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July 14, 2013

The New ‘Cool’

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper.

Most of us are afraid to criticise any works of art that the high priests and priestesses of art criticism have praised, or artists they may have lionised, opines Madhu Jain, adding that it seems as though it just would not do to like what is pleasing to look at

I love going to the openings of art exhibitions. Art is a passion. And, I must confess, people-watching is almost as addictive. We Delhiwalas are blessed: a new gallery pops up almost every other day. Champagne corks pop ubiquitously: the new and growing breed of market-savvy, young and déjà world-weary entrepreneurs opening new galleries or buying out older ones (many of them prodigals with a discernible American twang) are adding more chutzpah to the art scene. Exhibitions are increasingly designed (and I use the word designed quite deliberately) as a backdrop for the launch of a high-end car, vodka or the kind of watches which will shrink your bank balance to a depressing low. Art’s never been as cozy with the corporate world.

AUCTION WORTH
People topped up with brands and home-grown bling come and go talking… But, alas, not about Michelangelo as the eternally quotable bard T.S. Elliot once famously wrote – and not even about the work of the flavour-of-the-season artist. Just stop for a moment, keep silent and eavesdrop on the conversations of the burgeoning breed of young collectors, many of them ‘hedge-fundy’ types. The banter of the neophytes of the art world – including the Johnny-and-Jane-come-lately art advisers who seem to be mushrooming with alacrity – is largely about art auction prices: whose work went for how much, whose prices have come down, whose are going up. They rattle off the ‘auction worth’ of artists as if they were talking about stocks and shares.

Rarely do you actually hear anybody analyse a painting or a piece of sculpture – or even what a particular work does to you. Vernissages are not really meant for looking at and reflecting about the works of art on display. They provide a great opportunity to schmooze, network, pick up a bit of gossip, spread some gossip and last but not least, show off your new outfit or accessories. The sight I will never forget is that of a woman who walked into the preview of an auction with a Birkin bag perched precariously on her delicate wrist; a wrist that was weighed down by her huge diamond-as-big-as-the-Ritz solitaire and acrylic nails. What was remarkable was the fact that it was the bag that made the grand entrée. It was what you first saw, followed by the woman from whose wrist it hung rather awkwardly.

UPWARDLY MOBILE
Buying art is the new ‘cool’. Since lots of people have lots of money, it isn’t enough to be rich – or even super rich. You are still one of the many. Art is increasingly the new brand to show-off. To pursue the Gatsbyian dream you need to surround yourself with beautiful people and beautiful objects. Walls studded with paintings by boldface name artists who inhabit the society pages of glittery magazines instantly crown you with a halo of ‘having arrived’, of being elegant, as well as having good taste. And not least of all, being cultured. So never mind your origins and where you came from.

It is no longer enough to be seen at the polo grounds of Jaipur or New Delhi where the nawabs and maharajas reign – at least until the dust upon the tracks has settled and the champagne and canapés run out in the marquees. Or, at the Mahalaxmi Racecourse in Mumbai. The upwardly mobile are better served these days by showing up at art fairs. I don’t mean any old art fair (art fairs are proliferating all over the globe) but at the ‘mega-art blockbusters’ like the recent Basel Hong Kong and the current Venice Biennale. For the international party-hoppers perpetually chasing the ‘arrived’, these are the places to go to. Being a collector is the badge that lets you into the exclusive arenas.

Many among the new breed of collectors want to amass an instant collection. Perhaps the new strain of art advisers or dealers emerging to cater to them need to be like Aladdin’s genie and materialise prêt-a-porter collections. Many of the works of art may have rarely transited through galleries; they come hot off auctions or from the studios of artists. Dealers and customers even buy blank canvases from hot ticket artists. It makes me question whether these buyers really enjoy looking at art, even what they end up buying.

ARTFUL POSEURS
The other day I saw a spiffily dressed – calibrated casual – young man in his early 30s looking intensely at an installation with wires, wood, some pieces of metal and a few plastic objects. He appeared to be almost as lost in thought as Rodin’s ‘Thinker’, with his chin resting heavily on his hand. I wondered if he was just an artful poseur: the soulful expression seemed just a tad too perfect. I can bet that had there been a thought balloon floating over his head it would read: “Gosh, this is really ugly. It must have cost a bomb since it is by a famous artist. So, why don’t I stay in this position for a few minutes. People will then think that I am a connoisseur and have good taste.”

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the young man. But I am convinced that most of us are afraid to criticise any works of art that the high priests and priestesses of art criticism have praised, or artists they may have lionised. It just won’t do to like what is pleasing to look at. The work of popular artists is suspect: a chef d’oeuvre has to be difficult to access. It has to be cutting edge, something difficult to achieve when the frontiers of the avant-garde keep shifting. I feel sorry for many of my artist-friends who worry about not being cutting edge enough. The dilemma is no longer about keeping alive the creative impulse; it is increasingly about marking your presence at art fairs and auctions and getting the nod of approval from the powerful curators who are arbitrators of what is new ‘cool’ and what is passé.

I think it is time we broke free of the tyranny of prescribed tastes and just embrace the art that speaks to and moves us. Give me a Mark Rothko any day.

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