Writing about artwork/s is in fact, an act*1* which is already, always done, from within the artwork itself.
Thus a positioning of art writing as subordinate to the ‘created visual’ is an intended political hierarchy and also emerges out of the notion (not belief) that they are two different frames of references ((a) writing and (b)creating), in the contemporary Indian art context. There lies an irony within this very reading: If writing-is-in-itself independent of visuals, why and how is the subordination of art writing by visual, possible? The metaphysical aura attached to (i) words; and (ii) experts of words—in the post-independent Indian social structure and (hence) within the institution of visual art, makes ‘writing-about-art’ a preoccupation which contests and challenges all the aspects attached to something populistic and culturally construed identities: say the socially revere/opted preoccupation of IT, BT sector, Call Centers and the like. It is only the art writers who can be introduced to someone as, “a very popular personality”! It is only in such statements that the pun, reality and satire coincide.
In the general sense, when words are written on paper or typed on virtual space within and/or on the computer space, it is this space ‘on/in’ which the writing is represented. This representation is the one that is put into question, with a mis-understanding that the subject dealt is writing-itself. Does writing itself–without a media of representation or without being represented—exist? For instance, the single inverted commas and italicized words in the last but one sentence problematize writing itself. How can writing claim a singularity and independence of being, while being within and on a given space, at the same time? Contemporary Indian art is obsessed to mis-identify writing from the representation of writing.
Thus, as if as against a speech, writing ‘about art’–which does mean ‘not the writing about anything else’–immediately is an addressal of writing itself, no matter what theme, genre, oeuvre and style of art the writing is addressing, outside itself (if at all such a independent position is possible). This is true even with represented-words used as integral part of the very artworks (K.C.S.Panikker, for instance). Every word in the writing of art, first of all, indicates a self-awareness about its ‘difference’ from a visual language that construes an art work. This mischievous dual role of self-awareness evident within Indian art writing is one of the reasons as to why it lacks a thesis like Benjamin’s ‘Artwork in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936). The article itself, as imagery produced, arguably, doesn’t refer to specific imagery outside itself. In other words, the writing about art (here ‘writing’ is to be read as also the ‘already written’) is a constantly ‘self-doubting agent’ that meanders between two tenses: past and the present.*2* It is not a question of what and how do we write while dealing with a work of art. But it is a question of “why do we write about visual art at all?” Has Ananda Coomaraswamy’s “Transformation of Nature in Art” and K.G.Subramanyan’s “Living Tradition” theories–proposed in written form much after Benjamin—been restricted within the discourse of the nationalist boundaries, no matter how thoughtful they are. Perhaps for the same reason, there have been essays on “Benjamin in the age of digital reproduction”, while “KGS in the age of Traditional Reproduction” might be an abandoned project.*3*
Let me continue this contemplation about writing-as-art and art-of-writing in a different mode. A write-up about art, by which I mean the writing represented through written words on paper or on a computer screen, basically, is presumed to ‘clarify’ a given visual representation. And then, hence, writing is held to be a ‘support system’ to the visual. Thus clarification and support, in the general sense, makes the artwork host and writing as its pest. *4* All the characteristics of a ‘pest’ (writing as: economical, optional, supportive, lacking an institution-of-its-own and undefined) is alleged to art writing. On the other hand, practical visual art, for instance, is positioned as ‘the’ object that is being addressed and is decorated with the characters opposed to all those mentioned within the bracket in the previous sentence.*5*
So the positivist attitude of ‘writing’ in ‘writing on art’ is a farce. If Derrida can be faintly recalled, writing already exists ‘within’ an artwork, and the representation of writing that we identify as art reviews, appreciation, catalogue writing and the like, first of all, imitate the essence of writing already ‘inset’ within the visual language of the artwork. If one can imagine an artwork as a frame of reference, the visual language within it as a frame-within, with incongruous residue (artwork minus its visual language), then immediately writing takes up a ‘double’ role. The identification of writing due to visual language within artwork is writing number one. And its identification through dialogue or representation of writing is the second writing. At this juncture, the work of art is split, damaged and scattered to (a) the ‘essence’ and (b) the ‘residual’ rest, which acknowledges and endorses the nonsensical within artworks. So writing as meaningful scribbles on a piece of paper, for instance, means giving ‘voice’ to a form within artwork that yearns to be revealed, in that space-time context. At the same, due to the second personality of writing evident and represented, the non-sensical should be a part and parcel of a good work of art! This reveals that the game of positivism in the writing on art is over. The value judgment is put to stake due to the agencies that produce the (a) value, (b) valuer in the form of (a) writing and (b) writer of art, respectively. The will of the agents of art: artist, curator, critic nexus need to will to do that. War, exiledom etc., for instance, refuses such a split and scattering of artworks, from its ‘actual’ serene, pure context. In other words, Living Tradition would not have happened in an uncomfortable, non-bourgeois society. And Mechanical Reproduction is an insight into the essence of all the words in the previous sentence!
‘Is writing on visual unavoidable?’ is a sentence that is often asked but never written about, owing to the paradox it might evoke!
‘Ontology’ and ‘representation’ are the two aspects that Indian contemporary art writing has relied heavily upon, since past four decades:
(a) Analytically explaining an artwork,
(b) deriving experiences and meanings out of it,
(c) equating an artist’s note with his/her works; &
(d) English as the ‘means’ of writing (particularly in English, in India) as if the regional/vernacular language v/s English was naturally solved.
The above said facts have been the rough methodology followed by and large. On the contrary, I cannot imagine a piece-of-writing about any Indian major work/show/curation that is out of free-thinking, free-wheeling and beyond the cliché of institutionalization of what one understands as (a) positive progressive and (b) political correctness. For instance, there hasn’t been any major, remarkable, published write-up about how a visual art piece has successfully ‘failed’ to become an artwork. It is not a question of success and failure as much as it is about the question of the ethics in value judgement to art pieces. This happens perhaps due to the Indian art community’s wish to equate and synchronise two things that mutually claim independence in the epistemology of experiences: writing ahead and the already written.
A work-of-art in Indian context is an endorsement of an academically legitimized arm chair, left-oriented ideology’s omnipresence, within whose premise a work is perceived, by and large. The answer perhaps lies in negotiating the ontological and the representational concern of the writing practices, that too from within the community which we popularly identify as the Visual Arts.
*1* Interestingly, creative art is termed as ‘work’ already done, perhaps a Marxist connotation equating art work to an act of the past, that is equivalent to manual labour. But the appreciation, review, criticism of art in the written form is never alleged to be a work or ‘acts’ of work, thus categorizing art writing as an intellectual activity. The divide between the legendary hand and the new born brain is obvious.
*2*To a certain extent I have Bhartrhari, Abhinavagupta, Wittgenstein and Derrida’s notions about speech, writing and expression in mind while writing this.
*3* Has Benjamin gained relevance for the presumed universality of his theory or because of its avatar as the late-imperial project? The answer is obvious and it depends on how much of nationalist one is, or not while ‘positioning’ the essay. Along with the sanaatana ‘Shadanga sutras’ and the ‘Six Cannons’, Asian visual theories might be categorized ‘within’ the premise of the post-colonial and subaltern, both of which are obviously contextualized outside its actually space of visual discourse. Otherwise, why do we refer to Benjamin more in the Institutionalisation of art as against, say, KGS and Shadangas and Six Cannons? Our non-familiarity to treatises, old and new, close to our space (something more than the mere geographical one), to which we might be heir to, might be an indication to various things: (a) Nationalism being claimed by the right wing (b) Our fear of being sectionalised as Neo-Exoticists and (c) The shy and untranslatable quality of the pictorial grammar of Shadanga/Cannons, into the language of our own current art writing. Walter Benjamin’s treatise/seminal essay, is, for instance, been ‘positioned’ variously. For instance, it is perceived as dualistically autobiographical by Andrew Benjamin (Refer: his book “Art, Mimesis and Realism”) that could contest the universality of Walter’s essay.
*4* I am referring to Gregory Ulmer’s essay “The Object of Post Criticism”, in the book “Anti-Aesthetic Essays in Postmodern Culture” edited by Hal Foster. The essence of the essay invokes the possibility of art writing’s new personality of ‘being already written’ into the works or writing ‘as’ picture rather than meaning ‘writing about picture’. Innumerable cultural productions (ex: a certain John Cage’s music, various drawings depicting everything ‘around’ a given figure, when the figure is at the center of the composition, yet not at the center of the focus) toppled the notion of art and its writing’s relation as that of the lord and the slave.
*5* the Writing with a capital ‘W’ as against writing indicating the words you are reading (minus its meaning, experience etc., if at all such a reading is possible) belongs to the past and present, at the same, in more than one way. Writing that is always-already-written (‘as’ art) is different from art writing-always-written-in-future (‘about’ art). The treatises on art are usually in written language; and it represents ‘writing-to-be-always-predetermined’. Notice that the recurrent word ‘writing’ in the previous sentence has no ambiguity like the first ‘writing’ with a capital ‘W’ in the same sentence. How did the capital ‘W’ happen? Is it the Writing already in the visual artwork, or did it just happen to acquire the capital status for being the first word in that sentence?!//end//