By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Short-lived Glory As Art Critic Of "The Punch Of India"

"Is beauty dead? The answer that springs from much of contemporary art is an unapologetic "yes."   --  Grime, grit, death, destruction, flesh, and flaws have replaced pretty models, still lifes, and pastoral scenes. . . ."

While browsing online through the back numbers of some internationally famous magazines recently, I came across the above thought in an article titled 'Does beauty still belong in art?' by art critic Carol Strickland in The Christian Science Monitor (20 Dec, 2007).

Which made me forcefully recall an article I had written in 1974 in Shankar's Weekly, alias The Punch of India, which was regularly publishing my humorous articles in the early 1970's.  The magazine had no art critic, and the Editor thought I might be able to take up the job.  So he asked me to write a review of any of the ongoing art exhibitions in New Delhi, just to see what I could do.  

And he was so pleased with the result that he straightaway offered me a regular column as the prestigious magazine's art critic.  I basked in the glory of that status for a couple of weeks, but then found that having delivered an extremely harsh generic verdict on the prevailing art scene in the metropolis, I had nothing more to say on any individual shows, and my column never materialized.

And I am delighted to note that 40 years after it was written, the following text is still likely to sound substantially true today almost anywhere in  the civilized world!

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Shankar's Weekly, New Delhi
23 June 1974


When I was a college student in Madras some twenty years ago, young people who had artistic leanings had no place to exhibit their works of art in public.  In the late fifties and early sixties I was living in Calcutta, and though I found that far better facilities were available in that city, it was still difficult for a budding artist to put on an one-man show.  This was so because an exhibition was always visualized as a major artistic event which attracted a lot of attention and cost a lot of money.  Usually one had to have a reputation before one could think of projecting an exhibition, and how to achieve that reputation without exhibiting one's work was a vexing problem which was difficult to solve.

I have no idea how things were in New Delhi those days, nor do I know how things are in Madras or Calcutta at present.  But I can see that in New Delhi today nobody has any difficulty in getting up an exhibition of his or her artistic works, irrespective of the merits of those works.  There are several spacious art galleries and halls in the Capital, and they are let out on fairly reasonable terms.  Even ordinary students can afford to hire space for several days if they pool their pocket money and organize a group show (as they often do).  Consequently, there's hardly a day on which there aren't one or two exhibitions in the city, and on some days there are many more.

Naturally, one would be tempted to think that all this must be conducive to the growth of public interest in the visual arts in the Capital.  In reality, however, most of the exhibitions attract nobody except a few well-wishers known to the artists, and some casual visitors (and, of course, the art critics!).  The pathetic picture of the ambitious artist sitting all alone in the exhibition hall -- with only his own works and misfortune to contemplate -- is a common sight.

I wonder what makes so many artists hold one-man shows and group exhibitions in such discouraging circumstances.  Could it only be a natural wish to have it mentioned in the publicity campaign for some future occasion that one had held or participated in an exhibition in New Delhi at such-and-such a time, and perhaps gain a good review in the newspapers?  Or do the artists get some satisfaction merely out of gazing at their own work in a public place, in the same way as we find our dim reflection in a shop-window far more agreeable to look at than the brighter image in a domestic mirror?  

Missing element : beauty

It is possible that the multiplicity of exhibitions has something to do with the thin attendance on any given occasion ;  but I don't think it's the only factor responsible for this conspicuous lack of public interest in art exhibitions as a whole. 

I've been consistently noticing that most of the works of art which are put up for show in New Delhi's galleries and exhibition halls are devoid of all beauty.  Sometimes the exhibits are positively bizarre in appearance or morbid in significance.  Dismembered limbs and other organs of the human body ;  animal characteristics transplanted in human forms and vice versa ;  ugly and garish depictions of the human genitals and entrails ;  supernatural elements juxtaposed in day-to-day surroundings ;  or just an elaborate hotchpotch of colors -- these are some of the themes which recur frequently  in these shows.  Paintings and sculptures depicting such themes and totally lacking in beauty have even won awards in certain important institutional exhibitions, confusing the public mind and making it doubt the value of patronizing contemporary art. 

Pleasing the critics or the collectors may be a different matter ;  but it does seem to me that if a work of art is to evoke any serious public response, it must have beauty above all else -- whether it is modern art, conservative art or ancient art.  Having seen so much in the Capital's exhibitions to offend the eye and the intellect, I am beginning to wonder whether it's really worthwhile to attend these shows.  I must confess that I am only an ordinary man -- but isn't the great public constituted by a very large number of ordinary people?  Personally I haven't yet given up my attempts to discover something beautiful occasionally in this morass of un-beautiful products ;  but how many people would patiently go on trying? 

I just can't help thinking that if all the ordinary art-lovers in the Capital had a collective voice, they would surely cry out :  "Let the artists infuse some beauty into their work, and you won't find us avoiding their exhibitions!"

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PostScript, 2015

Missing element : Hungarian colors

Although I did continue to attend art exhibitions in New Delhi now and then in futile search of the elusive element of beauty, I never came round to reviewing any of them for 12 years -- till an exhibition of representative Hungarian art in New Delhi in 1986 forced me to come out with a highly critical comment in the evening paper, about an intriguingly missing basic element -- not of beauty in all cases, but invariably of authentic Hungarian colors themselves!  

I had explained that context in detail earlier (see Mystery Of The Missing Magyars, posted on 21 Dec. 2012).