Scandalous Art and the “Global” Factor

Sunanda K Sanyal

(Published: Art News & Views, 3(6), February, 2011: 55-7)

One often hears these days that Indian art has “gone global”. Indeed, for those of us who were adults in India during the 1970s and 1980s, living with dead telephones, state-run television and neighborhood mom-and-pop stores is now all but a hazy memory. In that era, a young artist having an exhibition in another part of the country made news; and someone able to score a show abroad became no less than a myth. Terms like “installation” and “postmodernism” were alien to most; and art criticism, at its best, was a few marginal columns in newspapers and literary magazines. Much of that system has undergone a stunning facelift since the 1990s. There is today at least a dozen art periodicals published nationwide, covering both Indian and international art; intercontinental galleries actively operate in the Indian art market; youngsters barely out of training casually discuss plans to participate in biennales and art summits abroad; visitors at openings of new media installations socialize over hors d’œuvres and bubbling champagne; relatively unknown artists often sell in the domestic market at prices that would be inconceivable thirty years ago, even including the inflation factor. When I arrived in the United States in the late 1980s as a graduate student, hardly anyone there knew or cared about contemporary South Asian art. Even the most renowned artists were unknown in American academe, and more so in the art community. All of that is reasonably different now. They not only get a fair amount of recognition, but some are even familiar names in the American auction houses. What is more, American universities now graduate scholars specializing in contemporary South Asian art. These are indeed evidence of a new era of Indian art— the era of globalism.

Global, however, is a tricky concept. Through such expressions as “flat world” and “global village”, it betrays a false utopia of a unified humanity, blinding one to the glaring differences between cultures. Thus, the increasing international exposure of current Indian art, however encouraging, raises certain self-critical questions: what exactly does globalism mean for Indian art, artists, and the art system? Does it boil down to a race to measure up to Western standards? Is it a matter of catching up, so to speak, with the buzzwords and chic of current Euro-American art, to be able to demonstrate that “we” are as good as “them”?  While such questions could be tested on any issues in the Indian art system, here I want to cast a glance at a specific one: heated controversies resulting from the artist’s engagement with contemporary Indian society.

Beginning with the disturbance around Akbar Padamsee’s nude painting in the 1950s, Indian modern art has had a few minor controversies since independence. But the two most recent ones have rocked the art world: M.F. Husain’s paintings of nude Hindu goddesses in the 1990s, and Chandramohan Srimantula’s thesis exhibition at Baroda’s M.S. University in 2007. Both have raised uneasy questions about the place of adventurous modern art in contemporary Indian society; and to put it curtly, other than simply shouting back at the slanderers, the Indian art arena has largely failed to rise up to the occasion. In the wake of the Baroda incident, Art India published a special report, in which eleven artists answer questions from Sandhya Bordewekar about attacks on art.[1] Several of them unequivocally characterize the anti-Husain/Srimantula front as “lumpen elements” and “philistines”; and emphatically side with the artist’s “faith in his convictions”, “autonomy as a creative person”, “freedom of expression”, and “progressive ideals”. Even though some of them acknowledge the crucial differences between modern Indian and Western societies, most of their arguments —romantic and self-righteous— are uncritically borrowed from the vocabulary of the Western discourse of art. Indrapramit Roy even cites the American controversy of 1987 concerning Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ”. Let me explain what I see as the problem here.

“The avant-garde”, notes Boris Groys in an insightful essay, “…introduced a rupture in society not reducible to any previously existing social differences.”[2] This rupture appeared with the rise of Modernism, when the artist’s right to criticize, analyze and judge society overrode the right of the public/beholder to judge art. The elitist-philistine dichotomy thus produced has since played a major role in all controversies, including those in India. This rivalry isn’t threatening or even disturbing as such. But two factors make the Indian cases peculiar: the rupture here is far bigger than in the West; and more importantly, art here is the scapegoat of a form of deadly power game. Special interest groups are able to brainwash a segment of the public easily by invoking a dubious notion of some common parampara, which makes the art scandals considerably more complicated, even vicious. The question of censorship in India is immensely problematic, and no amount of comparison with the American scenario can help. While the leaders at the helm of such anti-elitist drives are cunningly aware of their long-term political agenda, the stubbornly ignorant foot-soldiers are focused on combating what they see as the audacity of the artist in desecrating their heritage. The root of all this is in the dysfunctional nature of heterogeneity in this society.

The modern individual in the West is diligently supervised by the rule of law. Dissent and open discourse can thrive primarily because loyal to the nation’s Constitution, the judicial system there is neutral and efficient enough to oversee any excesses or infractions resulting from conflicts of views. American art of the last several decades, for instance, has been fraught with major scandals, many of which have led to stormy debates in the media, demonstrations, petitions, ad campaigns, even anonymous death threats and lawsuits. But one can hardly find an actual instance of trespassing, vandalism, intimidation, assaults or arrests, since any sign of such deviancies would be immediately disciplined. No one has ever heard of a dean of a prestigious art institution being suspended for an indefinite period without specific charges, a student going to jail, or an internationally reputed nonagenarian artist having to flee the country permanently for fear of his physical safety.

“Criticism and dissent are essential parts of our culture”, observes the legendary K.G. Subramanyan in reply to Bordewekar’s question. When, I ask him, have we seen an iota of civility in any public debate in modern India? Modern democracy, which came to India through colonialism, has always had to make questionable compromises with puzzlingly complex patterns of social network, affiliation and allegiance surviving from pre-colonial times. Thus, in a perpetual limbo between his modern obligations and ancestral communal awareness, the Indian individual has produced and sustained a corrupt political culture, particularly intolerant of dissent. When push comes to shove, a warped sense of homogeneity wins over all claims to diversity, and Law bows down to vested interests masquerading as public opinion. Therefore, when we reiterate the notion of art-in-democracy with a terminology of quasi-sacred ideals of creative freedom borrowed from the West, aren’t we simply getting ahead of ourselves in our haste to indentify the Indian art world with the global arena? Shouldn’t we instead focus on the specifics of the Indian problems, and emulate from the West only those strategies that could be reoriented to effectively confront our predicament? To desire artistic freedom is one thing, but to expect it on practical terms in a nation where much of the population remains disenfranchised is to be a lousy dreamer. I argue that unprotected in a democracy that often steps on its own foot, the Indian art community has the burden of being far more intellectually equipped and intelligent than its counterparts in America or Europe. So the art front, as I see it, faces a two-fold task.

First is the question of the individual artist’s responsibility, which is never adequately addressed by Bordewekar’s interviewees. If the self-proclaimed custodians of Indian tradition are committed to dictating the limits of creative expression, then the artist must also be fully prepared for the possible consequences of transgressing those limits. What puzzles me is the degree of the art world’s outrage at the adverse reactions to Husain and Srimantula. Given the complicated nature of heterogeneity in Indian society, isn’t it naïve for Husain himself or for anyone else to be shocked by the reaction to his paintings and the failure of the Indian system to uphold his creative freedom? I am not suggesting at all that Husain shouldn’t have produced the body of work in question. My point is that one would expect such a senior artist to see past his own ideals of diversity and realize that he was pushing sensitive buttons in a society plagued by strategic instigation of communalism, hence be ready for any retaliation. And if he didn’t have such awareness, then it is not fair to demand it from the young and ambitious student at Baroda.

The question of this awareness brings home the urgency of a nationwide critical dialog about art, a stable platform for addressing crucial cultural issues. In reaction to the two controversies, the art community has done little more than collect signatures and walk in heart-warming demonstrations (and that, too, only in the heat of the moment) with a holier-than-thou air, yielding placards with slogans of artistic freedom that the majority couldn’t care less about. Every major art scandal in the West has been minutely scrutinized, producing dozens of books, articles, symposia and documentaries. They are analyzed in college courses to better understand the dynamics of contemporary culture. What have we accomplished so far? How many publications can one cite that examine the Indian cases in any depth? There are attorneys in the West who specialize in art-related laws. Have we tried to raise awareness of the urgency of such expertise in the Indian legal system? Not a single one of the panels at the Art Summit in New Delhi scheduled for this January offers any discussion of those incidents. Has the Indian art world, with all its money and social network, invested any effort to sustain the debate in the media well beyond the moments when it made sensational news? Media campaign is unlikely to change the minds of the orchestrators of violence and vandalism; but its persistence might influence that part of the public which has not yet been indoctrinated. And equally important is the role of critical conversations in educating the art world itself. How many Indian art schools today regularly discuss art controversies with their students? The institution at Baroda is located in a state with a mighty fundamentalist stronghold; yet its naïveté in assuming that its academic enclave was beyond the reach of the moral police is mindboggling. Shouldn’t it have been proactive in engaging students in analyses of the complicated position of art and the question of artistic license in the nation’s contemporary political climate? Had the icon in Srimantula’s installation (probably a nod at Andres Serrano’s project) peeing in the commode been Ganesh instead of Jesus, the artist would possibly have been maimed, or even murdered; and the school would have had his blood on its hands no less than his perpetrators.

The fact of the matter is, though art in India is abundant and vibrant, the culture of contemporary art criticism is in its adolescence, at best. While the thriving art market and the glossy magazines are busy dressing themselves up in the “global” garb, art writing remains largely limited to the archaic genre of the monograph and laudatory reviews. Historically grounded essays or critically informed debates are strikingly rare. Among the eleven artists responding to Sandhya Bordewekar’s inquiry, only Nilima Sheikh recognizes the banality of much of current art writing in India. “It is also a time for some soul-searching….”, she honestly admits. “Newspaper spaces for reviews and dialogues have given way to spaces for adulation/envy—personality profiles, Page 3 trivia, and price statistics…….The admirable phalanx of critical writers on art…are confined to writing eulogies on artists…The pedagogy of art and critical writing needs to be center-staged.” I rest my case.

The Husain and Srimantula cases couldn’t be more different from each other. One artist is a national icon, a senior citizen, and his images are semi-abstract paintings deeply rooted in the Modernist aesthetic. The other one is young and unknown, ambitious, who aggressively employed the postmodernist strategy of appropriation in his installation-based work. And yet, they both became targets of serious attacks. In fact, I am certain that the opposing camp’s success in banishing from the country a wealthy, respected, former member of the Rajyasabha gave its masterminds the confidence necessary to initiate a far more intimidating confrontation at Baroda. I find this downright scary. It implies that as contemporary Indian artists in a globalizing world increasingly take non-conventional approaches, virtually anyone can come under the scrutiny and censorship of the same forces at fateful coordinates of time and place. If we don’t comprehend this and fail to be ready for combat, self-righteous accusations of philistinism will be our only option when the bullies arrive; and no amount of lamentation, such as the one we hear in response to Husain’s recent renunciation of Indian citizenship, will help.

Globalism, though tricky business, is not only very real, but has enough potential for empowerment, as long as one understands its paradox. In order to be global, one first has to develop an acute awareness of the local.



[1] “Resisting Rigid Controls” (special report). Art India, 12(3), 2007, pp. 71-6.

[2] Groys, Boris, “Critical Reflections.” In Art Power. London & Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press: 2008, p. 112.