One of the most important ideas that reshaped the concept of art in its post-modern manifestations was the refutation of the celebrated artist as a prophet. The artist-prophet was placed at the center of a certain type of worship practice that dominated 20th-century modern art. It is by exploiting this religious practice that the art market has proliferated and legitimized its expressions. However, the idea that aimed to uproot the artist from his prophetic world did not have a lasting effect. On the contrary, post-modern art has reaffirmed the importance of the artist and elevated his position as a prophet to God. And what is now called the art world works primarily around the divine stature of the artist. The gallerist, curator, dealer, critic, art writer and the media, with their enormous skill in manipulation, have continually engaged in making and exploiting the image of the artist as an extraordinary genius for everyone’s business needs.
Neck and neck with these professional elites of the art world, a writer or an art critic fails to take a different path and forgets his professional ethics. He forgets the basic idea that the critic must first position himself with the public. Under the pretext of writing for the art public, he ends up writing to feed the interests of the artist, art dealer and gallery owner. In a word, he writes for the art market. The market needs the writer’s printed words to make a work priceless or valuable. This fundamental requirement of artistic writing does not motivate the writer to evaluate the work from an ethical or aesthetic point of view. He is rather carried away by the idea that a given work should be interpreted in favor of the rules of the game. In such a condition, criticism as a structure of thought – which includes explanation, analysis, interpretations and critical judgment – no longer exists.
Without following academic rigor and theoretical concepts of any kind, art criticism in the proper sense of the word has now migrated to the comfortable niche of art writing. Its visibility is felt everywhere in the form of appraisals, reports, catalog texts, monographs, studies, reviews, etc. In such forms and contexts, artistic writing does not seem to require any sort of historical, aesthetic, or critical awareness that constitutes the heightened sensitivity of the writer to look at a work of art from a certain position. Rhetoric and verbosity with a weak attempt to historically contextualize the work form the main tone and tenor of artistic writing. Failing to communicate any visual or conceptual aspect in convincing terms, artistic writing leaves the reader in the embarrassment more often than not.
There is an unprecedented surge of artwork proliferating globally in a number of legitimized mediums of expression in the art world. However, the art world is in fact the sum total of an intertwined operation of art practice, production, exhibition and market forces. Within this network of operations, art is hardly seen as it once was. Social instability, alienation, personal restlessness or anomie today escape the thematic sphere of art. The surface of the work literally falls flat and without depth, being devoid of meaningful imagery. Fredric Jameson therefore says in reference to the work of Andy Warhol (Diamond Dust Shoes), “Now a kind of superficiality in the most literal sense [is] perhaps the most formal characteristic of the painting today – an eerie, decorative joie de vivre, the shimmer of gold dust, the shimmering golden sand that seals the surface of the painting and continues to shine towards us. This lack of depth corresponds to an area of aimless free play with materials and symbols. Yet works of art circulate on the world market. As Julian Stallabrass puts it, “you can have a German collector buying, through a British dealer, the work of a Chinese artist residing in the United States.” This international trade is essentially used not for art but for monetary benefits “including investment, tax evasion and money laundering”.
Despite all these facts, we are still faced with an influx of artistic writings that tend to focus on theorizing, interpreting and legitimizing the work produced by market forces. Like the meaningless image and symbol in the works, the art writing has become equally depthless to sound verbiage. It is in this moment of crisis that art criticism with academic rigor and intellectual honesty is called upon to resurface to rediscover its true function. But going against our expectations, the artistic writing, as noted above, is rampant. Although its visibility is felt everywhere, the most striking paradox is that artistic writing is hardly read but only “seen”. One who seriously approaches art and its theoretical studies hardly reads the writings on art; sometimes we leaf through the pages looking here and there while waiting for a bus, a train or a flight. No one cares to keep art writings appearing in large books for future reference. As James Elkins says, “There just isn’t enough meat to make a meal; some are fluffy, others conventional or laden with polysyllabic praise. So much so that Elkins makes an interesting observation: “Art criticism is massively produced and massively ignored.
In this sense, art criticism/art writing marks its decadence. But that’s not strictly true because “its business is booming: it attracts huge numbers of writers and often enjoys high-quality color printing and worldwide distribution. In this sense, art criticism is flourishing but… sheltered from contemporary intellectual debates. So it’s dying, but it’s everywhere. He is ignored but everywhere he has the market behind him” (Elkins). Most of the renowned Indian art critics are also part of this system. This is the most disconcerting reality we face in Indian art today, as we no longer have criteria to differentiate good from bad.
Chandran TV, art critic and author. Teaches Art History at College of Fine Arts, Thiruvananthapuram ([email protected])