It’s still alive and kicking. Your idea of ‘art’ — of an artist putting paint to canvas — is still very much the reality. But there’s a lot of it that’s moved beyond the canvas too in the last few years. There could be two major reasons for this. One, as cultural theorist and curator, Ranjit Hoskote points out, “we are living in an epoch where art is shaped by the ‘conceptualist’ force, under which anything an artist names as art is to be regarded as art. This opens up the domain of art-making to a diverse array of media, materials and expressions.” Two, some would say, is the blessing of technology. However, technology always interfaced with the creative process for centuries — whether it was the chisel, the paintbrush, or later on, the camera — so that by itself couldn’t be the answer. What’s new is the kind of explosion in “digital media” that has opened the doors to creative expression. The availability of technology at the click of a mouse — whether it is the Internet, multimedia, Photoshop, animation, video projections, sound environments, satellite photography, sensor-triggered programming, cybernetics, optical engineering or virtual reality — is the digital wand that is helping weave artistic tales like never before.
Most artists today are seduced by the charms of the click-to-create era, recognising it as a potent tool for creative expression. But then there are those who still prefer to stick to the beaten path of oil-on-canvas, water-colour-on-paper, stone carving or bronze sculptures. Well-known painter Jogen Chowdhury, now in his mid 70s, maintains: “I personally think I can be creative without using digital technology. There is nothing wrong in using technology, but good art transcends…it should give you a feeling of the infinite…It must react, whether you use a brush or the Internet. Today, there are artists who do good digital work. But there are many who remind me of the hippies back in the ‘60s — confused and aimless.”
A much younger painter compared to Chowdhury, Sanjay Bhattacharyya also still remains fascinated by oil and water colour paintings. “I am still not satisfied exploring the possibilities of expressing myself through the so-called traditional mediums. Why should I bother switching over to something else?” Also, to start on a concept that borrows from a photograph or image on the computer, he says, is not challenging enough for him, and adds: “It’s almost like copying.”
Another ‘traditionalist’ by today’s standards is the sculptor Shakti Maira. “I’d rather use my hands and not the computer. Just the process of coming up with an idea, making sketches based on that idea, then a small statue followed by a life-size one…that’s what brings me pleasure…from the tactile nature of the work.” He also feels the intelligence of the senses — the eye-hand-brain coordination — adds that organic quality to the work, which gives it depth. Maira contrasts this with a certain mechanical feel to an art work that pops out of a computer. A case in point he says is comparing a sculpture made with 3-D printing and the other made by hand. He says: “It will have an extra-smooth surface compared to one made by hand, which will have the indentation of fingers. It’s the difference between fast food and slow cooked home food.”
Culture commentator Shanta Serbjeet Singh corroborates Maira, saying: “Looking at technology as a tool is one thing, but it’s also a feeling of something coming in between. There is somehow a loss of a one-to-one between the canvas and the human body.”
Now for the flip side, which is those who are comfortable interfacing with the digital world. Manjunath Kamath counters: “Why the rigidity of using hands? I’d prefer to use technology as a means to an end. Of course one should not be a slave to technology. Instead, it should be a slave to you.” He says he chooses a medium according to his need. If he wants archival images to play with time and space in a composition, he uses Photoshop. If he wants to create a moving image, he picks animation. The problem arises, he feels, when people choose the wrong medium of expression. To illustrate, he says: “If you want an oil paint effect, you won’t get it through Photoshop. Nor will you get a terra cotta or wood effect through this medium.” As Rajeev Lochan, director, National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) says, it’s the art of marrying an “appropriate sense with an appropriate skill.” What the artist wants to say/convey is therefore most important.
Well-known artist Sumedh Rajendran puts it in perspective: “The process of art is always the same. It is the articulation methods that have changed and there are many to choose from. But ultimately, even in digital art there is good and bad. After all, the way my mind works is not how someone else’s does. Also, art is not momentary. If it is, it is shallow. It should evolve over time. What form I use to express it is irrelevant.”
Even in terms of the usage of material, Rajendran points out how traditionally stone and bronze were used for sculpture. Also, how sculpture conjures up a three-dimensional structure. “But I have worked with leather, ceramic tiles and product waste too. I also have experimented with two-dimensional sculptures.”
Artistic licence gives you the freedom to exercise a choice too. As Veer Munshi, an artist who has worked in several media says: “In 2009, I could have made Shrapnel (his video) as a painting and kept it still. Instead, I wanted to give it movement and sound, so I made it into a video. In contrast, last year, I chose to have a show of acrylic paintings.”
“These shifts are constant” says Vivan Sundaram, one of the pioneers of digital technology in art. Always ready to stretch boundaries, he has experimented with engine oil, combined objects with photography and worked with various mediums. Recalling his early days (the 1990s), he says: “People thought installation art was a western concept and alien to us. But gradually, they started accepting how putting together multiple disciplines such as painting, photography, videos and sculpture into one composite work could also be a creative way of communicating. So, it is a process.” He goes on to explain how he made a black and white series of photomontages on Amrita Sher-Gil and her family by digitally manipulating them. He explains: “At one level it was a lie because I was altering a photograph. But by digitally placing Amrita next to her father, where they are touching each other, I was conveying that there could have been something more than a father-daughter relationship between them. How could I have done it without digital intervention?”
Seeing the downside of digital art, however, Sundaram is also of the opinion there is a certain “anxiety” among artists to want to jump into the fray, just to keep up with the Joneses. “Everyone wants to get into video art, photography and installation art now,” he says, without having the bandwidth for it. Kamath adds: “They think it is cutting-edge art, but without proper execution, it can fall flat.”
Doing a bit of crystal ball gazing, Arun Vadehra, owner of Vadehra Art Gallery and someone tracking the art market for long, is sanguine about digital art. “This is the future for art. Today, I sell prints in the range of Rs 5 lakh to Rs 1 crore, and a lot of those who want to buy them are young investors.”
There are copyright issues though. The sense of ownership of a digital work is difficult to ensure as copies of the same can be made in multiples. That probably is reason enough why a regular oil on canvas still has more takers and costs a lot more. Sundaram ratifies this, saying: “There are about six or seven major auctions in a year, and 90 per cent of works that go under the hammer are ‘traditional paintings’.”
There are other voices of dissent too, like that of veteran artist Manu Parekh, who feels those who can’t draw or paint take recourse to using the computer. Adding to that, Maira says: “Art schools feel the creative process is conceptualisation, not drawing or painting.” He says the argument given by faculty is that for installation or video art (the two ‘in’ forms of expression in the art world today) you don’t need to be skilled in drawing or painting. However Tushar Jog, who has taught in Baroda School of Art and is part of the team that is working on the art syllabus for Shiv Nadar University, denies this. He says: “We do focus on developing drawing and painting skills of students initially. Then we progress to concepts. It’s like learning a language and then writing poetry in it.”
Strangely, most art schools don’t have a curriculum that includes equipping students with digital skills either. As Sundaram says: “National Institute of Design (NID) has a dark room for photography, but other than that, no art school teaches the basics of digital technology.” It’s something you learn on your own or hire a technician to execute your ideas. But who knows, in time to come technology might bridge that gap too.