Updated: Aug 3, 2021
by Georgina Maddox and Aakshat Sinha
The ClubHouse room by Club @artamour held a discussion on ‘Artist’s Persona: Real vs Virtual’. Georgina Maddox led the conversation with Ranjan Kaul and me in tow. The weekly Wednesday late evening discussion which starts at 9.30 pm IST and generally ends sometime before midnight had around 50 listeners and 15 speakers.
Clubhouse room poster
By Georgina Maddox
In 2020-2021, we all know the importance of having an online presence as an artist. However, the ‘persona’ and ‘aura’ of the artist is something that predates the online space. One could say it goes all the way back to the Renaissance (16th century, Middle Ages) with the writings of Giorgio Vasari, who was one of the principal biographers of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’— The Renaissance. Italian artist Michelangelo di Bunoratti was his favourite muse and he made no effort to hide his open affection for the artist.
Now, however, the artist is much more in control of ‘sculpting’ their own imagery online, although not all of them are interested or technically equipped to do so. Of course, there are others who are extremely techno-savvy and they literally live through their virtual existence. We are now aware that there is a huge spectrum of virtual existence and with the ‘social distancing’ phenomenon, brought on by the COVID-19 virus, online has become one of the primary points of ‘contact’.
With the constantly changing online landscape and the ever so complicated algorithms, it can be hard to know how to get the most out of your online channels. There are now websites that give artists ‘tips’ on how to build their online presence as an artist. The sites talk openly of ‘branding’ which of course sounds very ‘corporate’, but let’s face it, branding has become relevant for anyone trying to make an impact online – especially artists. Through social media and other online platforms, art is being consumed more than ever before, and the competition is steep.
The online website Art Connect says, “Branding has been a hot topic in the art world for years. In 2013, the then editor-in-chief of Art Basel Magazine Sue Hostetler and branding expert Allen Adamson talked about branding tips for artists in Forbes Magazine.” They took Picasso as an example of one of the first artists to adopt these strategies. The brand is how you are perceived as an artist. Branding is the ‘actions’ you take to cultivate that ‘brand’.
“Conceptually I agree with the seamless-ness of who we are reflected all along. But artists have the permission to project something else and what they may not be, as well,” opines ceramic artist Rahul Kumar, who was one of the first artists to share his views. “I say art is often if not always creating a fantasy. It’s not just (Salvador) Dali’s Surrealism. At some level, everything a creator makes is Un-real. Even a photograph includes things in a frame and removes other. So, it’s a mis-found idea to want the honest translation of our being into our work. It’s always a projection. Besides, I may be wedded to an idea for a decade. But I change who I am. And even I don’t know who I may be. That’s another journey. Private. Internal. It may or may not percolate down to my work always,” he adds.
Others like artist and the co-host of artamour Ranjan Kaul felt that perhaps an online existence had its problems. Especially given that when the artist’s life and ‘artist abilities’ were not in keeping with what the artist was portraying. The image of the artist is no doubt ‘created’ and perhaps more so in an online context, however the two realities will always be present and perhaps always at a bit of a ‘difference’.
Meanwhile, Kumar and I agreed in a sidebar chat that since virtuality is a shifting focus, one could have a little-bit of ‘illusion’, however it shouldn’t cross the boundaries of any human rights issues. In our art world many leading cis-gendered male artists (very few are cis-gendered female), get away with all kinds of abuse on so many levels while they continue to project this righteous image. This really irks those concerned and effected. This has in fact led to an outcry in the online space itself in the #MeToo forum. This movement was challenged and things are now on the quieter side but it did create a furor in the art world.
The agreeable balance would be between real and the virtual, given in our current situation we cannot really exist or work without the internet to connect us, even while several debates rage around it.
– Georgina Maddox
By Aakshat SInha
Everyone wears ‘masks’ at different times to suit occasions. Artists are no different but the concern being raised was the issue of the persona mutating to suit online virtual spaces. The advent of social media platforms and their usage, especially since the pandemic, have pushed us to create and interact using our virtual ‘avatars’. Fake IDs have been rampant on apps and in the online world. No one can tell for certain who is represented through a particular online identity. Nothing can be taken for granted – be it gender, age, or the mentioned characteristics.
Society expects the artist to be an extension of their art and the issues they work on, or vice versa. The artwork in the public’s eye sets a stereotype for the viewers. This is most evident in the world of cinema where actors get stereotyped and finds himself stuck with one of their better-known characters played on the celluloid, and are judged for any deviation from these perceived identities. Picasso and Salvador Dali had a specific persona for the world to see and a lot of it was created specifically for the purpose of shocking the world and making their art inseparable from their identity.
Today, as in the case of artists like Banksy, about whom all that is known is either their work or the bits and pieces distributed through various media sources, the virtual persona becomes a mask that the artist wears to engage with the audience. The number of views and followers on platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and a sea of others are more important today. The trouble is that the artist is now bound to adapt to their virtual persona and reflect it in real life as well. Nobody can ever distinguish the real from the fake!
Most of the speakers in the ClubHouse room echoed the warnings of falling into this vicious trap while some found it to be an active evolutionary process and that it would be of little consequence to the world if there is a disjuncture between the two personas.
One can even customize one’s identity to fit the app, say a career-oriented one for LinkedIn. The virtual world of cryptocurrencies and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) are a reality today and art-related sales taking place on these NFT marketplaces are on the rise. Physical sales are near dead in the Corona-bound world. The exponentially increasing use of AI (Artificial Intelligence), AR (Augmented Reality), ML (Machine Learning), and Virtual Platforms like OVR (Online Viewing Rooms) is also impacting the texture of the artist’s individuality in this extremely competitive world where ‘Me First’ and ‘Only Me’ is the new mantra. To be one up over all others to be even noticed and to keep doing so to stay ahead or even relevant is quite similar to running on a treadmill. The race is not just a competition with others but also to simply stay upright, since the moment you slacken, you’d be swept off the treadmill that keeps racing ahead.
The danger is thus to get stuck on such a conveyor belt that is producing similar artists working desperately to be noticed for their individuality, which needs to keep refreshing itself if one wants to stay in the limelight. The other option is to step off the rat race and chart your own path, follow your own exploration of self-discovery and let your art be a reflection of the complex identity that each individual not only has the capacity to be but should have the freedom to be as well.
All is not black or white and one should be allowed the same freedom of choice if an artist wishes to keep their personal and professional profiles separate. People often struggle with keeping their real face on, since they usually project a caricature of themselves to fit the world’s expectations. The saving grace in this entire philosophical quandary would be for the artist to be aware. To be aware and to consciously build and manifest their persona, be it in the real world or virtual. Virtual is simply more far-reaching because of the global spontaneous access and the possibility of losing sight of the original person is a bigger risk far more easily than in the real world.
Creating a new virtual identity and finding it liberating was also expressed by a few speakers. They found their real-life persona to be limiting and inhibiting to them for one or the other reason and this ‘re-creation’ brought them the freedom they craved for. This allowed them to be closer to the truth of their existence and even their art, while their original persona had been a burden that limited their personal and artistic growth.
– Aakshat SInha
ClubHouse session screenshots (Courtesy of Aakshat SInha)
The earlier ClubHouse @artamour rooms have hosted sessions on ‘Migrant Artists: Where do they belong?’ with Pratul Dash, ‘Art Education: What needs to change?’ and ‘Society and the Visual Arts: Why the Disconnect?’ with Rajan Shripad Fulari, and ‘Will Figurative (Representational) Art resurge post the pandemic?’ with Daniel Connel. The objective of these rooms has been to rekindle dialogue around the issues related to art and its place in society. Ranjan had earlier written two articles on Rethinking Art Education and Society and the Visual Arts taking inspiration from the conversations on ClubHouse and expanded on the issues raised.
(The views expressed here are of the writers, which are partly inspired from the conversations on ClubHouse, but are primarily based on their own perceptions and thoughts on the topic. None of these are attributable to any particular speaker from the session unless specifically mentioned as a quote.)
[We would like to express our gratitude to all the in-room speakers and listeners that included Rahul Kumar, Ranjan Kaul, Waswo X Waswo, Inder Salim, Satadru Sovan Banduri, Durga Kainthola, Devika Sundar, Shujaat Mirza, Susmita Mukherjee, Shraddha Bansal, Mukesh Sah, Shantala Palat and the ClubHouse IDs – MAHATI . P, Foveal, Medicine Madison, Akash Yadav, Sunny Singh, Jose P, Shivangi Ladha, Deep Raw, Denise D’souza, Megan Angolia, Ishrath H, Pixelkar, Ranji, and the others who joined in.]
Georgina Maddox is an independent critic-curator with almost two decades of experience in the field of Indian Art and Culture. She was assistant editor at India Today’s Mail Today and senior arts writer for the Indian Express and the Times of India. She is currently working in media as an independent critic for various publications and has published articles in Open Magazine, India Today, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Elle Magazine, The Hindu and Business Line, Sunday Magazine BLINK, TAKE on Art, Time Out, and online with US based E-magazine, Studio International, STIR world and MASH Mag.
Aakshat Sinha is an artist and curator. He also writes poetry and has created and published comics. He is the Founding Partner of artamour.