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June 13, 2013

Google Gods

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper. Published: Volume 21, Issue 6, June, 2013.

Artists have the power, increasingly the world over, to, like magpies, swoop down on, pick up, hoover up, and consume anything that catches their fancy – images and thoughts that exist anywhere in the world, and any time in history. The world, thanks to the internet, is their oyster, says Madhu Jain

I was a little late getting to Cinecitta, the sprawling film studio in Rome, to meet Federico Fellini. The maestro, as the late filmmaker was called by many, had already left the office and moved on to the sets where he was making Ginger and Fred. Fellini with his trademark hat was looking at the stage set, a frown furrowing his brow. Something was wrong. Perhaps it was the positioning of the fake moon in the fake sky. Later, when we met in his office he talked about why he was so passionate about making films, why it was so essential to his very being and his ability to choreograph the moon.

“See, if I think the sun or the moon doesn’t look right on the left side I can always move them over to the right, to anywhere I want. I can do anything I want. I can play God.”

It is all about power. It is about the ability to rearrange things the way you want that you don’t quite have in the real world, where magic wands are scarce and illusion remains just that – an illusion or wishful thinking. Well, yes, nasty dictators have down the centuries, many of them quite bloody, grabbed that kind of absolute power and played with mortals as if they were mere pawns on a chess board. Stars, for the brief spell they shine in the celluloid sky and mesmerise millions, have the power to inhabit our thoughts.

CONJURING WORDS
But for the rest of us: we can’t control nature, the elements or other people. Or ourselves for that matter. However, in the realm of the imagination this kind of control and supremacy over people does happen. Writers, cineastes, artists, musicians and others in the creative professions have long been able to conjure worlds which move according to their diktats – and to the rhythm to which they want them to be in motion. It must be a heady feeling for them to play puppeteers, controlling the destinies of others.

It has always been easier for writers and, perhaps even more so for poets, to summon up new worlds, or to usurp those of others. Words on a page take readers soaring on supersonic flights of the imagination, often breaking time and space barriers. They are not seat-belted between the covers of a book. Artists have long had the tools and the wherewithal to create worlds that spill over, beyond the frames. There used to be limits to the extent to which they could infinitely expand their visual vocabulary. No longer.

To cut short a bit of a long digression, what I really want to focus upon in the column this time is the expanding universe of artists. They have the power, increasingly the world over, to, like magpies, swoop down on, pick up, hoover up, and consume anything that catches their fancy – images and thoughts that exist anywhere in the world, and any time in history. The world, thanks to the internet, is their oyster. Copyright be damned. Appropriation is appropriate – the règle du jeu.

Recently Viswanadhan, painter and friend for many decades who shuttles between Paris and Cholamandal (the artists’ village outside Chennai of which he is a co-founder) was visiting us. As usual the conversation turns to the state of art – and artists. It is rare when Viswanadhan’s mini-discourses don’t leave nuggets in their wake – make that perceptive apercus. This time he talks about a burgeoning new phenomenon: ‘the Google artist’. His thesis is quite startling. A growing number of artists today just sit before their computers and surf through the works of others. In the blink of an eye an artist would have travelled down decades, even centuries, flit across the globe and flipped through the works of artists past and present

And, of course, pick up any image or thought that the artist might fancy en route. Imagine the power of the person sitting in front of his or her laptop. All that needs to be done is to press Ctrl and c and then import the image into a personal reservoir by pressing Ctrl and v. This instant archive can subsequently be dipped into at will, allowing the artist to pick images or quotes which can be incorporated into his canvases. Voila: creation and a layered work is then just a click away. So much easier than thumbing through art books and catalogues and, even more taxing, plodding through the labyrinths of your own mind.

PLAYING GOD
The growing use of digital photography and popularity of digital prints has made it easier for artists to play God. Take a bit of something old, something new, something glimpsed, something dreamt, something in your garden, something in the kitchen, something from calendar art, something from Rembrandt, Raja Ravi Varma, Marcel du Champ, Salvador Dali, MF Husain or a Japanese woodcut… give it a shake and you have a heady, often surreal cocktail that will impress the art critics.

Clever artists do one better: they forage through the drawings and paintings of minor or not very well known artists – those not part of the canon. They even scan the jottings of obscure artists and scholars – some vague 19th century German philosopher or French critic not widely translated into English – and insert a ‘quote’ into their canvases. Even the high priests and the high priestesses of art criticism and theory (we have more of the latter in India) do that. Those who don’t know what they are talking about are doubly impressed.

But beware those frequent travellers of the internet in search of ‘inspiration’, the rest of us are beginning to catch up. If you Google, so can we, increasingly. The power to impress with ‘borrowed’ ideas and images can’t be taken for granted. More and more of us can play God with the virtual world at our fingertips.

MADHU JAIN, EDITOR, IQ, THE INDIAN QUARTERLY, IS AN AUTHOR AND A JOURNALIST. SHE ALSO CURATES ART SHOWS.

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