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Society and the Visual Arts

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

A Vexed Disconnect

With a critique of the National Education Policy 2020

in relation to art education

by Ranjan Kaul

The past two Wednesday evenings (30 June and 7 July 2021) we’ve held marathon sessions on the artamour club on the Clubhouse platform around two closely related themes: the art-society disconnect and art education. These animated discussions forcefully challenged accepted notions, which is what has prompted me to write this essay.

To join the conversations of club artamour on Clubhouse:

It is widely accepted that the arts (visual, performing, literary) taken together define the culture of a nation, so it becomes a matter of concern when there is a disjuncture between society and the visual arts. A country’s progress and development cannot be viewed through a unidimensional lens of pure economics. It must necessarily encompass the evolving civilizational ethos and cultural identity; at the same time, it must be inclusive and recognize universal human values.

Inadequate exposure is the underlying reason for the lack of awareness and understanding of the visual arts among the public. While traditional art forms are easier to comprehend, modern and contemporary art practices are more nuanced and need greater knowledge, as they become increasingly discursive, continuously experimenting and expanding into new territories and incorporating global trends.

No one particular group or institution can really be fully blamed for this yawning gap between art and society. Exposure to art should of course start at the school level. But then does the entire onus rest on schools, or should parents also be apportioned part of the blame for not taking their offspring to galleries and museums? Or, should we merely dismiss art awareness as unimportant or irrelevant to the lay public and accept the notion that for parents it is far more crucial to focus on their child’s academic growth and career path? Such argumentation and thinking is entirely flawed and that is what makes the issue far more serious.

The curriculum design of our school education system does not really encourage such exposure. The visual arts are seen merely as an extracurricular activity, primarily aimed at developing motor skills, at best creativity, rather than a vehicle to inculcate a love for art and impart learning of art history and modern and contemporary art practices. So, while some schools do run “art classes”, these are generally limited to drawing, painting, clay modelling, and decorating the school with rangoli and other traditional art mediums during festivals and other school events. Seldom are students taken on guided tours to an art gallery or art museum. And by the time the children reach class six or eight, the pressures of the academic curriculum take precedence and even these art classes are summarily discontinued, if at all they’ve taken place. And there ends art education for life, for most students.

The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020), to be fair to the current dispensation, seems to address this issue; it states, “art-integrated education will be embedded in classroom transactions not only for creating joyful classrooms, but also for imbibing the Indian ethos through integration of Indian art and culture in the teaching and learning level at every level.” The Policy identifies art and culture as priorities and is emphatic about their inclusion in the main academic framework. Among its directives are that artists, writers, craftspersons and experts be hired as master instructors in schools and artist(s)-in-residence at the higher education level to expose students to art. While there is mention of familiarizing students to the “treasure trove of culture, developed over thousands of years”, what seems to be missing, either by oversight or design, is the need to impart learning of modern and contemporary art practices. It is unclear how the document defines culture and if the interpretation is one that narrows the focus to Vedic civilization with the exclusion of other rich cultures such as the art and architecture produced during the Mughal period. (As amply evident from the changes brought out in the NCERT history textbooks and the recently revised UGC undergraduate history syllabus, there is good reason to believe that this indeed is the intent.)

India is geographically and socially a diverse nation with a composite culture; the country’s cultural identity must naturally encompass a multiplicity of region-specific traditions, religions, mythologies, languages and influences from external origins. There also appears to be a disturbing attitude in relation to the need for such education. To quote the NEP 2020: “Crores of people from around the world partake in, enjoy and benefit from this cultural wealth daily, in the form of visiting India for tourism . . . purchasing handicrafts and handmade textiles . . . It is this cultural and natural wealth that truly makes India, ‘Incredible India’, as per India’s tourism slogan.

The policy further talks about the need for art education for preservation of the country’s cultural wealth to support the economy and boost tourism. Going by this additional justification, there appears to be an erroneous confusion regarding an understanding of what constitutes art education on two counts: an inability to draw a distinction between art and craft, and two, a more worrying attitude where creating awareness of the arts is not seen as a sufficient reason to introduce art in the curriculum. Neither does the document talk about the development of a child’s sensitivity and creativity. Here I’d like to add that even many informed and progressive educationists talk of using art primarily as a pedagogic tool for cognitive development and creativity rather than about the need for imparting learning of the wide canvas of visual arts to further the child's understanding and enjoyment of art.

The document therefore seems to be limited in scope and understanding of art education and we'll need to wait and watch how the policy finally plays out – it is at best a vision document – and to what extent budgetary outlays will be made to fund such hiring of art personnel, where the emphasis will be placed, and so on. Moreover, given the ideological moorings of the government at the centre, there is reason to be sceptical about the policy – that it is just another stratagem to push a particular socio-cultural agenda. However, education is a state subject and there is no reason why the more progressive state governments should not take full cognizance of the NEP 2020 and incorporate the directives into their academic programme, interpreting them in a manner they deem fit.

While it is one thing to point a finger at the educational system for the alienation of the visual arts from society, there is a flip side. The art community and art institutions (public or private) are perhaps equally responsible – to what extent do artists, galleries and museums make proactive efforts to invite participation of children or the lay public. Most art galleries and museums have become ivory towers. If I were to take the example of New Delhi where I reside, thousands of families and Indian tourists throng to India Gate but rarely do we see them stepping into the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) located in the immediate neighbourhood. (It is a different matter that in recent years many of the activities and exhibitions held in the NGMA have been far removed from modern and contemporary art practices – those of you who have visited the gallery before the lockdown would understand what I’m trying to say.) This raises the moot question: is this because of lack of exposure and awareness to art or is the reason far more complex?

The NGMA (in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru) and the New Delhi based Lalit Kala Akademi (each state has its own Akademi) were designed and conceived to promote education and awareness of modern and contemporary art, but these public institutions, apart from holding exhibitions, have fallen woefully short of their mandate. Possibly because of constraints of funding and misplaced priorities, collecting art of masters and emerging artists - which is indeed the raison d'etre for the NGMA’s existence - have almost ceased, and this from much before the onset of Covid-19.

Here it is pertinent to make a mention of the privately owned Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) which has tried to fill in the gap to some extent. They have done exemplary work through their outreach programmes to engage with schools, colleges and the public at large, through exhibitions, workshops, guided tours, talks, seminars and so on, and even occasionally stepped outside the museum to a nearby mall and the foyer of a building to engage with the lay public who might feel diffident of walking into an elite gallery space. However, the KNMA is more of an exception; most other galleries (and now many have turned virtual) have done precious little to disseminate knowledge and understanding of the visual arts among the general public and have been quite content to promote artworks by established artists to potential buyers and collectors. (Among the galleries who do encourage young artists, I’d like to mention New Delhi based Art Heritage housed in Triveni Kala Sangam which regularly runs special shows of emerging artists.) But by and large, as Santanu Borah wrote on artamour, The Art World is an Exclusive Club of select artists, elitist galleries and auction houses with little concern for reaching out to the public at large. We see this elitism with even the KNMA to some extent in their 8000-strong art collection, though it must be conceded that they have in many cases promoted new and emerging artists and especially women artists; indeed, many other galleries have been riding on KNMA’s promotion and collecting works of the same artists rather than discovering new ones or widening their audience base by kindling interest and enhancing art awareness. Thus the elite club membership comes full circle.

As a private body the KNMA is free to do what they please, but if the Centre is not doing its bit, education being a state subject, state governments should have pitched in. In this regard (and as I’ve mentioned in my earlier articles), the Kerala government must be lauded for sponsoring the popular Kochi-Muziris Biennale with the support of other autonomous bodies and individuals. The biennales are often set outside regular galleries such as heritage buildings, disused structures and site-specific installations. The festival also holds talks, seminars, film screenings and workshops for children and has also been holding separate Students’ Biennales. Among the initiatives to take art to the public beyond the confines of elite gallery spaces which I’ve been fortunate to view include the Kala Ghoda Festival (which seems to have fizzled out) and the Sassoon Art Project, both in Mumbai. There have also been art collectives, for instance, The Sahmat Collective, which have taken art to public spaces and addressed issues of current socio-political concern. Similarly, in smaller measure, there have been other private initiatives where the organizers have arranged for artists to visit smaller towns and villages to create art along with the local community. Bigger cities such as Delhi and Mumbai have also been holding art fairs and art melas, but the problems still remain – lay people need to go there and in the case of the India Art Fair, the cost of the entry ticket is so prohibitive that only the elite glitterati can afford it.

A participating speaker in one of our discussions drew attention to the city of Bhopal which has seen an over-flowing of art on the city walls over the past few years. It has been some years since I visited Bhopal, though I was aware of these initiatives. I’m sharing a few screen shots of these from the Madhya Pradesh government promotional videos, which are quite similar to the kind of art we see in Delhi’s metro stations and some subways and streets. My quarrel with such art, if you’d like to call it that, is that it is contrived and merely decorative (as I have with other art displayed in galleries that are governed and dictated by market forces – I'd dwelled on this in my recent blog Art and the Pandemic).

Views of different sites in Bhopal presented by MP Tourism, planned by Bhopal Municipal Corporation and I-Clean Bhopal. Art by artists from Bhopal and other parts of India. Courtesy of JoshHosh Media

The “art” seen on the walls of Bhopal and other metropolises is not only far removed from current art practices, they neither reflect the lives of the local communities nor are they involved in their creation. In this regard, I’ve earlier also drawn attention to Johny ML’s thought-provoking piece Beautification and Mural Making are Two Different Things where he’d described the works of “Trespassers”, a group of Kerala artists who create community-centred art. Otherwise, most of the so-called wall art we see in towns and cities is banal and thoughtless. The difference between the art on Bhopal walls shown above and that of “Trespassers” given below is so stark that nothing more needs to be said.

Trespassers’ mural projects. Courtesy of Johny ML

Another important point that came up for discussion was the need for galleries to be far more welcoming. Artists, curators and assisting guides must necessarily make themselves more accessible to the handful of those who enter the gallery premises and not be discriminating, jumping up only when a potential buyer steps in, and making other visitors feel unwelcome and out of place. Equally important is a well-articulated curatorial note and artist statement written in an accessible idiom. I must confess that I’ve myself had to struggle to comprehend these arcane notes, written in convoluted and highfalutin prose solely to enthral and entice the impressionable buyer. It is atypical of an artist or curator to write their note simply and rare to to see it in the local language. It was therefore heartening that at the RAZAnama, a show to commemorate SH Raza’s hundredth, the curatorial notes and other texts accompanying the visuals were in simple Hindi in keeping with some of Raza’s smaller conceptual works that include Hindi inscriptions. Aakshat Sinha covered the show in his review article, RAZAnama: The Artist, the Man.

Another area of recent presence of art in public spaces has been the use of online/virtual spaces for exhibitions of the visual arts and performances. Aakshat Sinha reviewed the online performance art festival organized by HexxyDuxxyBox from India and the Rah Art Residency from Iran in three parts (Performance Art Project Asia: Light and Shadow, Part Two and Part Three). The online event spread over four days featured artists from India, Iran, Nepal, China, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, and Bangladesh. Online events have somewhat democratized the art space, subject to telecom accessibility of course. Aakshat's review of the virtual exhibition, Visual Encounters, hosted by Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, touched upon accessing art brought about by use of technology. The exhibition featured artworks by the five artists of the Multiple Encounters group: Anandamoy Banerji, Dattatreya Apte, Kavita Nayar, Moti Zharotia, and Sushanta Guha. Elena Rubinova reviewed for artamour the CosMoscow International Art Fair 2020 which was held in a hybrid format (physically in Moscow and online for anyone across the world).

Of course, it is not going to be easy to bridge the existing gap between art and society. As we have discussed above, it would be foolhardy to expect government bodies or institutions to promote an awareness of modern and current art practices among students and the lay public; rather, the NEP 2020 may even further deepen the divide. Given this reality, artists, curators, gallerists and art lovers need to take on the onus and work tirelessly and selflessly towards reducing the prevailing disconnect between art and society.

Owing to constraints of space I've been unable to discuss here the related and pressing issue of art education in India. I plan to address concerns of art education and what needs to change in a separate essay which we will post next weekend. So, do watch out for it.


Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Rajan Shripad Fulari, Aakshat Sinha and all the other participating speakers and listeners who joined us on the artamour Clubhouse discussions; these deliberations helped me to crystallize my thoughts and ideas for this essay. At the same time, I hasten to add that the views expressed here are finally my own and not necessarily attributable to any of the speakers.


Ranjan Kaul is an artist, art writer, author and Founding Partner of artamour.


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