A couple of years ago I was discussing about the nature of discourse around visual arts with a professor from Santiniketan. Obviously he was from the department of art history. “Things are fine with Cultural Study, but what happens to Art History in that case?” he asked, hinting that I have grasped the ‘essence’ of what he was saying. Two art historians of the same generation share a lot more in-between-lines, while silent interventions and interventionist silences of issues between them marks the inevitability of being able to see but not surpass the boundary of institutions that control the way we think. Becoming liberal or conservative about visual thinking is also a certain institutionalization!
He was worried about the loss of closer reading of the visual texts, when he said “what happens to Art History?” The second stage of silence between art historians ‘includes’ the fear of the onslaught of cultural study over art history. Another junior art historian friend of his, who is no more now (Parvez Kabir), it seems had once made a discursive presentation at CSCS (Center for Studies in Culture and Society) in Bengaluru. When enquired as to what the response was, he told that they questioned him as to why he doesn’t ‘stick on’ to art history (AH) rather than venture into cultural study (CS)! Claiming authority in the name of superiority of CS over AH is in the air, you can ‘sense’ it (if you want) but not ‘see’! The great divide between AH and CS is not the prime issue of Indian art history, but is a matter of urgency though.
Ashish Rajyadhyaksha had once narrated that he had been to Kala Bhavana with Deepesh Chakravarthy and was looking around for some authorities to interact with. They found an art history student who took them around; and when introduced to Deepesh, the student refused to acknowledge him not out of arrogance but ignorance, which confirmed the strength of the boundaries of institutions like Kala Bhavana, AH as well as CS. There is this angry intervention documented by the abstract artist Ram Kumar, made in an Art History Congress symposium, teasing art historians as to whether their art is going to be ‘written about’ after their death? The ‘monopoly’ as well as the ‘responsibility’ of art history/historian was uncontested, presumed and taken for granted, then. It is not merely coincidental to draw analogy between those initial years of Independent Indian art history and the then one and only Congress party.
Writing about art in the real world is immediate while it is seasoned inside art institutions, in India. While art historical writings are inculcated within cultural studies as footnotes, it is not being reciprocated. By and large, the prime responsibility of art history – since its institutionalization within art pedagogy is inherent — has been restricted to act as a catalyst to make a better practice (to paint, sculpt and print better) and produce practitioners. That’s why while a department of painting holds painting compulsory for students, the theory department doesn’t insist on the art of writing. In such cases, theory doesn’t become theorization, which is considered excess, by and large. I can imagine AH acting as Socrates (catalyst) to production of art and its connectivity with CS being cut off, yet never claiming autonomy.
WTJ Mitchell, who teaches visual culture (VC), tries to arguably define it – VC — as bridging the gap between art history and cultural study. However, he thus defines VC as the one that defeats self-definition in any simplistic terms (book: “Art in Theory: 1900-2000). Thus, what is it with Indian art history that is so much endorsed, approved, legitimized, safeguarded and yet ‘humiliated’? A while ago, when a Biennale was being planned in the capital city, the protagonist, after inviting me to a brainstorm session about it, enquired as to how to categories me (‘Art Historian?’ or ‘Art Critic?’). I myself have changed my designation between AH, AC, curator, art writer (safe-mode) but never as an ‘art journalist’ over the decades. In a seminar about Ramkinker Baij, art historian R.Sivakumar had made an observation about cultural studies: Those dealing with the lower strata of the society, are advocated by higher caste scholars, by and large. Ramkinker’s contribution as a Dalit/tribal — intervened by a scholar whose mother tongue was south Indian — was spared for the sake of addressing what actually happens literally inside the literal frames of artworks. The pictorial space was reserved for the art historians’ study table while the class/caste politics ‘around’ it was to mean to be munched in the artists’ party!
So, what is right with Indian art history? A Swiss curator in India, on a residency, observed and was in awe that we teach contemporary, modern and traditional art forms in art schools, both in practice and theory, though not in the same order. On the other hand, the concept of Pan-Indian art history is tending to become more and more of a myth, due to the curatorial opportunities that have been redefining and arguably restricting Indian art, mostly as a mandatory export. Films (Diasporic cinemas) and cricket (IPL structure) also have followed this which has its preset models in Indian military which was loaned to other countries during/by the colonial lords. Interestingly, this export is happening from either side of India. Art history has partially metamorphosed into curatorial essays, art journalism in the name of criticism has become more and mere appreciative; and art history proper (pedagogy) tend to erase the great divide between practice and theory.
The reason as to why IAH has become so ‘euphoric’ is because of the third stage of that silence, subtly grasped between art historians. Consider some of the issues that submerge into the black hole of this silent zone: (i) the major chunk of art historical writing of the largest democracy have kept away the predominance of any or any one Indian language(s). (ii) The marginalization of AH in art schools and the reciprocate response from AH is a second point in case. The attitude to export rather than implant immediacy across national boundaries by AH is the third point. We might be still holding due regard to Goya at the cost of an equally eccentric-talent but anonymous artist called R.S.Naidu. Hence the right things about Indian art history are these three ‘elements of silence’. Some are tired of addressing the great divide between AH and CS, some want to safeguard AH from CS, rather than debate over the similarities, by which they actually endorse what they are opposing – the hierarchic claim of CS over AH! Is silence the right response?//