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For the last few years, creative painting in urban public spaces in India has received a newfound acceptability. There are many discourses and narratives attached to this process of artistic reinvention in public spaces. For some it is a process of bringing sanity to the clutter of public space, for some it is beautification of the space and for others it’s a process of occupying public space with art. This paper explores this seen and unseen connection of aesthetics of form and space as defined in our urban society.Universalisation of urban imaginations and idea of beauty in the other:In 2010, the original proponent of Sabarmati riverside project, Ar. Bernard Kohn came back to Cept University and conducted a workshop with students and raised many questions about the present model of re-claiming riverbeds as real estate . Till that point of time, the narrative around the city was: the riverside project will turn the city of Ahmedabad into another Venice– a city of luxury, celebration and waterways. Although Half the population of the city had never heard of Venice, the story was sold convincingly and people eagerly awaited its completion. They were not concerned about the large scale human displacements and environmental violence wrought by such flawed infrastructure projects, where the natural path of a river is resized for the development of realty. I am not getting into any sociological or environmental impact assessment of this specific project or for that matter of any such project, but my interest lies in the construction of beauty, its binary and narrative that are firming up our idea of urban beauty and visual culture.If one analyses the above story, perhaps the story of every urban imagination about the idea of development, one will find the following four arguments are overemphasized in this construction of urban aesthetics
1. Existence of a superior other and Inferior self
2. Possibility of transformation
3. Necessity of change
4. Agency of changeLet us understand these arguments in a little detail
Existence of a superior other and inferior self or present:In our life one is told that the essential requirement for the premise of improvement is always have to be a contempt for the present or at least eagerness for more. Either way,it reminds us of the inadequacy of our present. Historically, advertisement and communications industry have been using this technique for a very long time. Perhaps We may be able to find the antecedents of this argument in our age old religious narratives of heaven and hell. This binary of good and bad and less and more may be an evolutionary outcome of human mind that is required to live in the evidence of time: the past, present and future and its manifestations in a material world.Good and bad can reflect only a quality and not necessarily quantifiable material evidence, but the binary of less and more often requires a quantifiable evidence of material manifestation. In our priority for good or bad and less or more, this dichotomy of complementary existence of Identities, between quantity of material evidence and quality of virtue develops a self-doubt of superiority or inferiority in individuals.Value of ethics, morality and its natural subset aesthetics play a big role in this flux of value judgments. In other words the idea of beauty in human life remains a value judgment of quality and quantity. This has been the case of human society from time immemorial.
All our functional systems in society, be it nation, state, community, religion,business or economy, they all operate in this area of self-doubt. They confirm the virtue of superiority of good and more above in human life as against inferior bad and less positions.From the fundamental economic unit- money that derives its value from the principles of demand and supply to the ideas of hope, development, expansion, construction ,relationships, faith so on and so forth, one will find the evidence of this idea of inferior and superior being operationalized everywhere. We will find this binary shaping up the body of argument or position and perhaps even in the resistance or rejection of one or all of the above . Take for instance the cases of religion or spirituality or universalization of vernacular, one finds the value judgment of appropriateness is derived from this binary of superior or inferior.Necessity for change:Strangely even as the inferior inherently identified with our existence, the superior is always find a construct outside our identities, for example, the Christian construct of manas a born sinner and the supreme God of purity.
Problematically this confirmation of unambiguous superior other and inferior self becomes the first premise of our imagination and its aesthetics. In other words it assumes an inherent possibility of progression or change in every life. Our physical body growth also confirms this presupposition of less and more as an evidence of aesthetics and it’s scales of beauty. Subsequently in this process the inferior naturally gets associated with less and superior with more. Thereafter anyone and anything that talks about more become desirable and appropriate in society and a desirable approach in life becomes a change towards more or progress.Now there are four additional parameters emerge in this process of defining superior:idea of acceptability, conformity, progression and failure.
Since this value judgment scale is an individual assumption based on the societal construct of relationships among one to one, one to many and many to many entities, the idea of appropriateness in the selection of these relationships also gets defined not only by those negotiations but also by the virtue of need that makes those relationships relevant.This further complicates the matter as not only does the change become important but appropriateness of such change based on a predefined need also becomes important.Over and above the process has to conform to this idea of acceptability of success or failure in its progression from inferior to superior or less to more.Possibility of transformation :But the need and appropriateness will not enable an inherently inferior or less to progress to superior or accumulate more. In this construct, a less or inferior by the virtue of being less or inferior itself cannot become more or superior, it mandates an external intervention to accumulate more or transform to a superior.
As discussed in earlier paragraph, one does not exist by oneself in society but one identifies oneself as one between the one to one, one to many and many to many relationships. In other words,one simultaneously becomes individual and also part of a community in our everyday life in society. This need based complementary existence of an individual through an external agency of relationship, highlights the dependency of inferior on external agency for its transformation to superior or acquirement of more.There are two important issues here.
1. The criteria involved in the selection process involved in the development of relationships
2. The nature or process of relationships If one elaborates the above points, one will find the need for the conscious discerning capacity or need for awareness in inferior to build the criteria of selection. In other words even as the system acknowledges the ability of inferior for a conscious selection, it separates the relationship as an external process from the inferior by making inferior dependency on an external agency as a mandatory process( here the criteria and appropriateness of relationship). These agencies can be marriage, sex, animosity,country, religion, community so on and so forth. Systems prescribe these external factors as the tools, techniques and methods by which an inferior can progress to superior or less to more.
Although mutually exclusive, claiming ownership of these factors, the system turns these relationships into external tools, technique and methods that are independent of inferior or superior and less or more, so that the ‘other’ or ‘more’ always remains romanticized, desired and inspired for. It insists, even with ability to consciously discern the appropriateness of selecting the intermediary process, one by virtue of being inferior will never be able to become a superior without those external tools, techniques and methods. It takes away the ability of transformation from inferior forever. In other words, one has to employ these specific skill sets derived from those external agencies as an individual effort to arrive at those superior others.On a further note, one will understand that this is a power game that is being played out with these intermediary agencies. The agencies that possess the know-how or capability to play this game by inventing, accelerating or supplying these external tools, technique,methods as processes will also have the ability to control the entire process of relationships or human life. Or one may say that the agency itself may not be capable enough to manipulate human life, but the one who control the agency will have that capacity. State, law, money, religion, profession, education, planning, architecture, art and aesthetics all become such agencies that control our life.At this point, if we recollect the initial story of river side project or for that matter anydevelopmental project as defined by society or state, one will start wondering about the visual culture that defines the aesthetics of beauty for us. Or at least one will have to start exploring what constructs that beauty in our life.Ideas of aesthetics and consequence of beauty:In late eighties, when Delhi started developing by relocating urban slums to its border areas, the affluent and the middle class in the city felt the joy of abundance both in terms of serenity and cleanliness. But those exclusive affluent places but slowly and steadily started giving away those individual convenient bungalows to apartments, biggar houses for smaller flats, smaller crowds to larger population, limited vehicular traffic to larger traffic jams and sufficient water and power supply to sever water and power shortage.By mid 2000, the city once again became those urban slums with an only difference that now it was made of affluent poor. The worst scenario was, as some of the studies indicated, many married educated women from those affluent families started leaving their jobs and their independence to look after their family as their maids who helped them to continue in career were also made to exit in that process of beautifying the city by displacing those poor. In other words, in the process of beautifying the city, the gold patriarchy system made a steady come back in many homes. Tragedy did not end there; the next generation (and perhaps the coming generations) had to travel hundreds of kilometers away from the city to see or experience beauty of nature and breathe cleanair. The mountain valleys and river sources in around the city and nearby states also have started getting cluttered with those seekers of nature’s beauty and the uncontrolled tourism. The city dwellers with their idea of nature demanded their idea of beauty,convenience from those places and in their effort to attract the business of tourism most of these natural places got transformed themselves into replicas of cluttered cities tourists escape. The nature and culture of those places became limited to the showcase exhibits in shop floors and with the homogenized visual cultures, environment violations,traffic jams and collapse of civic infrastructures those places also have become damaged.This is not a story of Delhi alone. All across this country and its cities, the story wouldn’t be different.
Between rich man’s beauty and poor man’s hunger, the game of inferior and superior binary has played out very well everywhere with its disastrous consequences from the idea of beauty in aesthetics. If aesthetics of nature was what city dwellers were looking forward and aesthetics of nature was what those far of places had in abundance to offer, tourism became their external agency of dependence in that mutually exclusive relationship. Those who had the commanding control of tourism controlled them both and perhaps destroyed them both.Economic liberalization remains another important factor that influenced Indian urban visual culture. Post liberalized shopping culture and its malls became one of the iconic structure of Indian urban landscape that defined the idea of spectacular for its people.Historically in Mumbai lights are never switched off and the power cut is rather unheard of. Where as in rural Maharashtra the power cuts lasts some time as long as 16 to 18 hours. Before the economic liberalization the power cuts in rural Maharashtra used to be only 4 to 6 hours in a day. Post liberalization as the super stores and malls with every inch of it are lighted with power guzzling bulbs and air-conditioning to cool the glass facades came up , rural Maharashtra started losing their share of power.
The power cuts have gone up from 4 to 6 hours to 16 to 18 hours and at times more than that. Debt and drought ridden farmers started getting the heat of urban aesthetics. Rain failed them at first place and over and above the power cuts failed them more in their efforts to get the ground water for farming. Further the government set up as much as 11 thermal power plants across draught ridden villages sucking out the last little water that was left in the under ground for farmers.Post liberalization farmer suicide in Indian villages stands at a staggering 2.5 lakhs or more and majority of them are from Maharashtra. I would not say that it all emanate from those innocent urban design decisions of an architect or an interior designer but when the damage is irreversible certainly one cannot absolve the share of their aesthetic constructions.
Strangely in this power play of inferior-superior binary, even today those 1.5 lakh deaths are discounted as the necessary cost involved for the interest of nation’s progress!Further it is well known the damage of post IT revolution European glass sensibility driven facades in commercial architecture brought to the Indian cities during 46 to 50 degree summer heat. Professor BV Doshi’s studies in Ahmedabad are well known to everyone. In a globalized world where every decision has its impact, some time even an innocent decision can unleash catastrophic consequences to rest of the world. so are ideas of aesthetics and consequence of beauty.The urban public space painting: the tattooed architecture:Keeping all these factors at hindsight, one wonders what defines urban visual culture and this newfound idea of painting on public spaces?
Painting is not an alien factor in Indian architecture or for that matter in public spaces.From the length and breath of this country one can sight innumerable examples of living traditions of painting houses, be it a rangoli or the Worli , Mythili or Gond wall paintings,we have a long tradition of embellishing our houses with narrative paintings or symbolic motifs. This is not something unique to India alone as well, across the world there are many anthropological, sociological and cultural studies that have went into understand this idea of aesthetics that are many times relevant to rituals in those cultures and at other times with a pure aesthetic value doing to human habitat.As it traverses from a simple aesthetic formulation to symbolic representation and then toritualistic iconography, the studies indicate a complicated status to these images inhuman societies.
But if one keeps the inferior – superior binary and the idea of progression in place, one will find the strains of the power play in this process as well. Metaphorically the aesthetics of image becomes the urge of identity or building relationship between nature and self.Evidently it becomes either a celebration or camouflage as a tool to build those relationships by exhibiting elements of culture or negating it. Historically art, architecture and body tattooing had been carrying out this role in human society. In this binary of inferior – superior, each and every elements and motifs has a communicable significance to assert one’s own progression as these aesthetical productions.In aboriginal cultures often bones, nails, and marks of their prey becomes the symbol of valor or power structures and extensive body tattooing becomes the mode of camouflage or embellishments.. We may find lots of similarity in the objectivity of the idea of valor and identity in aboriginal culture to contemporary cosmopolitan tattoo culture.But the complexity emerges with urban tattoo as visual culture when one places the developments in 20th century art movements along with these aesthetical expressions.
Even if one consider it as the continuity of Hippie movement and their obsession with aboriginal cultures and its practices, one will find it difficult to comprehend the objectivity of a tattoo under a steel gray Armani suit and its expression.Further if one keep this image tattooed body juxtaposed against the recent phenomena of urban wall paintings to clean certain areas under responsible citizen initiatives called Bombay rising and Bangalore rising etc, where a group of people clean up an area in urban spaces and paint its walls to claims it as beautiful, the idea of urban aesthetics of beauty becomes further complicated.Further if one considers the process of institutional groups and Paint Company Sponsored groups that are sprouting across Indian cities and painting different images among cluttered urban spaces making it further cluttered to claim artistic beauty adds further complication to already complex phenomena.Theoretically art is viewed at three levels: innocent, initiated and informed. The first set of people is the one who has a gaze of interest in art than a particular engagement. For that person representation of identifiable reference in artwork and its validation is all that they seek in it. More than they love an artwork they love the sight.Second set of people is the one who validate an artwork for its conformity to aesthetic principles. They understand the nuances of history, theory and its principles. More than they love art, they love art for its conformity, concurrence and its social and historical location. In other words they love their command over the subject.The third set of people is the one who can identify with a work; one who can take the path of an artist. Even as they traverse through the nuances of art history, theory and its principle, they imbibe the ability to create a critical perspective on art. More than they love art, they partner with it.Although first two are important, but after the post 20th century criticality developed in art,an artist who practice in contemporary art will have to work with third group- one with critical eye or one who is informed.Keeping this position at hindsight and take the cases of urban tattoo culture, one will find it easy to bracket them in the first group with innocent eye. They don’t love tattoo as art but they love the sight of it. We have to leave at it. But that is not the case of these contemporary artists who paint the public spaces.
When they claim it as an art, the criticality of their act will become important. The following points are important in that negotiation Erasing an architectural fa?ade or turning architectural form into a canvas:Considering architecture itself is a rooted artistic form, does these paintings become part of that art or which one will become the primary art form? Architecture or painting on it?How is this displacement of one art form for the exclusivity of the other is critically positioned?What is the critical negotiation artist is expressing when one turns a positive space of an architectural form into negative space of a painting on it?How is it different from the socio-political aspect of colonisation?None of the contemporary street arts seems to have addressed any of these issues have taken a critical position on it. Their arguments are also not different from those who champion the power game of progression from inferior to superior. Start group from Delhi, have famously said in one of the discussion forum in Bangalore that their art serve the beautification of cityscapes that otherwise would have been filled with filthy posterand fliers! In other words their idea of aesthetics is no different from those affluent who have displaced the poor from city for their rich man’s beauty ignoring poor man’s hunger.The visual language Another critical area is the language. Graffiti came in the west as a response to overdesigned serenity. So in other words these painting in the cluttered Indian urban space cannot claim the historical or theoretical relevance of Graffiti language and its expression.It cannot claim the ritualistic or embellished expression of Indian traditional wall paintings as well, as it requires a cultural and historical connection between the painting,inhabitants and its dwelling or home. If one take a close look at these street art that are taking place in Indian cities, one will find the design influenced contemporary western narrative illustration form in it. More than a style value or the innocent sight value, they do not convey any critical argument in these art works. Even as many of them copyBanksy’s social critique format, they seems unable to put forward a strong argument to defend the language of art as they wanted to call it like Banksy or for that matter Jean-Michel Basquiat by differentiating their distinct artistic language. The contemporary Indian Street artists stay either at innocent view level or at the maximum initiated view level, they do not offer criticality of any sort.Conclusion :In a post 21st century and post post modernist anthropocene age, an artwork cannot remain without criticality or critically neutral. Today every image by the virtue of being animage itself with its meaning making ability will become historically and theoretically conscious. Even if one keeps the evangelised position of criticality away from these artistic productions, considering the long history of artistic production in this country, one cannot absolve oneself from its socio-cultural and historical location in visual art and its language.
Unfortunately this post “art boom crash” trend in Indian art seems to be devoid of any such positions. They all seem to have located their art in the trajectory of inferior –superior binary and getting reduced to mere tool operators of an unknown agenda. Often The boundaries are blurred between a commercial billboard and these street art works and at times much worse, when these groups uses these works for their publicity campaign or their funding agencies names., they end up as one and the same .A public space is a collective responsibility even if it is not a collective ownership. Every Act in that space has a socio-cultural and economic and political consequence. Even if the artist for an argument sake positions himself or herself as neutral in a public space,but by the mere act of locating that neutrality in a public space will convert their act of neutrality into a socio-political act. An artistic work cannot take place devoid of this knowledge. We have seen, if one does not delve into the criticality of one’s own idea of aesthetics and beauty, how those aesthetical or beauty construct in the binary of inferior and superior can be of a catastrophic consequence as seen from the examples of Delhi And Maharashtra listed above. So art and artistic production cannot claim innocence in public space. If it is located in public it has to be a critically evaluated production.As of now when these artists turn Indian urban architectures and spaces into canvases,don’t seem to be producing art. They are producing tattoos for innocent eyes on urban architectures in public spaces. It is time they evolve and develop criticality to their work.
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