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August 03, 2018

Is Art Often Over-Intellectualised?

Text by Kastoori Barua

Everything now is art, so how does one distinguish the artist’s work from the charlatan’s?

Aesthetics aside, the most important question of the art world is, ‘What is the meaning of this artwork?’

Since the past century, the niche ambit of art has moved from the domain of mere representation and it has evolved into being its own entity. It underwent an internal transformation, relying heavily on a language, which is, after all, not as visual as it seems.

As art became more abstract, we began to rely on our own observations, reference points and even our emotional baggage to understand what art is trying to be and convey. But slowly, this habit of deriving meaning started attaining an intellectual hue. This intellectualism has become so important over time that art, in the 21st century, is no longer primarily a visual means of expression.

But what do these intellectual explanations about artworks really amount to? Are we as viewers able to express what the artwork means to us and to children who are yet to attain emotional and intellectual maturity? We make connections based on what we have read in literature and how we align ourselves politically or philosophically. These, our reference points, are the gateways through which we enter and engage with the artwork subjectively.

More often than not, in order to understand art, we emphasise meaning and context over and above the work of art in its visual entirety. In other words, we become blind to the primary narrative of the artwork which basically appeals to our emotions and impulses at first sight or contact. We are only actively picking up on the secondary cues, stretching them into tedious and extremely subjective stories. We become artists through this creative mode of understanding art. Roland Barthes in his essay The Death of the Author had said that the author is dead once the work goes out to the public, for it is the public then who interprets and formulates new intentions. But we cannot completely ignore the intentionality of the artist, especially if there is an evident one at that.

Innumerable Interpretations
In a recent exhibition, a well-dressed, self-possessed woman stood in front of an artwork and confidently told the artist: ‘This particular symbol stands for violence’. To which the artist, ever so nonplussed, replied: ‘It’s actually a Buddhist symbol of peace’. It was certainly amusing at first, but art has become so easy to misinterpret…and on the other side of the table, manipulate people to think what curators and artists want them to think. Artist Bhagyshree Suthar says, “The art field is open to all kinds of interpretations. Just as artists are free to express their thoughts, experiences and viewpoints, so are viewers; this creates the space for ‘misinterpretations’.”

It is ironic that art, which was used as a way to reflect on the nuances and complexities of life, is now a strangely murky place that offers no real outcome. Our supposed understanding of art has become so reliant on abstract and unnecessary academic jargon that most people can’t easily comprehend it. Postmodern catchphrases are everywhere and a sense of assumed understanding takes over the meaning-making process, thus leaving it unfinished. Philosophical paradigms, at times loosely and a tad forcibly applied to the artwork, are also tacitly complicit. Contextualising art has also backfired, giving way to too many avenues of meaning that have in turn diluted the unity of art, the intention of the artist as well as possible meanings of an artwork. Everything now is art. Anything can be disassembled, scrutinised and interpreted. We are faced with two extremely pertinent and timely questions that we must answer ourselves: how does one distinguish the artist’s work from the charlatan’s? And where can we find art for art’s sake? Suthar clears the air for us. “It’s important to understand that there is no rule book to decode an artwork. It’s impossible for me to distinguish between art and non-art as art has a vague definition. What is art for art’s sake for one may be looked at through an intellectual lens by another.”

Context Versus Aesthetics
When the art market crashed in 2008-’09, the drive to commercialise artworks ran stronger than ever. Art, if it had to sell or be showcased, needed to have meaning that went beyond aesthetics. Curators stepped into the scenario a lot more actively than before and came up with either lush, relevant interpretations of the artwork, thereby increasing the worth of the artworks, or with highly academic and obfuscating concept notes that were paraded as soul-stirring bridges between philosophy or liberal activism and art. In such shows, the concept notes were either more interesting or more opaque than the exhibition and there was a dissonance in the minds of the audience who struggled to align the two. Priyanka Raja, co-founder, Experimenter gallery in Kolkata, believes that text as a whole forms a secondary point of entry. “I strongly believe that the first experience defines the relationship between the viewer and the work. The viewer has a fiercely independent relationship with the artwork in that respect. He or she is free to reject the point of entry which the text provides, relying instead on his or her own exposure or life experiences. The verbosity of text attached to visual arts may create a problem, and there can perhaps be simpler ways of entering the piece. Of course, the text often allows for a layered understanding of an artist’s work or their practice at large, but it’s up to the viewer whether they want to accept it or ignore the discussed meaning and form their own.”

This problem gives way to the essential question: What is really truly important to us — the art or the context of the art? Where does meaning come from in an artwork if it isn’t at all inherent? If an aspiring artist were to create an unrelatable piece of art and ascribe some semblance of meaning to it, it would most probably be glossed over in an instant. But if one were to have it backed by a team of professors with institutional credentials or well-known curators, then of course the same exhibit would have been considered to be thought-provoking art. It is obvious that the stature of the artwork is heavily dependent on its pedigree: which artist created this piece? Which gallery showcased the work and who curated the show? Was it acquired by a museum or a private collector? Clearly, this nexus of questions has very little to do with the artwork in itself. Suthar offers her own insights into the matter. “Not only is it impossible to separate art and its context in the 21st century, but it has always been the case. But the artwork itself triggers memories or emotions, which create a context for the viewer. This helps them to interpret it and relate to it.”

But to completely remove the mode of meaning-making is not the solution to this perennial problem. If that were to be the case, then we would end up disqualifying not just art but almost every discipline in the humanities and most forms of intellectual pursuits. Much like the constant programming that goes into completing the tasks of our daily lives, which in turn makes us myopic to the bigger picture of life, here too, we have lost out on the joys and simplicities — the austere and almost raw understanding of art. The hour needs us to unlearn our tendency to over-intellectualise and instead engage with the artworks. It is only then that we can hone our distinct preferences, learn more about ourselves and preserve the artistic unity and intention of the artwork.

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