Emerging new art as 'cultural capital'
'The chief harm done by the critics is this that themselves lacking the capacity to be infected by art… they pay most attention to an eulogy, brain spun, invented works, and set these up as models worthy of imitation.'
The comment above by Leo Tolstoy cited in Dr Bimal Kumar Mukhopadhaya's book on Aesthetics of Rabindranath seems to draw a decisive line between what we perceive as art proper (literature in this case) and criticism. In the same book, one also chances upon another quote by Paul Valery where he praises Victor Hugo for occupying a dual niche as a poet and a critic. That an artist as a producer of 'autonomous' art objects had been negated by the famous naysayer Duchamp – whose recontextualized found-objects radicalized the art scene in Europe, seems to speak volumes for a marriage between art and critical thinking. Art, thus, lends its thrust towards ideation, contextual criticism and even provocation – through which the French avant-garde binned both the notions of individual artist and 'the collective as the subject of production,' (Art and its Histories: A Reader, p 219).
Artists inhabit the material world, where there are certain spatial matrices to which all the elements adhere, giving rise to a relational framework. One may find similar framework within which artistic dictions are entrenched explicating their relation to other areas of knowledge such as philosophy, literature, psychology, anthropology, linguistics and even sociology. The polemics and discourses which arise from within the aesthetico-political ambiance attendant upon the academic and non-academic praxis, as such, are not isolated phenomena.
Therefore, to develop an interpretative framework vis-à-vis art, is to keep the entirety of art and textual practices at the back of one's mind. Especially, to capture the essence of what is 'emerging' always essentially needs to be fathomed employing a multipronged method of reading and interpretation. Such a holistic approach to reading must take into account the departures from the earlier canons of art – one such canon is academic realism, or naturalism.
The colonial notion of verisimilitude, which thrived in the academy of the British Raj established in Kolkata still serves as the 'model' for the value system employed to evaluate art in our clime. Therefore, art that considers within its framework the critical abnegation of such an overused and frayed value system comes into being to give voice to the changing circumstances. Thus, what is 'new' art in our midst must show an affiliation with the future.
In Bangladesh's mainstream, the contextual meaning of attributive adjectives such as 'young' and 'aspiring' – used to underline the proponents of emerging aesthetic more – following the logic of the past traditions, seem to attend to one of the most impertinent issue: age.
A reverse agism afflicts the art scene of Bangladesh as even before employing any evaluatory framework, we tend to judge art in relation to the age group the artists belong to. Therefore, while artists are set out to script a departure from the consensus image, their praxis unflinchingly conflates various streams of critical thinking, new and old. Judged without the prejudice against age, what is linguistically defined as 'young art' is actually art that challenges the current 'age' with 'radicalizing spirit' rather than conforming to the zeitgeist. Creation is never passive, neither is reception; therefore, critical intervention at all levels remains a mainstay in the cultural arena.
Engaging the value system(s) which are developed within the bounds of most of our institutions, 'new' art is evaluated using a dual conduit – one is that of verisimilitude and the other is of age-specific framework. Judgment made in isolation from the cultural phenomenon – be that of bourgeois or plebian inclination – is a process that has no bearing on the level of praxis – where 'value' is determined in relation to the status of art as a cultural product amidst other cultural fruitions.
Entrenching the narrative of validation in age-specific qualifiers institutions thus, keep negating art as a form of criticism. Such a position is the result of confined thoughts, which proliferate when art, photography, and even literature are seen as isolated cultural phenomena, developed in a rarified atmosphere, away from the social reality, and even far removed from the critical gaze.
'Young Artists Art Exhibition' was launched in the year 1975. Organized by the Shilpakala Academy, the site would play a pivotal role in promoting fresh new talents in the next three decades. Being the one and only public-funded cultural organization, the programme was designed and steered according to the logical frame within which age is factored as the determinant of value. However, as one rakes through history to pinpoint the pitfalls, it turns out that, identifying young talent in relation to age, rather than the innovations they stand for, from the beginning, impacted all other sites of art production, including the public and private art schools which have now sprung up across the country. The irony is that after more than three decades had passed, in the pedagogic circle there has been little effort to develop a prism through which to see and evaluate the emerging art scene.
Two major complementary drives (anti?) define the mainstream in Bangladesh: while 'criticism as art' has never been taken seriously in the academy as a viable means to contest established notions of art, art criticism per se, on the other hand, has never been considered a way to assign value to art. Thus, both remains stationed at the periphery of the pedagogic field.
The pedagogic inheritance of the modern art institutions goes back to the colonial era. With specific ends in mind, Kolkata Government College of Arts and Crafts, the first art educational institute set up in 1864 was propelled to produce artists to cater to the need for creating a coterie of draughtsman for the then colonial administration. Though, in the last hundred and forty-four years, the curriculum has gone through decisive changes, yet the reorientation of the entire pedagogic framework to accommodate the post-colonial reality has never taken place. Rabindranath Tagore set the stage by first voicing his discontentment over such a stalemate. His decision to open the Kalabhaban (fine art faculty) at Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan in 1921, set at example where the method of teaching was devised to lend thrust to the emerging art of the early twentieth century Bengal. The Kalabhaban at Santiniketan, played the most important role of nurturing new talents for the next three decades, and by imbibing the new knowledge from within as well as from outside the country, the faculty remained relevant through the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps, today, it too has been bogged down by its legacy, unable to redefine its curricula against the backdrop of the surge of technologically mediated art.
In the highly globalized world, any such insularity in the academic environment leads to stagnation. In Bangladesh, where artists are more or less set to explore both medium-specific as well as conceptual notions of art, the academia seems rather slow in recognizing the drift. That cultural rejuvenation is the result of transgression, transmogrification and even transversality, which is what needs to be taken into account. How the past achievements are negotiated and used in an altered environ, and how the new material-spiritual reorganization subverts the dominant trends, to unfurl the 'new', needs careful reckoning on our part. What is new is often acknowledged as a peripheral and unstable form of praxis.
Even art writer and historian of Syed Ali Ahsan's merit, in his celebrated vernacular book Shilpabodh O Shilpachaitanya, first published in 1983, explains art in terms of the plastic qualities of line, form, shape and chiaroscuro, focusing solely on the Renaissance illusionism. Such traditional framework has so far governed the academic and its adjunct art spaces which lie outside the bounds of the academy but not outside the ambit of its knowledge.
Artists too dwell within the bounds of customs which lay the basis for social relations, especially, behavioural patterns that stem from those social relations. What otherwise seems independent of the structures of reorganizing the material condition of a given time, is actually foundational to the social relations through which art makes its appearance.
Yet it is art which often implants the seeds of discontentment fomenting contrarian ideas which arrive early, not merely in new garbs, but decidedly impregnated with new material and spiritual contents. Needless to say, all forms of new art are an intervention to ensure a movement towards a different aeshetico-political more.
New artistic discourse, thus, overturns the customary ones. Therefore, in a given social site there appear artistic practices which are neither homogeneous nor follow a linear growth. When in the arts and literature of a certain time the signs of divagation first become palpable, they are issued forth from men and women of conviction. Age plays a role, the young do appear to have a prescience for the 'coming condition', and, as such, take the lead in reinscribing the art world with new ideas. Therefore, the very framework based on age seems to problematize the staging of the 'new', as it simply negatively affects the process of validation.
Art as 'cultural capital', to use the French philosopher Pierre Burdout's phrase, is an indicator of the future. If the Shilpakala Academy is to be considered as the most important official site for freighting the latest crop of art, in the last twenty seven years, many a young proponent had their first brush with fame in this very locus. Artists such as, Kazi Hasan Habib, Ratan Majumder, Nilufar Chaman, Hritendra Kumar Sharma, Sultanul Islam, Mominul Reza, Iftekharuddin Ahmed, and even Mahbubur Rahman received early recognition in Young Artists Art Exhibition.
In its 18th edition, in 2012, the majority of the works came, unfortunately, via the mainstream aesthetic conduit. The participants being young and mostly consisting of students of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Dhaka University, and similar public institutions around the country, show a marked tendency to harness the spirit of the academia. Their language revolves around a set of aesthetic considerations, which accords with the colonial system of hands-on learning rather than critical pedagogy. The result is the primacy of naturalism, which is still the dominant mode of expression. Surface painting, which was first introduced in the 60s, on the other hand, represents the other face of the coin.
So, the 'cultural capital' one feels obligated to examine and re-evaluate, strangely enough, seems hardly aligned with the 'here' and 'now', let alone concur with the dialogic art and other forms of contemporary praxis that some of the radical groups and independent artists began to devise since the 1990s.
One is aware that, all such showcasing of art in the public arena is a way to gain institutional recognition for artists who are standing at the threshold of their career, ready to enter the thriving art market. The state or its institutional apparatus plays a pivotal role in such exhibition sites so that artistic energy is transformed into cultural capital. Though the socialization of the 'state' has not yet seen its actual implementation in such a site, what state enforces is the translation of the taste of the cognoscenti or the key players who preside over the academic landscape.
Thus the 'aspiring' artists, without much hesitation, keep deriving their nourishment from the conventional structure and quasi-ideology. As a result, every year many art works are produced exhaustively in an uninspiringly repetitive rhythm – those that seem industry-ready, but for which only a ready audience awaits.
Faced with the recent crop of work (during the time of staging 2012 Young Artists Art Exhibition) the Academy had devised three categories for clustering the artworks by artists falling in the age group between 18 and 35. They are painting, print making and sculpture, which clearly shows that medium-specificity still seems tenable in such an official site, as are expressions that have exhausted their mileage during the last ten years. The panel of judges has rewarded certain pieces of work which can be scrutinized for adherence to certain modes in various forms – ones which cleverly blends the academic realism or naturalism with a projection of individuation.
While judging the merit of any creative work is no job akin to appraising academic excellence, which uses different set of criteria and contexts, what is brought to bear upon them in the site of art proper, if one calls the Academy as such, is the taste and aesthetic position of the people who sit on the panel of judges. The winning work often provides the template for next year's award aspirants, thus a monotonous flow of art works are brought in to populate the site of the exhibition.
For his work Bishwajit Goswami had won the young artists award 2012 in painting. Two of his works had been presented as representative of his recent style. The one, for which he received the Young Artists Award, is entitled Biborton O Sharirik Ostitwa (Metamorphosis and Physical Existence). The imagery around which Bishwajit has premised his diction are somewhat like the abstract and fluid profiles of biomorphic forms distributed in columns running parallel to each other; molten or in their various stage of mutation. What the artist takes as his starting point is the magic-mirror image manipulated to look at once abstract and real. Mohammad Moinuddin, another prize winning artist whose painting was entitled End of music-1, codifies a condition of the human being which seems merely to appeal to our senses in its embodiment of verisimilitude. Artist Mohammad Aminul Islam won the best award in sculpture for his work entitled Face of Life-1 (Jiboner Mukh). Perhaps, his visual trope alludes to the concept of many in one – as he plasters images on an almost faceless head – which is an outsized one – trying to assimilate the sculptural with the pictorial. Entitled Face of Life is the only awarded piece where a merger of mediums has been employed to achieve a symbolic gesture. The fact that in framing his concept the artist sidesteps the traditional sensuous surface quality which is valorized in the academic three dimensional works, inaugurates the moment of departure from convention.
A head –made almost faceless by taking on its surface myriad minute portraitures– turns out to be an expression of a singular life containing that of a multitude. Though, in his concept the artist departs from isolationist individualism, in expression he exploits the modernist monolithic tradition. Aside from the premise it sets forth, there is a clear indication that the ego proclaims a central role and the face with its hardened jaw and resolute disposition, speaks of an absolute withdrawal from the world.
In the world of art, the modes of expression which may assume a constitution linked to academic learning, which outwardly may remain less emphatic; there may appear a subterranean link with the existing symbolic modality. Aminul's sculpture – due to its posture and expressiveness shares a kinship with the traditional iconic sculpture of Buddha. While, on the other hand, Kamruzzaman's horizontally expansive print seem keyed to an already established language in the academic environment, one which uses multiple versions of one single image sequenced across lighter to the darker scenographic experience. We have witnessed similar specimens from the academy commanding attention from the people who believe that artists must operate from within the logical bounds of tradition (read modern tradition) where verisimilitude and experimentation are equally exerting their role to ensure the status quo.
In all the works presented in the exhibition, the above mentioned which compromise between what is expected and what may be the result of subjective manipulation, taps the moot issue through which 'young' art is being defined and appreciated.
The question of the artists being skillful, as skill is equated with the ability to attain verisimilitude, is still considered the main currency through which art is produced and received. In the marketing of art too, academic realism, a certain notion of verisimilitude, is an assurance of success. There are other criteria, within which other art forms are being generated, but all of them are considered as peripheral.
What one considers as 'new', does so in the context of art's capacity to overturn the current seat of judgment by bringing to the surface what has so far been viewed with hesitation and even a certain amount of distrust. The 'new' is considered a breach in the continuity of the old pattern that provides the leitmotif for judgment. The other aspect to the 'new' is what is being judged as such for the outward posturing, failing unfortunately to take into cognizance the 'substance' and thus, rendering it a distorted representation. If an art adds value or substance, only then a sense of divagation is brought forth, through which artists create a threshold to the future. Therefore what is 'new, and 'young', lies outside the bounds of the current symbolic order – where certain knowledge about art and reality intertwines to give basis to both polemics and practice.
If the essence of the material organization is to be exposed in the artistic realm, irrespective of the medium one uses, the process of art making will be grounded in criticality. If conformity inflects the process, it appears through the non-critical conduits. To cater to the middle class appetite for images is to conform to a set criteria – which are established benchmarks in the realm of the mainstream art and art academies. In a democratic pluralistic environment, multiple genres and value systems may coexist based on the assumption that all things would comingle. If commingling translates into homogeneity through institutional intervention, the very concept of democracy takes a beating. In such a situation, what would have been akin to an extrication of the stilted and exhausted ideas from the very site of culture through unfurling of the new, meets with opposition from both the intuitional old guards and a section of the cognoscenti.
It is highly debatable whether the art practices that have no bearing on the current day newer fruitions and share no link with the changing social reality will continue to enjoy similar clout in the future. As future is situated in an indefinite register – which we may only envisage through our own critical reading, or should one say materialistic reading of the current social reality. New art, in this sense, is a slow and deliberate progress towards such unknown destinations. One is compelled to write destination in the plural, as in one social climate there lies the possibility of emergence of several constructions or sites of futurological prognosis.
In this climate of change, the only cause for optimism is the emergence of a new breed of collectors – who has an eye for art that are transgressive or translinguistic, or even transversal. That this thriving art scene demands new pedagogy and institutional framework, is a truism, but one can take heart from the fact that new players in the form of artists-run collectives together with collectors and privately-funded institutions are changing things for the better.
We can conclude by saying that when we validate work of art as art proper, there is no differentiating between young and old, neither is it measured only in relation to medium in use, rather, our logic behind evaluation is centered on form and nature of expressivity – which impact the relationship between art and spectator. Nature is full of similar exemplars. Where mutation follows a natural logic, manifested either in 'abstract' rhythm or a natural ordering of shapes, colours and substances in a social climate, human beings keep renewing the logic of creation in order to be in sync with the changing ecosystem. So, when art is created following the same repetitive rhythm, there is no choice but to say that it follows a rigid structure, which continuously threatens to remain a singular image of a 'Still Life'.
PS: Only the reproductions on page 60, 61, 64 including Sharad Das's work on page 63, have been showcased in the Young Artists Art Exhibition 2012.