Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Business of Art

A few weeks ago, I was at the Chitra Santhe, the one-day ‘affordable art’ fair organised in January every year by the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath – a Visual arts centre in Bangalore, India. I saw paintings of all kinds along the sidewalk. What I also saw was that people were taking photographs of the paintings. There were those looking at the displays on their DSLR cameras, there were others looking at their cell phone screens. Wherever I went, I saw the painting, the ‘device’ and the human eye. The “device” was that something new that had entered our lives. It was making it possible for us to share instantaneously - through a “text message” or a “digital image”. Kodak had said that it was not Fuji that was putting them ‘out of business’ but NOKIA. The cell phone had given us the power that no generation before had had.

When Walter Benjamin wrote his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in 1936, he was describing the revolution in perception that was taking place with technical reproduction through film and photography. It was now possible for a work of art to be reproduced and be present anywhere. He had said, “That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”. Today, as we find ourselves enslaved by cameras and cell phones, I ask myself, what are the meanings embedded within ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Text Messaging’?

As I walked through the Chitra Santhe, I realised that there were no regulations that could stop you from taking photographs of this creative body of work. This was a public space and everything that was part of this space seemed available for free. But, why were people taking pictures? Were these photographs for reproducing the memory of the art fair? Were they for reproducing the painting as yet another painting? Was this about possessing art, perhaps only as a folder on your computer hard disk, to retrieve any time, as many times as you wanted? Or, was it about sharing your own creation in cyber space? This was reproduction and technology simplified to such an extent that anyone could take a picture; anyone could put it in the public domain.

However, for a generation that had grown accustomed to text messaging the transmission of an idea seemed to matter more than its authenticity. I wondered if this ‘mobile device image’ was analogous to a ‘text message’ which was cutting down on words. How did one cut down on an image? How did one reduce the wordiness from an image? Was it about image content here or was it about the time taken to make the image? Was technology not making it possible to store more and more in less and less? What was changing in today’s society? Did we have a dearth of digital space or a dearth of real time?

I was taking photographs too. Why was I there? I was taking pictures to document the art fair, to learn from how urban spaces in the city transform into temporal marketplaces. But, I was also taking pictures of ‘people taking pictures’. It reminded me of a painting I had seen many years ago at the Chemould art gallery in Bombay. It was an exhibition of Atul Dodiya’s work. Dodiya had appropriated the surrealist painter Rene Magritte, showing the backs of the artist Bhupen Khakhar and himself looking at a Magritte, a 1937 portrait of Edward James looking at himself, titled ‘Not to be reproduced’.

These are reflections coming from different directions and maybe they do not tell a story. In the production of art, the narration of the story has reflected the perception of the artist. In its exhibition, the work of art takes on a meaning that its audience generates. Here, at the Chitra Santhe, as we photograph art on our cameras and our cell phones, we transform its exhibition value and lend it multiple meanings. But, could that be true? Or, in these times of unlimited choice, was this “representation of art” an imagined option to organise our own world and our own reality?


Anjali said...

Liked your perspective on the "device". These guys must sure be large hearted not to bother about copyright! or Was it ignorance? Wondering... how open display and sharing is part of this.

radha said...

What a lovely way to showcase art. I wish more cities had this too. And well, the cameras are here to stay, whatever may be the reason. I like your justification too. Brings to mind the popular quote - 'Take Nothing but Pictures. Leave Nothing but footprints. Kill Nothing but Time'

Indian Bazaars said...

Anjali: A few artists did have boards that said 'No photographs please', but mostly nobody seemed to say anything as everyone was taking pictures.

Radha: Thanks for sharing the quote. It's really nice.