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Image: Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012
and Art Chennai © Abul
Kalam Azad
Image for representation
purpose only


Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 © Abul Kalam Azad
Kochi Muziris Biennale 2012 © Abul Kalam Azad

The Art Scenario

Post Liberalisation

Let me quote at some length an observation I made fifteen years ago in general terms about a particular aspect of the Kerala art scene of the early 1990s:

Now the artist-aspirant even from a place like Kerala is privileged enough to represent more the social aspirations of his own class in its growing upward mobility. No longer a world-weary outsider or outcast from his own class struggling against social stigma and with the qualms of declassing, he readily falls in with the values that are predicated on the brute efficiency of upward mobility of his class. With increased cultural contacts (enough to make him ‘international’), an expanding nexus of promotional agencies, art organisations and the art market, greater inflow of money into the gallery system, easier outlets for travels and exhibitions abroad and so on, the artist-aspirant finds the process fairly smooth and highly rewarding. All these have gone into the making of different notions of professionalism which are transformed by the machinations of culture bureaucracy and the mechanics of operation of the media bandwagon into trendy aesthetic testimony. Aspects of socialisation, recruitment and enculturation of the career in art, in sociological terms, now depend largely on how well the artist-aspirant can adapt himself to the cosmetic sensationalism that thrives in an environment of rarefied high culture, of what the media bandwagon would have it as the ‘intellectual’ order of the day. While being part of the larger environment of consciousness industry and thought machines, his sub-cultural affiliations with marginal forms of dissent should secure his déclassé non-identity a high-visibility stardom (may be for fifteen minutes, a la Andy Warhol) in terms of the media, the world of fashions, the professions and the information systems, all of which together having made a dogma of the jargon of dissent. At the same time, what is expected of him is a kind of streamlined efficiency in the manipulation of the operational presets offered by the art establishment and the culture bureaucracy and a slick resourcefulness that can make the most of anything sub-cultural and marginal to add to his artistic persona. In such a situation the kind of spiritual dimension we used to attach to the subjective preoccupation with the meaning of experience, held together by an overall system of values, yet riddled with inner conflicts and contradictions, which is eventually what art is all about (or so we thought), becomes a casualty.

It is nothing short of a sea change that has come about during the intervening period and for obvious reasons. Put simply and bluntly, it is the new world order of neoliberal dispensation with its cultural baggage of globality. The last heroic gestures of the avant-garde in the modernist trail had a whimpering end by then. The new economic policies of outreach and outsourcing cutting across the centre/periphery relations, combined with the phenomenal upswing in the art market and the all-pervasive influence of the electronic and digital media on art production and distribution, have all gone to redefine practically all aspects of the production and reception of art. High-visibility mega art events like the international biennials which have been well in place for quite long, suddenly start acquiring a new format and different dimensions; they also proliferated, probably in tandem with the policy advocacy of the new cultural economy and the hegemonic political agency and its neoliberal cultural agenda. A new biennial model with its global-tourism mandate, specific institutional tie-ups for sponsorship, urban regeneration schemes and wealth-creation had become the norm and through edition after edition its cultural currency swept across geopolitical differences.

The growing international networking of national markets and societies, the liberalization and the politics of deregulation, the technological advances in transport and communication created the prerequisites for a global export of the “biennial” model and an increasing exchange of art. With biennials rapidly spawning in Asia, Africa, South America and Australia, more and more biennial models are emerging but only very few are modelled on the original Italian one. Instead of diplomatic invitations, curators and teams of curators select the artists.

– Sabine B. Vogel, 2010

It is hardly acknowledged that its cultural currency as a model is what validates its being virtually transplanted from a generalized ‘global’ context to the ‘local’ and that its trans-national dimension is wedded to the cultural policy that informs the neoliberal order of the day. In fact the whole thing can be seen to have its origin in certain policy decisions taken by the Thatcherite England of the late 1980s as an EU country, that has gone on to become a guiding principle for the economic management of any country anywhere under the banner of neoliberalism. If by hosting a biennial the benefactors and policy makers of a local government together with the art entrepreneurs think that the local art scene can be latched onto the global market, it can only be seen with guarded optimism. It is because biennials have now acquired a format which when superimposed on a local situation by virtue of its putative ‘global’ authority, what is at stake are the meaning and experience of local history and its nuances. The disturbing question remains as to how far it can help break the cultural isolation of a region or locality.

That said it should be acknowledged that the art projected in the biennials is informed by a particular historical rupture with the art of modernity which, in spite of its radical breaks, “manifests the hegemony of a geopolitical region and thus establishes political boundaries in culture as well. Global art, by contrast negates, ignores and destabilizes boundaries drawn by the state …” (Vogel, ibid) There is in principle a focus on the local life, history and culture, going by the paradigm of the local/global, which is expressed through on-site works that are commissioned around themes bearing on those aspects. However, the question remains as to how far these visiting artists can either identify the broad themes or understand the intrinsic ebb and flow of the life-world of the host country/society.

The city-to-city cultural exchange paradigm in contemporary art is a familiar phenomenon. It is a particular staple within the international biennial exhibition system by which urban landscapes are transformed for better or worse through site-specific artworks seeking to activate transnational connections of over-determined yet changing city cultures across the globe.

– Alice Ming Wai Jim, 2014

This invariably reminds us of a similar and closely allied phenomenon that is gaining ground apace, again as a fallout of the neoliberal political economy with the professed ideal of urban reorganization or regeneration. I mean here what has come to be known as creative industries, creative class, creative economy and finally the creative city. The following observation is prompted by a news carried in The Hindu a few days ago titled “ ‘Creative capital’ to come up in city” which mentions about how Thiruvananthapuram is going to be taken up by a Bangalore-based art institute and developed into a centre for new media and digital art.

While the concept of “creative cities” first emerged in the 1980s, it gained real momentum and popularity in the 2000s in part due to Richard Florida’s writings, and has since become a global movement. Creative cities are understood as urban areas where creativity, knowledge and innovation flourish; aided by the presence of a critical mass of diverse peoples who, through sharing and interaction, spark creativity.

– Hospers and Pen, 2008

Over the past two decades, the concept of “creative industries” has gained ground and dominated academic and policy discourse in many areas related to what earlier were denoted by “cultural industries” which in turn has superseded the classic concept of twentieth century critical theory associated with the Frankfurt School, “culture industry”. Propounded by Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer in 1944, it was a concept with a terminological precision oriented in a field of academic research before it lent itself to be a term of discourse of popular culture. In 1997 the United Kingdom’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) coined the term “creative industries” as a classifier for one of its main policy sectors, replacing the previously used notion of “cultural industries” which was the prevalent stand-in for the original Adorno concept. That heralded the age of the creative industries which clearly took a commercial orientation by prioritizing creativity and creative industries that can generate intellectual property for economic profit, thereby defining it to include the new segment of entertainment and leisure business. The close affinity and unstated affiliation of the academia with the administrative machinery and culture bureaucracy is best seen here when the policy shift from “cultural industries” to “creative industries” was soon followed up by a corresponding discursive shift in academic writings: from “cultural economy” to “creative economy”, from “cultural clusters” to “creative clusters”, from “cultural worker” to “creative worker” and from “cultural economy” to “creative economy”. And so was it that the glorious era of creative cities was bequeathed to us by the British government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sports in terms of the new-fangled idea that rendered redundant the criticality of a historic concept.

The 1990s and 2000s witnessed heightened interest in the creative industries as an urban regeneration strategy, with creativity more purposefully integrated into economic and social policies, and the intensified commodification of artistic and creative activity. The creative industries were strongly promoted for their benefits to the economy, as supported by growing revenue and employment figures in the case of the UK. Given their apparent success, UK policy makers were able to promote the idea of the creative industries to other nations. Across Asia Pacific, the creative industries began to feature in national and city policy agendas, as evident in places such as Singapore, China, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India and the Philippines.

– Lily Kong, 2014

In fact, there are very pertinent apprehensions being raised about the “creativity” strategies. The critics of these strategies point out that they contribute to the widening of the income gap and the emergence of a low-wage service underclass and contribute to dispossession through gentrification. It’ll do us good if only we heeded some of these discordant notes as well before Thiruvananthapuram goes global along the “creative” way.

Now that we’ve made an incidental mention above to academia, this much should be said, to wit. The word ‘research’ in its academic parlance and practice never made sense to the Malayali intellectual and generally it was with a bemused condescension that theword was used to refer to the respective activity. (I remember having been asked by the AIR Thiruvananthapuram to give a talk in their weekly evening slot for English talk in the eighties. Not only did they decide the subject but then went as far as to fix a snappy title for it: “The Disposable Research Paper” which I didn’t accept.)

But now the word ‘research’ is used in a range of contexts which has absolutely nothing to do with the practice that was once known by the term. For one, the discourse-generating compulsions, primarily of humanities disciplines, to keep abreast and diversify the academic streams have pushed those ‘boutique disciplines’ to the limit and a particular kind of academic brinkmanship that knows how to make one’s PhD pay, has taken the floor. This is of course, at the cost of credibility of research, to be worth its name. However, there is another more important side to the matter of research as it is in practice now. The various fund-seeking outfits and fund-granting bodies function on a tacit mutual understanding where ‘research’ is a vogue word that arrogates to itself an academic authority of sorts by faking its authentic counterpart. Most of these as it invariably happens, are cross-cultural concoctions without conceptual framework or theoretical perspective, in spite of a smattering of ethnographic or other data thrown in for good measure and pass for research. Added to this is the outsourcing of user-generated data through content farming available online in downloadable formats. In fact, many of these sponsored/funded research projects and their mission statements end up being absorbed into some academic circles that share an interface with the governmental machinery and culture bureaucracy. And their inputs inevitably feed into academic discourse.

[Similarly] the academy has used critical theory, in particular French post-structuralism, gender theory and queer theory, as a way of welcoming new students and diversifying humanities departments. While an important political advance, such theory has become its own industry, merely trading an old canon for a new one, and retaining the same hierarchies and worshipful groupthink. There is little subversion to putting Judith Butler or Slavoj Zizek on a T-shirt, or to liking them on Facebook. [… ] In North America, critical theory imported from Europe, mainly from France, became trendy in the 1980s and effectively colonized universities in the 1990s, allowing graduates of various humanities departments to specialize, and thus to brand themselves and gain professional toeholds in highly specific, unprecedented ways. Current academic specialists in such subjects as ‘ecocriticism’ and ‘homosociality’ were certainly unheard of before this period. […] New, genial- and sexy-sounding departments and programs emerged, such as urban studies, cultural studies and gender studies. Detractors called them ‘boutique programs’.

– David Balzer, 2014

Coming to the interface between ‘research’ and ‘creative worker’, see this online subscription campaign by a very high-profile funding agency:

5 Reasons to Support India Foundation for the Arts (IFA)
Reason 3: Live with Passion
Samrat Som, the Creative Director of a leading apparel brand,
has always been passionate about art and design.
In this video, made by filmmaker Sumantra Ghosal, he talks about the need for the corporate world to look beyond immediate return-on-investment when creating marketing strategies and how IFA, through the arts and culture, helps him add value to long term brand building.
That’s why Samrat is a Friend of IFA. Join him and others like him as they recognise the necessity of the arts in the corporate world.

– IFA, 2013

Now, where on earth is art in this scheme of things?

Where, then, should we expect to find the artist in our society? Where he was before, where the myths are made, and there, in fact, he is, in the advertising agencies, in the dream factories of the consumer society.

– Toni Del Renzio, 1980

The high-spirited 2013 mission statement quoted above reads well with the sombre introspection of the pre-liberalisation era, almost one to one.

So, there we are. Let me conclude with what I have always felt about this dream factory that on the face of it may look at one remove from our immediate context but which from what we have seen is entirely paradigmatic of the whole situation. I mean here the commercial ads and spots and their audio as well as video aspects. We have learned to give allowance to the various tall claims and habituated ourselves to the level of untruth and falseness that they routinely take recourse to as a matter of right. We take it easy that the spectator/listener is being taken for a ride or at any rate, taken too much for granted. Nobody is concerned about the fact that it makes a mockery of normal human credibility. As we willingly suspend our disbelief about most of the canards so professedly aired, couched in the unabashedly outlandish melodrama staged in flagrant settings, we take it for granted as the gilded cameos of a wishful irreality that are embroidered onto the texture of desire, on the ground that it is all in the game, being the “art of persuasion”.

I don’t mean to take exception to the quantum of untruth being dished out in any kind of moralistic outrage. What I mean is that all the high-flown melodramatic flourish and flamboyance and the carnivalesque display of consumable affluence is in one sense a celebration of flippancy and of ostentatious possession and in the process, a glossing over of the evident ground reality as something incidental, something to be wished away. It does so by levelling out the difference between the spectator/consumer and the fictional nonentity of the presenter/model by rendering alterity as the masquerading of a faked self. If this frolicsome celebration of flippancy is seen as a matter of style in the “art of persuasion”, so does it inform its content as expressing a particular view of the world which is perfectly in tandem with the global neoliberal dispensation. What is called lifestyle porn. The visual aspect of these ads is matched by a corresponding aural dimension. Here, I would say pace Amanda Weidman (who has written about the neoliberal quality of voice production in a popular south Indian female playback singer), that the tone, tenor and timbre of a plummy voice (mostly female) apart from the pitch which is particularly (and unnecessarily) high combined with an affected intonation and frivolous lilt, is expressive of an attitude well in keeping with the spirit of neoliberalism.

We know that its idyllic euphoria and boisterous gleefulness are matched by a vocal quality that has a conspicuous false ring and that its upbeat and jaunty gusto can barely conceal an affected and smug self-exultation. All this expresses a message that is explicitly at one remove from anything that we know of in reality. The language is explicitly out of sorts with the diction laced with a smattering of English which a couple of decades earlier would have been considered as a vainglorious self-indulgence of the postcolonial mindset that flaunts it as a cultural marker, but which now has become perfectly natural as is only in tandem with the global dispensation. This is the case as much with the language as with the manner of utterance which feigns a hesitant and condescending familiarity with the regional language. It is neither natural nor synthetic but is virtual in the sense that it obviates the need for an original, to extend the suggestion of Nicholas Mirzoeff. The voice is digitally processed to create the synthetic vocal texture that obviates the need for something as source that can be authenticated as original, so to say. Thus, for example, when in a certain ad Amitabh Bacchan speaks in Malayalam, it is obviously mimicked and dubbed by some so-called mimicry artists who Kerala has aplenty. Even as we know that his famed husky and plummy voice is being faked, of course convincingly and impressively, the apparent improbability is sort of waived or discounted. All questions of improbability are leavened by the rationale of a world where the equation between the subsidised dreams on offer and the diminishing returns of reality is the primary term of communication of a far greater improbability. The production of these pompous canards forms a capital-intensive labour sector that is typically of the so-called “creative economy” discussed above, in the neoliberal narratives that thrives on deskilled labour aided by a streamlined efficiency in handling the presets of the digital media and yet is crucial to the revenue-generating functions of the electronic new media at the service of corporate capital.

There are a few things that make this case paradigmatic of the neoliberal global situation. First is how its political economy related to a local/regional marketing situation is latched on to the global economy of corporate capital and free market, using a kind of ‘international’ language in its product promotion and sales strategy, driving at the purchasing power of a local community in a different economic situation. Second, the sham level of ‘creativity’ that informs it is obviously because of the way the ‘theme’ has been ‘conceptualised’, ‘researched’ and ‘executed’ by its ‘Creative Director’ (who belongs to the “creative class” of service delivery systems under the new taxonomy of the “creative industries” in lieu of the earlier cultural industry) who has been pre-eminently de-skilled (the kind of de-skilling that WJT Mitchell has noted as having already happened in the case of workers under industrial capitalism) in all areas of traditional visual articulation but has enough skill in software manipulation that is attested by a profile portfolio.

Prof. R Nandakumar

R. Nandakumar is an art historian and culture critic with a specific focus on cultural musicology. He has taught art history in various Fine Arts colleges and has been Professor and Head of the Department of Visual Arts, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi. Formerly a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, he has currently been Senior Nehru Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi. His critique of the tantric style published in Malayalam in the early eighties is one of the early attempts to look at the historical premises of the ideology of Indianness and to problematise the tradition/modernity binary in the context of art and nationalism. His several papers on Raja Ravi Varma are widely cited in art historical circles. His extensive application of Lacanian concepts to the study of a contemporary south Indian artist’s oeuvre is among the very few such art-historical attempts. His writings address areas of interdisciplinary concern with an accent on the sociology of culture and have appeared in important academic journals.

Published on July 26, 2016


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