Art Today... in India
The other day I received an email inviting me to give few of my paintings in a 'charity exhibition*'.. the terms were they mustn't be more that fifty thousand Indian rupees and I get 50% from sale... I agreed and gave away some of my 'better works' priced within the prescribed bracket, for it was a good cause. After a few days I get an email from unknown person claiming to have seen my works on the net and has been very impressed etc... and asking the prices of 2 of my works etc. (Not the works I had set aside for the Charity exhibition.) I gave her the prices but never heard of her again; Acting on a hunch I just 'googled' and 'facebooked" her email ID and found her to be some 'potter' (one of those who sell 'designer pots' to the elite.. not the humble potter who makes clay pots for our daily use, they are generally not on Facebook or on the Internet!!)
I was amused as the person wasn't old enough to look like a serious art collector..
Next day I hear from the 'Charity people' that I have priced my works over "my market price"... The 'Potter' was their spy/ decoy customer... who had enacted the entrapment!!!
This funny and sad episode truly exposes the decadence and utter ignorance that has set into the consumerist Indian society today...
Let me briefly go into the details for the one who are not aware of murky world of "Indian Art" today:
I have been painting and exhibiting my works since 1990 after my completion of four-year of art college from Delhi College of Art, India. I never really took up any job as I wanted a fairly independent life and never believed a true artist should do a 9 to 5!! And fortunately didn't have to work in a claustrophobic binding environment... Maybe I was more lucky than the ones who had to sustain their families, and thus went on to join various 'jobs' available for art graduates...
Its been 20 odd years now... a life of hardship, struggle and most importantly of joy and fulfilment!! I have exhibited and sold my works around the globe... I still remember the money earned (Rs 1500) form the sale of my first work.. it was in Madras... well that some other day!!
When I had my first solo show in 1992 there were some really good art critics and they were the old school types... especially I remember Krishna Chaitanya, K.L. Kaul.. both dead now.. was fortunate to get very encouraging reviews not to mention Keshav Malik. Later the art critics and writing about art and artists turned into a business... For a bottle of whiskey or cash one got a headline with razzle-dazzle reviews in our National dailies!! By late 90s the bosses at the newspapers got wind of the this nefarious activity and put an end to publishing reviews altogether... the critics went to town: "It is mass commercialisation, the media doesn't want to waste its precious columns/newsprint on something as insignificant as art...when they can earn huge amount from advertisement etc!!" The reason must have been both. The once mighty art critics went around writing for artist's brochures and invitation cards!!
The one thing I have always have been intrigued is how to sell a painting and how to set a price... here I must tell you the story of my ragging:
I was being raged by two very serious, senior, arty types, the first day of my art college...
Two-serious-senior-arty-types: 'What is art"?
Me-nervous-fresher: 'Art is the out pouring of our soul...blah, blah, blah..'
Serious-senior-arty-types: 'Is it like a part of us etc?'
Me nervous-fresher (now falling in the trap): Yes a part of us...
"Like our own blood... like our offspring?"
"Yes, yes..." I replied getting very carried away now..
Their next remark still rings in my ears:
"Then tell me how come we sell our art? Would you sell your son or daughter?!!"
It was a funny comparison but it made sense...
A painting/sculpture is very dear to us artists and selling, parting with it is a difficult act. Leonardo carried Mona Lisa around for 16 years (it was a commissioned work)... on pretext it wasn't finished yet!! But then it is also a happy occasion that its accepted and appreciated. I still feel the pang when I finally pack a work off to a buyer.. never to see it again. But I think these emotions are now a thing of the past with the crazy advent of art as a commodity, as an investment... the craze to sell overpowers all other emotions. Agree selling our work is important as its also our only source of livelihood.. here am referring to artists who are refereed to as "full-time". But that's how it is and has always been.. since a long-long time.
Something changed, as we entered an era of liberalisation etc... suddenly there were loads of buyers with black money... Overnight 'artists' sprouted and 'art galleries 'mushroomed (these are not to be confused with galleries in the West... these are basically basements or unused garages etc. in residential areas owned by bored wives of rich husbands... who let them do a bit of arty business!!). Artists and buyers alike were now in a frenzy pace to become hot selling artists and big collectors respectively!! Like this diamond merchant from Bombay who bought some of my paintings sometime back. Within a few months he emailed me to know if my "works are going to go up or has they gone up etc?"!! I told him they don't go up and down like the stock market and anyway I am no 'investment' artist!! He felt betrayed and remorseful!! I don't expect him to buy my works ever in the future!!
Some years back when I was in Delhi I would visit my artist friends' studios while they are painting. They all painted in a frenzy... and all using Acrylic, the most important invention of all time in the medium of painting! No fuss, no smell (Oh I love the smell of linseed and turpentine...my wife loves me more because of that..she says!!) drys off as it leaves the brush!! And once in a while these artists would move away from their 'masterpiece' and ask:
"बिकेगी? Will this sell, Roy?" Not how the work is coming along etc!!
They all goaded me as to why am not exhibiting and that there are so many buyers... and mostly they would laugh at my size... that is the size of my paintings!! I generally paint "small size" accordingly to them like a 9x6 inches or a 10x12 (20x30cm, 30x40cm) etc!! The maximum size I would paint was about 20x30 inches or 30"x40" (100cmx90cm). Well the arguments was if you paint large sizes you get more money!! That is, a large painting is valued more in the Indian art market than a small 10x12inches!! So all these frenzied mad artists were busy painting humongous sizes like 78x120inches!! Also during this time I heard the bizarre story that artists in Bombay (the so-called Art capital of India) are now selling their works at 'square inch rate'... that is each artist has a rate say - Rs 1000 per sq. inch'!! I, of course didn't believe it till I got this email from the 'Charity people' who 'calculated' my 'rate' by taking a quote of some of my works and then dividing it by the size of the canvas!!! God please help me... (this is coming from a staunch atheist!!)
|Size does matter?|
Yes size can be one of the factors.. but it is not the only factor which can make up the price of a painting!! Size only can affect the physical part of the painting.. like a big size canvas, more paint, more on logistics, may take more time and 'labour'!!... But these cant makeup the cost-value of the painting... a paintings cost because of its artistic value..it cannot be calculated with the size of the canvas... it makes me sick even to explain all this... this is so fundamental, even a child knows!! So what are those? The quality of the work is first and foremost... and this the artist decides..mostly...we asses our work first and then put a price, also I have had many a discussions with gallery owners or friends and have taken their views too... I judge my works very critically.. why it should be so priced..etc and it's always the quality of the work.. the workmanship, skill... For artists are all human and we don't paint, cant paint in the same quality every time.. that's why we have this concept of a Masterpiece.. meaning a master's piece.. the best of the best.. and likewise we do produce some bad paintings..trash!! And those, I paint over...reuse/recycle. Linen / canvas is expensive!!
An artist can't possibly paint consistently, our quality, skill, workmanship, etc. keep changing from canvas to canvas.. from one period to another... So lets say a canvas 24x30 inches can't possibly be exactly as beautiful as the next one.. so how can 2 works with the same size be priced same? Yes its convenient for the galleries (Art shops) to price them evenly... but the artists among us must hold our ground... this his territory. He must decide.
There is also a policy, a 'senior artist' must price his work high...than a younger one!! And I don't get it either!! There were some who sold all their life works' at a very consistent and affordable prices.. even when they were very famous.. I recall an artist from Bengal who kept her prices very 'middle-class' through-out her life!!
And now we have most artists (who are senior) trying to command unheard of prices only because they are old.. and have been painting for long!! Beauty of the art is not a qualification here!!
The tragedy is that many of them try to fix a price according to their years in the circuit...which can sometime calculate to such an astronomical figure that they don't end up selling at all!! Recently one of them committed suicide as he was unable to sell!! I had known him since my art college days... a humble stupid man.. he rose high and for some years was very successful... but then he kept increasing his price.. trying to keep up with others of his hierarchy... and a time came there wasn't any buyer left who could afford him!! He died penniless!!
I am not in their league and I have kept my prices very humble... giving away many of my work free at times. I have been trying since long to follow this simple but difficult quote to follow:
"An artist must never be a prisoner. Prisoner? An artist should never be a prisoner of himself, prisoner of style, prisoner of reputation, prisoner of success, etc." ― Henri Matisse
But my price is my price and I set it...not by size!! By my conviction of what it's artistic merit is..
To come back to the 'Charity Art people' ...they told me I would have to bring price down and they gave me a figure!! Of course I had already backed out of the show!! But they were not used to artists standing up to them... they lectured me: "The (Indian) art buyers are well-educated and well versed with both trends as well as pricing of the works of the participating artists..."!! The farce of selling and buy art has come to such that it's now reduced to just taking a sample (of painting/sculpture) and a simple calculation.. lo and behold you have the pricing of an artists!!! Just the way one shops for curtain/upholstery material, fabric!!
My wife when she heard this said: "Tell the 'Potter-spy' to make large-sized pots... it would definitely fetch her some big money!!!
This is where we have fallen..in a dark damp pit!! Imagine now sculptors selling their wares by kilogrammes!!! Rs 1000 per kg!! Or by volume?
What about writing? Poems? And short story writers? Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace would make a killing while Hemingway's Old Man and The Sea would find it tough going!!
When we judge some of the well-know works around the world do we do so it by size?
What is the size of Mona Lisa? (77 ×53cm), Sunflowers (92.1×73cm) and Irises (71×93cm) by Van Gogh... some of Monet's Lilies are large.. but his intention were not to get more out of buyers!!
"An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision."
− James Whistler
Here lets talk only of living contemporary artists... The pricing farce has reach such ludicrous level that some time you just feel like you are in a mad house!! For example we all are aware there is a price for things attached to famous /infamous people... those who are dead and gone long back... like if I had an umbrella used by Monet, it would get me good money... it's knickknacks like these which 'item collectors' pay and is often auctioned, quite understandable... they have their charm. But does it make sense in a country like ours where the so labelled 'famous senior artist' selling their scribbles, mindless drawings etc. for over cores of Indian rupees?!! This idiotic piece of 'Pen and Ink' on paper by Jogen Chowdhury (alive, famous-senior-artist-type) is priced at Rs.1,500,000 / USD $33,333 ?!! Its laughable.. and plain stupid that someone will ever may pay such an amount!!
I want to end this essay with S.H. Raza, was in news recently for his work went for around $3,486,965 or approximately Rs 16 crore, a record amount and the media and all sundry have gone mad over this... In fact some of them are already waiting as to who will now break this 'record' and reach a Rs 20 crore bracket!! à la cricket score?!! The record setting painting was as excepted bought by the wife of a wealthy Indian business man!! I am shocked at the vanity of this lady!! Spending such an vulgar amount on a painting which by all account is just a painting... one hangs on one's wall to decorate one's home or office!! I say so because a 'Raza painting' is not going to drive millions to line up outside her house to gaze at it.. thus earning her or the Indian government any revenue. It's not a 'Van Gogh' or a 'Monet'. Some years back I went to Basel (Switzerland) to see Van Gogh's landscapes.. the exhibition was mounted on such a scale that the entire country was involved. From airlines, trains, buses, hotels.. all were geared up for millions of art lovers and tourists, who came from all over the world. Last summer I spent a month in and around Firenze (Florence) and saw the queue outside the museum.. people were waiting for over 5 hours to just buy the tickets to get in!! Imagine how much the Italian government earns from its' collection of Leonardos and Michelangelos.. India and Raza have to wait for some time for that!! In the meantime I wish this buyer could have bought up a 'museum full' of works by talented artists from the same amount!! $3,486,965 could easily have bought her as many as 1162 paintings @ rate of $3000 (approx. Rupees 1,50,000)!!
Anyway now about artist S.H.Raza, alive, famous-senior-artist-type. After spending over 50 years in France when Raza wanted to donate his works etc to the place where he lived. The city municipal refused!! Non of his works have been acquired by any of France's innumerable Museums... He returned to India few years back and remember... I had gone to a nondescript art gallery in Haus Khas, New Delhi.. to get my works back.. as I waited patiently.. being told curtly by the gallery manager, "We have customers!!" As some foreign tourist walked in.. and all staff got busy sucking up to them!! Of course I raised hell and shot back, "And an artist is nothing? Is this a shop or an art gallery? Hold your customers at bay and return my works at once!!" In this melee an aspiring journalist who had come to interview the gallery owner came up to me and I took the opportunity to give 'the interview'!! Told her some hard facts about the state of art we live in!! And all along this on one corner of this 'art shop' sat the company parrot making one phone call after the other, à la telemarketing. Parroting the same line over and over in a frenzy, frothing at mouth:
"We have Raza, we have Raza, Raza, Raza world-famous artist, Raza, M F Husain's friend blah-blah -blah etc"
It was pathetic... Neither the caller nor the ones he was calling had any idea about the artist!! They must have got hold of his work as the old man was in town!!
Now wheelchair bound and painting in his lonely apartment.
Outside a long queue of art galleries, art collectors awaiting to snatch up whatever Raza can feebly put paint to canvas... The scenario is like on National Geographic TV Channel:
The vultures, hyenas closing on an old dying majestic elephant!!
*These were the people and the organisation!! Anyone dealing with them beware.
Anita Dhillon / Bindiya Sawhney
Manager – Resource Mobilization
Concern India Foundation
A52, 1st floor, Amar Colony Lajpat Nagar 1V
New Delhi – 110 024