December 19, 2004
wordplay
The New Indian Express on Sunday

Shreekumar Varma


Writers are fortunate people. They have the written word to play around with and to express themselves. When they finish with their creative efforts, they can always bare their souls in a fit of autobiographical indulgence. One way or another, they are able to keep up a dialogue with their readers.
It isn’t the same for artists. They deal with colour and form, with visual interpretations of internalised images. They often find it difficult and creatively inappropriate to break into words to explain themselves or their work. The work, after all, has to explain itself.
This was one of the main problems discussed at the recent release of a book on artists. How does an artist articulate outside of his canvas? The book was by a dear old friend of mine who’d made a compilation of interviews with various artists down the years. I will probably write about her and the book once I’ve finished reading it, but there’s a problem that deserves an airing now. For the launch she had invited three artists along with two others (an art-promoter and a writer on art) to discuss the problems in the art world.
Since she herself is a journalist and her subjects are artists, the interface between journalism and art was taken up.
The artists spoke about the intrusiveness of journalism on the one hand and the diminishing media space for artists on the other; the general indifference and lack of knowledge about art and artists, which led to art being imprisoned in an ivory tower and kept ordinary people away from the galleries; and the silence of the artist.
Commerce ruled. That much was clear. The artist with a higher price tag commanded more respect. And the media cared little about the intrinsic value of art. It was the glitter of the artist’s incidental halo that attracted them. The artist had to be otherwise famous or notorious to be able to force attention to his work. Page Three was the Bible for all those who wanted to be sainted in art. Today, they aren’t even many decent books on art.
I noticed a general dissatisfaction. Though they were all senior artists and life had been generally good to them, they were not too happy with the way the world was looking at art and artists. There was a sense of nostalgia. Artists of the sixties and seventies had had the power of a pioneering spirit; they were taken on their own terms. One of the artists on the panel had gone into a self-imposed hibernation in the late seventies, away from the limelight. That must have been satisfying because he could afford to do it. Today, hibernation must be a prospect that haunts self-respecting artists.
I imagined seasoned artists fighting through a cavalcade of film stars, pop singers and VJs for a place in the sun. The visual media were more interested in instant sound bytes that nailed the viewer on the spot. Meditations upon art were a thing of the past. The ivory tower was a sad fact of the times; and it was compulsion, not desire for privacy, that drove the artist there.
It was probably a coincidence. I dropped two artists home a couple of nights before the book launch. One was an old friend who also happened to be one of my author friend’s panellists. The other was an equally famous artist. During the longish drive, buffeted by the cool night air, we discussed several things including art, writing, exhibitions and commerce.
One of them invited me home. He had an enviable collection of books. He lived alone and read and painted. He gave in to periodic bouts of depression. His world was shadowed by the personal and artistic tragedies of a lonely, meditative creative artist whose amazing body of work wasn’t always given the respect or attention it deserved. He found solace in music and philosophy.
When I left him, it was already midnight. The roads were silent and still. The breeze whispered, addressing all true creative artists of the day: Speak out now, or prepare to be forever silent.
The author can be contacted at varma@shreevarma.com

A Voice For Art
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