Art Criticism In Nepal



Nepal gets a chance, now and then, to participate in biennale and triennnale exhibitions. Through these exhibitions a few selected works help international audiences to get acquainted with Nepali art. But our participation in these exhibitions is so rare and the works selected so few that the selected works can't be a representation of the Nepali art. So rather than letting Nepali paintings speak for themselves we have to resort to writing, which doesn't lend easily to visual interpretation, to give fuller picture of the Nepali art to the international art audiences.

A cursory glance at the Nepali section on the catalogues of the biennale and triennale exhibitions, however, doesn't fulfill that need. Because the writings on the Nepali art are monotonously same even though different people might be writing them. These writings talk just about how the Nepali art has evolved from the Mallakaleen era which was rich in artistry and designs, and how much King Birendra has contributed to the Nepali art by establishing Nepal Association of Fine Art. As these writings have nothing to say about the contemporary Nepali art, where our modern art stand, what short of idiom of expression our artists are using, what our artists are striving for, etc., these writings inevitably begin with the reference to the Mallakaleen era and end with the saying that the present Nepali artists are striving to find their own medium of expression, technique and certain definite trends in art will shape up in a near future and blah, blah, blah. As a result, these writings become very parochial and predictable-a sure sign of pseudo intellectualism. But we would have settled happily if the contents of Nepali art Chinaris were written decently. Sadly, these writings are written in Pidgin English with occasional bombastic flourish which truly reflect where our art and art criticism stand.

Now having pointed out the relatively underdeveloped state of art criticism and art writing in general, it will be germane to reason out why it is so in Nepal.

Art is a light which fosters the aesthetic and intellectual growth. And corollary to it, longer the history of art, more refined the aesthetic, and higher the intellectual development of people. But the history of Nepali modern art doesn't date back far. So we have neither higher intellect nor adequate understanding of art. Owing to this, the Nepali art criticism is still nascent and much to be desired.

There is complete absence of vigorous, ongoing debate on art. And in the absence of lively debate, a critic is prone to weave things out of his own mind. Or lap up everything that an artist ladles out as a universal truth. This is what is actually happening, blunting the probity of eyes and mind of critics. Also our artists are a divided lot, living in a small sambadbihin enclave. Thus hardly a talk and debate on art happens in Nepal. These don't help to enrich our understanding of art either.

We also have no tradition of serious art criticism in books, newspapers and journals. Books and journals on art are non-existent. But, though some newspapers have been carrying the writings 'about' art, they are doing so just to enhance their cultural profile. Otherwise why would they sit on art reviews and publish them when the exhibition is well over. This tendency to sit on reviews makes reviews irrelevant and the critic's role of being a guide to the audiences, who would tell spectators if the exhibition is worth investing time and money on, redundant.

Most of those who have been writing about art are journalists cum art critics or those who have only a modicum of writing ability. And those who have the understanding to say which work is good or bad (not why they are good or bad) at best. As everything these people are writing is passing as the review, there is no challenge in art criticism, nor a need to write polemically. Further more, art criticism is a creative urge, quite like painting and one has to be passionate about it. However, this passion is evidently lacking in Nepal. Maybe it is due to the lack of passion that many who tried their hand at art criticism put down their pen after some time.

As artists elsewhere, the Nepali artists regard reviews as self-promotion. And funny thing about the Nepali artists is that even a news coverage of their exhibition, it doesn't have to be flattering review mind you, makes them overtly delighted. However, to go with this delight, there is a fair doze of intolerance regarding criticism in the Nepali artists making art critiquing a hazardous job. I felt this hazard vicariously when I was told that an artist had stormed into the office of the Nepali Times to vent his anger against the review I had written of his exhibition. (Humorously, he has written that our artists always expect praise and don't talk for months when something unpleasant is said against their work). This kind of intolerance deters one from being objective (objective to the extent possible, for objectivity isn't possible beyond the realm of physical science) in one's writing. Or even writing the art reviews. A case in point is Mukesh Malla, who has written a book (only one has come to my notice) on art, who reportedly stopped writing on art because of vitriol lashed against him.

What the artists should be reminded is, a critic's opinion is his own opinion and not a universal or an unquestionable truth. And how adverse the review may be, the good works and the artists doesn't remain long hidden from applauding eyes. If these points could be driven home to the artists, they would be more tolerant about criticisms, which will facilitate qualitative and objective writing. But somehow antagonism between the artists and critics doesn't seem to go away. This is the case in India where, despite the presence of quality art writers like Prayag Sukla, Mulk Raj Ananda, Nirmal Verma, Ranjit Hoskote to name just a few, Indian artists quibble that there is no art critic. This quibble might be the result of groupism among the artists and the critics' fallibility to align themselves to certain art group, and the artists' desire to lend credence to their work. The same is here in Nepal, as anyone who has been closely following the happenings in the Nepali art will know. Given these tendencies and relatively shallow Nepali art writings, it's very easy for the Nepali artists to dismiss the art critics by saying that there is no art critic as such. In this background, it is imperative for any aspiring art critic to strive for the deeper understanding of art and quality art writing. But for this, media, particularly print media, should act as a facilitator by giving a space for art writings but not as a mere filler. And newspaper wallahs should remember that art criticism is a specialized field that needs some specialized knowledge, and they should tender some respect and give adequate pecuniary rewards to the critics. Lastly, the people at the helm of newspapers should do what Pritish Nandy did to art as the editor of the Illustrated Weekly.

Read Comments | Add Your Comments
Eager to know further of it. But how?
By: Vikash Khanal, Kathmandu (2015-02-05)
By: soshu, kathmandu (2011-05-29)
I just want to advice to go through some of the Nepali books related to contemporary Nepali art . I myself have written 6 books. Meanwhile at least we have not less than 40 books. all talks about the contemporary Nepali art . We cannot compare them with other and should not be but at present a lot of articles, and books are available but need to find out and read them . However congratulate you at least you raise the issue about the need of art criticism .
By: Mukesh Malla, Chabahil, Kathmandu (2011-05-01)
A nice article. Just wondering who have written it. Would appreciate if you start writing more on art than the adverse condition of it in Nepal. (I mean - it has always been easier to put blames by highlighting the nearly psychotic attitude of people (to be precise-artists) however what we really need more is rather healthy or constructive criticism of art than the promotion of artist. Would love to read more of you.
By: Sujan Chitrakar, Kathmandu (2011-03-30)
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