Art in a Disenchanted World

by Mathangi Krishnamurthy

Kochi One

In the middle of a semester of endless world travel, and a series of screechy deadlines, I gifted myself a three-day weekend to go meander at the Kochi Muziris Biennale of 2014/15. Our survival as, dare I say, members of a sensate world, depends on the idea of a full life, and into every full life, some art must fall is what I told myself as I made plans to visit. Gathering up a friend, and all my depleting stamina, I boarded a plane and then a cab to reach the wonderfully lovely town of Fort Kochi across the breadth of which were strewn the venues for this year's installations enunciating “Whorled Explorations”. 94 artists from 30 countries held court for a hundred and eight days across thirty venues.

Even as I disembarked prepared to be impressed, the superbly humid Kochi weather seeped slowly into my skull, rendering inchoate my cultural ambitions. Kochi is by the sea, the month was February, and we were catching summer in all its ambitious force. Our charming inn-keeper had been pretty certain over the phone when confirming our booking that we would not need an air-conditioned room. It's a good thing he left the choice open. The air-conditioning was all that lay between us and a lifetime vow to never pursue art. Spoilt; I know.

The curatorial note for the Biennale reads thus, “Two chronologically overlapping, but perhaps directly unrelated, historical episodes in Kerala during the 14th to 17th Centuries become parallel points of departure for Whorled Explorations. Drawing from them, allusions to the historical and the cosmological recur throughout the exhibition like exaggerated extensions to gestures we make when we try to see or understand something. We either go close to it or move away from it in space, to see it clearly; we also reflect back or forth in time to understand the present. Whorled Explorations draws upon this act of deliberation, across axes of time and space to interlace the bygone with the imminent, the terrestrial with the celestial.”

Having glanced at this note, and having seen more words than I could connect to objects in the world, I did what every good art walker does. I bought myself a catalogue and decided to get us some breakfast. Bright and early one Saturday morning, we found our way to the neighborhood café for thick slices of buttered toast, cheese, and coffee. Thus fortified, we found our way to the largest venue of the Biennale, Aspinwall House.

Everything after that is a magical blur. Room after room of magnificently curated exhibits awakened brain cells that I did not know existed. The note began to make sense. This year's installations were all perched at that strange, delicate, edge of ideology, history, historiography, myth, and discovery. The pieces reminded us that discovery and scientific knowledge are intimately connected to both the work of imagination, but also the work of power. Fantasy and utopia are escapes, but are also critiques. We need a scalar vision to both understand and dismiss the location of our sometimes paltry, and sometimes wonderful desires in the world.

Charles and Ray Eames' 1977 film, “The Power of One” for example, beamed us out of the world, beginning at a Chicago park and zooming out every few seconds by the power of ten, until our gaze floated at the edge of a universe, and then zoomed us right back in, vertigo and all, into the everyday scene of a family lounging outside on a summer day. I haven't been this wonderstruck since a childhood jaunt to the Science Museum. Susanta Mandal's sculptures titled, “Where have all the stories gone?” made slow soap bubbles. A gaggle of school children and I stood transfixed, mouths agape, hoping someone would come by selling cotton candy. Janine Antoni's video installation, “Touch” had the artist walking a tightrope at the edge of the beach, creating the arguably optical illusion of her walking the horizon.

Three days and the firing of many synapses later, I returned to home and hearth and wondered about the role of art in the world. Even as I am a dedicated museum-er, I am also aware of the ways in which elite, exclusive spaces define art in its adequacy and translatability. Yet, across the biennale, I saw groups of families, children, photographers, interested parties of all ages and persuasions, curious and gazing. Normative understandings of the theme of the Biennale aside, surely these objects did something for everybody? Surely, in the absence of any common, protracted engagement, the object could be enough?

Kochi4What is art? Do we define it by its fetish object, its ability to be magical, its meaning making function, or its “auratic” presence comprising all of the above and then some? Is a building art? Is a painting art? Are the little squiggles made by the little kid on my neighbor's compound walls art? Democracy would entail that I answer yes to all the above, but then I lose specificity (God forbid!). So for purposes of exigency and this highly limited set of pontifications, let's assume that art is self-conscious. So, to begin with, we are assuming a certain distance; art stands apart even as it is part of the world. We need art even if we are not completely agreed on the parameters of evaluation or even on its definition.

Further, art needs support. To say this, of course, is to either deny or to admit to the consummately capitalist nature of the world we live in and therefore to say one of the following (a) Works of art must be allowed reprieve from the vagaries of supply and demand, (b) Why should art escape commodification? Markets dictate taste; in other words, shape up or ship out.

I'm afraid I fall rather squarely on the side of (a), mainly because the market and its rather droll logics neither appeal to my aesthetics nor to my humanity. As Benjamin writes, “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”, indicating therefore Max Weber's discussion on the loss of magic in a world disenchanted by the advent of capitalism and consumption. But then, if placing myself within the confines of an “art for art's sake”, I am also hoping, indeed insisting that there is an art qua art outside the mechanics of the market, and this, I am not so willing to stake my paltry scholarship upon. The categories I discuss above are neither mutually exclusive nor clearly delineated. All forms of art can be bought and sold and they do bear some sort of function with the economy, especially when trucked in “for art's sake”. They are within the clutches of market and patronage and can neither be considered above nor completely within. In other words, I have successfully argued myself into a corner.

Somehow, discussing the “role” of art makes it seem so, well, blase. As if, everything in this world ought to have a “role”. What of the appendix then? Or colored bandages? Or koi fish? So then, does art have a point? I am going to be slightly sneaky here and borrow from a forever ongoing debate on the role of the humanities and its continued relevance in the world as we know it, a world of hard-headed utilitarianism and efficiency. Anthony T. Kronman, a professor at Yale Law School, argues that the humanities' initial and essential role in higher education should be to address the deeper questions of the meaning of life. Gayatri Spivak emphasizes that the only hope of reclaiming the arts “from the investment circuit” lies in the painstaking work of criticism and support that the humanities undertakes. Even more infamously and exclusively, Stanley Fish claimed that the humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.”

Let me quote further from Fish before returning to our original discussion,”You can't argue that a state's economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can't argue – well you can, but it won't fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.” He thus concludes with the equivalent to the God argument — if you don't know God already, then there is no way you will know God. On the other side of the fence, we can always find gems such as these, “When a poet creates a vaccine or a tangible good that can be produced by a Fortune 500 company, I'll rescind my comment.”

Kochi2So then, what does art do for us? Is it, like the humanities, that which will nudge us ever so gently to continue examining the meaning of life? Is it but representation clad sublime? Does thinking about art render its location in the world counterintuitive?

But the Biennale was so much more to my naïve gaze. It was deeply political. And I do not mean politics in the narrow version of a card-carrying anything, but rather, in the sense of what Hannah Arendt might call the opposite of totalitarianism. In other words, politics becomes the necessary condition to find solutions, albeit messy, albeit incomplete, but solutions nevertheless to the inequities of the world.Outside the confines of the Biennale, things burst forth on the streets of Kochi. There were critiques of the Biennale, KFC, capitalism, and the Man. The student Biennale screamed with things unsaid, words unfinished, seams tattered, and hands unpaid. Heat and humidity and the city were all efflorescent with the spirit of enchantment.