one can do.
So what is happening? Are artists losing their nerve? Or is the unrestricted pastiche and cruising style of postmodernism turning them into unreliable ‘narrators’?
Obviously art needs to look for new engagements, considering it still has a humanising function in a brutalising world. After all, there is a continuing need to establish, through a nexus of symbologies, human similarities over cultural differences.
One needs to listen to Walter Benjamin: “In every era, the attempt must be made anew, to wrest the arts away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”