Friday, June 20, 2008

A booming Indian art?

Let us start with some figures and facts:

a) The global art market is worth about US$ 40 billion (Rs 1,70,000 crore).
(b) The Indian art market is worth more than US$ 0.24 billion (Rs 1,000 crore).
(c) The Indian art market has grown from US$ 2 million to a US$ 400 million market over the last seven years.
(d) From the benchmark year 2003, the Indian art market is growing at an average rate of between 20-30 per cent an year.
(e) A recent report by Fortune claims that the Indian art market has risen over 485 per cent in the last ten years, making it the fourth most positive art market in the world.
(f) Other than the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, about ten galleries in New York, London and Singapore – added to the hundreds of galleries in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata - are now dealing regularly and exclusively with Indian art.
(g) Work by an Indian artist that sold in the late 1980s for perhaps $2,500 can now fetch more than $1 million.
(h) The average earning of a resident Indian is US$ 440 per year (Rs. 1,727 per month)

There is a phrase floating around in the Indian artistic community, especially in the hangout joints of young artists, which someway reflects the present status of the contemporary art scene in India. The phrase is that the artist who cannot sell his /her work today will never be able to sell any work in their entire lifetime. The meaning is transparent enough. The present Indian art market has achieved a huge growth and it is not showing any reverse trend even after record inflation figures has hit the Indian economy. According to the Director of Saffron Art Minal Vazirani, the buyers who purchases Indian art today is different from a common buyer of general commodities because their money comes from accumulated wealth, not from earnings. Therefore, the present high inflation does not affect their purchase power.

This primarily money driven art scene is breeding a different class of artists today. To gain the highest mileage of the time, these artists are producing their art fast, without having a genuine artistic credo, trying to compete with their contemporaries who may have recently succeeded to sell his/her art for a generous amount. There is a second trend of faking the visual imagination of a well-reputed and worthy senior artist as low-key buyers and galleries prefer these dummy works because they are available cheap. The third is the crudest: just forge an artwork. Commercial galleries are mainly interested in turnover of sales. They could be selling anything for profit.

The prices of young artists had shot up too much and too fast. Indeed, for the bubbly young geniuses, quietly breeding in the dark chambers of the various art schools of this country this is a damn good time. They can earn easy money now by doodling anything on paper or canvas, without much of the efforts their seniors had put in their early days. Today there is a class of stupid buyers having little of no knowledge about what they are buying but are assuming that the value of their purchases will be high within a short time. However, they can make very little distinction between a good and a mediocre art; to distinguishing a fine art and a mere decoration piece is also difficult for them. They are unaware to the general art history of India, may not even know the name of pioneers like Abanindranath Tagore or Nandalal Bose. Most of them are targeting art like real estate or stocks with an additional possibility of the glorifying opportunity to be able to enter the upper stratum of the society. The media is also part of the hype and actively been promoting this notion of investment and huge percentages of yearly returns. The leading Indian media group ABP Ltd is already running an art business house, CIMA from the year 1993 for the similar purpose.

The price of Indian modern art, broadly defined as art created between 1947-1970 has previously fetched higher prices than the contemporary art but the scenario has changed very fast in the last few years. The prices of the artworks of some of the contemporary younger artists are getting closer to their worthy masters. Largely Indian collectors or collectors of Indian origin had fueled the boom for modern Indian art. On the contemporary part, the buyers are primarily resident Indians but also a new crop of non-Indian buyers are fuelled the sales.

But there is another problem and this is a genuine one. Amin Jaffer, Christie’s International Director of Asian Art, recently commented in an interview (Seminar, October 2007) that, “…artists may be pushed to create works because they have received commercial success and cease to take chances or risks once they have figured a formula and that is when you start to see works being churned out to cater to a large demand.” This observation by someone like Jaffer establishes the trendy vendor nature of the successful living artists. They deliberately stagnate just to keep themselves selling. They continue to fetch high price and are therefore reluctant to come out from this vicious circle once they had entered. The younger artists will obviously stick on the same path. It is very difficult now to find a maverick in this rotten time where money is spoiled the creative impulse. An artist must earn money in order to be able to live and work, but he must by no means live and work for the purpose of making money.

Let us conclude with the observations of the distinguished artist and scholar K.G. Subramanyan:
“… recent years in the so-called post-modern world, the old divisions have lost their influence or relevance. This is due to the forces released by the communication industry that cross-lace forms once chronologically or geographically separate. In a sense its techniques have changed even the basic nature of art practice, leading progressively towards collaboration and multi-media work and edging out the importance of individualised autography.

This has put art on the production line and given the art object the profile of a commodity, be it a privileged commodity.

On another side, our burgeoning economy has spawned a whole crowd of speculators who want to trade in this commodity through art galleries and auction houses in the same way as they trade in shares. They have generally no inkling of (or interest in) a work’s aesthetic merit; their main concern is their resale value. Even those among them who are more informed and sensitive prefer to keep mum and submit to the market trends. In the overall picture, the artists have a better deal. They are no more lean and hungry. They attend lavish parties and get featured in the social columns of dailies and periodicals.

Is this part of the cultural resurgence we have been speaking of? Or what some of those path-breaking thinkers of pre-independent India had tried to visualise? Unfortunately not.”
K. G. Subramanyan continues:
“But the winds of change we are riding on do not seem to be taking us in that direction. But this is important. The new economic well-being of certain sections of our people who are willing to be cyber-slaves of some developed societies in a globalising world should not divert us from this main objective. Clerks and managers can move around but artists and culture workers need solid links with their root-space to produce works of authority and resonance.”