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Arts of Nepal: Write-ups as art criticism on art or artist?

Write-ups As Art Criticism On Art Or Artist?

Madan Chitrakar

Compared to the generation of earlier artists, even two to three decades earlier, the creative community today must consider themselves far more luckier in terms of public exposure that lead to social recognition and commercial prospects. The scenario has changed today because along with others, as a result of a considerable mushrooming of broad sheet prints in Nepal providing a reasonable space for art activities. This has greatly enhanced the prospects for works and of course, a name for even 'new comers'. In a positive note, this development is indeed welcome and highly encouraging to every individual who choose to pursue in creative activities. But seeing carefully at the trend of write-ups on art, there appear some common and unmistakable features.

First of all, most of the write-ups are limited to basic reporting. That is with the basic descriptions like number of exhibits, the tenure of the show, inaugurated by so and so with few lines of quote from a speech and end up with one or two quotes from some seniors of the same genre (the artists) who may or may not be kind enough to offer objective comments. And most of the write-ups are based on the mere notes made during inauguration by often not an art critic. In a limited given space, a fair and analytical comment cannot be expected - firstly, for the simple reason that a general journalist or a reporter cannot be expected to make an instant transformation to dwell upon in depth philosophy and essence of a work. This is particularly truer in case of contemporary style art. Thirdly, there remains the face that there is a genuine dearth of art criticism as vocation - primarily because of an absence of academically sound professional art critics. A professional art critic is the one who is expected to probe a piece of work from all the possible perspectives so as to be able to narrate or interpret the sensibilities and the inferences concluded thus to the readers - on the basis of parameters of his or her(art critic's) studies on the subject.

So it is in this kind of mixed situation, cunning individuals exploit by hijacking the whole media to one's benefits. They create media hype by adopting different means. As stated earlier, journalists cannot be expected to judge objectively at the merits of an art in absence of a related professional background, most often they tend to rely on other's observations and get influenced on his/her own writing. The trick here is to rope in one or two 'sympathetic' writers to make flowery comments so as to allow other's to follow suit - thus creating multiplying effects. The trick has virtually succeeded for some pseudo artists by lionizing himself today. A typical example of a write-up published sometime back is from "The Kathmandu Post" describing a particular painter as the 'great artist ……. Who has single handedly transformed the art movement to great heights…' And the feature has come from a person not qualified enough to make such a judgment but surprisingly as a part of normal reporting. So the question here is how on earth a reporter has got mandate to make such a snap judgment with far-fetched implications? It is also not merely a question of professional competency of a writer in question to make such absurd statements or promoting a particular individual. But the larger issue is of informing the society the truth in general - a state of creative exercise taking place in the country. By promoting this kind of practice in media, instead of doing a service to society, leads to the state of misinformation. And such instances lead us to the fact that a true objective judgment therefore, demands a fair share of academic background with ample observation in the subject. Pitiably in Nepal, we are yet to arrive at that level of interpretation. The proverbal 'six blind men groping and elephant' still remains true in our situation.

So in the realm of creative art, the role of critic is of paramount importance and the task should not be treated lightly. In fact, the importance of the artist himself becomes irrelevant once a piece of art is completed - leaving it to the three players - the art, art critic and viewer. The importance of a work remains only as much as the viewer finds it until being told or interpreted by a critic about is essence, trend, provenance and so on. In our context let's examine to what extent our writers remain within the premises of these fundamentals.

To begin with, when a writer conforms a work of art with a motive to make critical  observations, does he know what he is looking at - the size, medium, signature, colors, thematic composition or all? Is the writer intends to laud the work as an excellent example of contemporary art simply because (as normally does) the work has familiar signature, size, or the number of times the artist has made singular shows? Or the immensity of the sheer size or the writer's inability to comprehend the bizarre imagery, qualify it to be an exemplary work? Or a writer is simply going to dismiss a work as mediocre and hence hot worthy of any comments - simply because the signature is not familiar or is too traditional because it is easier to perceive or the work is too small in size or the medium is not heavy enough say water, charcoal, pastel to qualify as a contemporary work? In fact none of these really matter. Particularly more so when a writer is looking for a work in contemporary style.

And now let's see what 'contemporary' is all about. In the passage of time the definition of art has changed in every intervals of human history. It has resulted in different styles in different periods. If the Greco-Roman period defined art in the attainment of perfection in natural forms, the ensuing period found art in the picturisation of spiritualism. Again history witnessed the period of renaissance - seeking to restore the early glory of Greek and Roman era. Modernism followed with different experimentations - variations in style often displacing the earlier. A new style merges when artists find earlier style too sterile, decadent with not enough space for freer expression. So the word 'contemporary' is not static by any means. It is always in a move - forward! So in our context how do we define contemporary? Surely the representational art do not represent contemporary. We have left behind that a long time back with emergence of experimentations in late fifties and early sixties. Now the creation of an art is a battle primarily fought in the premises of ever newer ideas. An earlier idea is immediately superseded by preceding new idea and hence ranked more contemporary. Our writers when continues to label the same static motifs way back from sixties and seventies as the embodiment of Nepalese contemporary art, it becomes redundant and outrageous. With no ill meaning let's cite few examples. The legendary horses of Shashi Shah and imagery of a man and woman juxtaposed of Kiran Manandhar while still retain charms, remained unchanged since they have begun painting. The motifs take us back to not less than two to three decades practically static with negligible changes in forms and colors. And the pertinent question here is for how long do we (writer) need to thrust upon the readers - would be viewers, that their works remain everything 'contemporary'.  This is a typical example of reading a signature rather than seeking to know about art. Let's try to be more objective by calling spade a spade. Many new imagery have emerged since then which deserve more attention. As often we have been led to this trap due to a lack of appetite for absorbing newer thoughts. As a result, the tendency to look for artist's name not work have become a normal phenomenon. Only an ability to adopt or cope with ever emerging newer changes entitle a tag of contemporary.

So amidst such complexities, it is very important a writer find out the basic characteristics of contemporary before lauding any work or a person. Today the novelty of a new idea is the first and foremost prerequisite - reflecting the height of imagination the artist is floating in. also, it should be examined whether the level of imagination represent some epoch - making ripples in the current trends and how dynamic the artist is to be able to adopt new thoughts in this battle of ideas. And lastly more important, since a contemporary work often reflect the state of psychic experience the artist had been through, the viewers must be able to experience it by visual observation. A state of sensibilities described as the aesthetic sense must accompany the work so as to evoke visual pleasure or provoke similar inner thoughts to the viewer.

To achieve all this, the question is whether the philosophic questions and mere ideas suffice to make it a work. The answer, of course is no. a successful work of art entails an equally matching ability to transform ideas into execution - called the technical competency or language. Technical competency leads an artist to realize ideas into reality so as to enable the viewer to share his sensibilities and emotion. Therefore, a successful contemporary work is always a mix of high level imagination and unmistakable display of technical perfection. This holds true to any work - be it a painting, sculpture or an installation. Unfortunately, today the anomaly of the art trend to instantly place an artist into a particular group of 'ism' or say works of post modernism a tendency to achieve technical perfection language is overtaken by wild new thoughts, leaving behind the technical ability. So in such ironic situation, novices or even charlatans are able to take refuge inside the cover of 'contemporary' - at the cost of quality. Thus it should be made perfectly clear that no genuine artist create a work with a particular school of thought in mind. The artist works spontaneously - inspired by several factors - earlier generation of works, present cultural landscape and of all, own level of imagination. But always seeing newer thoughts with wider space for expression. It is futile to confine a contemporary artist in limited group of style and thoughts.


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