The gloom in Indian galleries was as thick as impasto in the months following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. You could have cut through it with a palette knife and served it up on any number of canvases that suddenly were barely worth the surface they had been painted on.
But if the global financial meltdown appeared like a tsunami to some actors in the nascent market for contemporary Indian art, it might actually have served as a dramatic cleansing of the Augean stables. Far from demolishing civilisation as we know it, the meltdown and the recession that followed it should encourage players in this domain to reflect closely on their practices, their capacity to adapt to a violently changed business environment and to strategic inflection points that threaten extinction but also provide stimulation for new directions of growth.
From this point of view, the Indian art world has been swamped, in recent decades, by a monotonous discussion about price, which has usurped the place of a discussion about value. This is in contrast to the situation in the first half of the 20th century, when the discussion around art in India was compellingly focused on the true significance of art-works and understood the power of the artistic imagination to transform the consciousness of viewers.
The recession, which toppled artificially built structures of price-as-value and exposed the machinery that had kept the balloon afloat, may have destroyed the confidence of many collectors, especially first-time entrants, in the art system. However, this should be seen as a process of creative destruction, for it has reopened a conceptual space in which gallerists and collectors, artists and viewers, critics and curators can all re-dedicate themselves to the fundamental questions: Why does art move us? How can we refine our practices in ways that help us stay focused on the vitality of the aesthetic experience, while also developing a viable economy within which it can be supported, without mixing these mandates to their mutual attrition?
For galleries, the recession has brought about a return to core competencies for some, after their desperate boom-time attempts at representing all generations and idioms. For others, such as Pundole and Chemould Prescott Road, it has offered an opportunity to extend the field of the contemporary to include the dazzling work of artists of tribal or rural background. Yet others, such as Chatterjee & Lal, have improvised platforms where classical and contemporary works may be juxtaposed, proposing alternative ways of approaching Indian art history.
Confronted by general instability, a liquidity crunch and wariness among collectors, many galleries took courageous positions, supporting their artists and preparing for a period of less grandly scaled but intensely focused activity. They supported their artists and slowed down but maintained their commitment to long-term exhibition and publication projects.
Among collectors, the recession has surely brought about a radical reassessment of what might be called the will-to-collect. Investors and speculators who flocked to the art market during the boom have largely been left behind. Meanwhile, collectors driven by a genuine curiosity about art and a genuine passion for it have come back into the domain.
There has also been a gradual emergence of a new kind of collector, who rejects the names in the Top 10 and also the inherited reverence for conventional media such as painting and sculpture, and is willing to experiment with immaterial and ephemeral media, whether video, film, photography or the residues of performance as sculpture. This augurs well for the continuing vibrancy of art forms that extend themselves beyond the market’s established parameters.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of the recession in the art world were the viewers, of whom there are legions eager for fresh aesthetic experience and more information and knowledge about what they are experiencing. For many first-time viewers, the collapse of the real and symbolic barriers to entry produced a sense of confidence to look and to ask.
When the transactional basis of the market briefly evaporated, there was, for a few months last year, a zero-gravity space in the Indian art market where alternatives became possible, at least in contour. Galleries held public conversations between artists and critics, put up exhibitions that explored new art-historical ground, reached out to diverse publics, recognising that there is, in fact, no unified public for art.
Hopefully, many of these realisations and developments will not vanish summarily as the art market returns to a chastened but renewed sense of normalcy. The takeaway point for many galleries is to regard themselves seriously as businesses, building core strengths instead of expanding without developing an intellectual and professional infrastructure or losing direction in the supermarket of available options.
For collectors, it would be important to retain their suddenly discovered independence from pre-programmed notions of major art. For many artists emerging from the recession, it would be critical to see themselves as stakeholders in the art world, rather than as gladiators performing to an arbitrary fate. And Indian viewers must demand the creation of a knowledge infrastructure that underwrites all the monetary transactions and exchanges of ideas within the Indian art world.
The recession has made us aware that, in order to have any view at all on art, we should have been prepared decades before we were misled by the pied pipers of boomtime. What the Indian art world needs are publishing initiatives that introduce art to a new readership; renewal of museums; and creative pedagogy that invites children to participate in visual culture so that as adults they may appreciate the idiosyncrasies, bewilderment and complex forms of awareness that art makes possible.
(The writer is a cultural theorist & independent curator. He was co-curator of the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008)
(Click here to read the article on The Economic Times website)