Ars Gratia Arse

My wife and I went to the Kala Ghoda Arts festival this weekend. It had all the usual stalls with handicrafts and clothing and assorted knick-knacks, so we indulged in some impulse-purchasing. Caught a bit of one of the performances — quite nice. Finished off with a cup of coffee at Moshe’s nearby. All in all, a few hours well spent.

A fair bit of space in the art festival was allocated to exhibits by contemporary artists. There was an imposing tower that seemed to be made entirely of plastic mugs and water bottles. And exhibits that critiqued the current state of our lives, consumerism and what not. Some of these were pretty interestingly done, whereas some others were… oh, well.

Anyway, since mucho banner space was spent promoting the concept of recycling, I decided to pull out yet another old piece of mine and update it. (Yeah, this is beginning to become a habit. Don’t worry, when I write something fresh, you folks will be among the first to know.)

This particular rant is about art. Of the abstract variety. And I mean the intentionally abstract stuff. Not like my paintings, which are intended to be stick figures but end up looking a lot more abstract.

Several months ago, a friend of mine proposed an idea for a piece of software that could, given a particular painting, automatically identify the artist.


The friend I was talking to is Angshuman Saha. He’s the only Homo Sapien I know who can tell the difference between Monet and Manet. He can actually distinguish between impressionist and post-impressionist stuff like they were chalk and cheese. (To me, they’re both just splotchy stuff on canvas. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I can tell the difference between chalk and cheese.)

Angshu’s own artistic ventures are somewhat minimalist bordering on wierd. My favourite work of his is “Black straight line on ruled paper No. 32″. Then there’s “Fish in a Napthalene Ring”, “Default risk model”… you get the idea. I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on him called Portrait of an Artist as a Middle-Aged Statistician but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Someday…


Nude Descending a Staircase

Marcel Duchamp: Nude Descending a Staircase

Now, back to automatic artist identification. Seriously, this can be a fairly difficult task. For one thing, great artists may take a while to evolve their own signature style – their early work may have elements of other artists’ styles that they tried to emulate back then. For another, it may be easier, sometimes, to try and identify a certain school of art (impressionism, surrealism and whatever else) than a particular artist. Maybe you could look at some very specific things relating to certain artists. For instance, if you see a soft watch, it’s either Dali or someone trying to imitate him. If you see a badly drawn anorexic horse, it’s M. F. Hussain. And so on and so forth.

But then there’s the case where the whole damn canvas makes no sense. If there was only one school of art that did this, then you could use it as a default option if you found no pattern whatsoever. The problem is, there’s more than one school. Different forms of chaos, if you will. Then what do you do?

The conversation segued from there to the arbitrariness of art in general.

Consider Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, for instance. Do you see the nude? Do you see the staircase, for that matter? Heck, do you even know if the painting is hung right side up?

Le Bateau

Henri Matisse: Le Bateau

Sometimes, even the experts can’t tell. Take Henri Matisse’s Le Bateau . Apparently, it was hung upside down for 47 days in the New York Museum of Modern Art and no one noticed. Frankly, what shocks me is that the phrase “no one noticed” is often followed by an exclamation mark when this painting is mentioned.

And don’t even get me started on Martin Creed, the guy who won the 10000 pound Turner Prize for his exhibit Work No. 227: The lights going on and off. Are the judges on that panel the same guys who would stuff their kid with ADD medication if the brat kept switching the light on and off in their living room?

And what’s with this business of numbering paintings, huh? If you can spend so much time working on it, you can damn well spend a couple of minutes naming it, okay? 

There’s a good reason why artists like these don’t rule the world. Imagine what it would be like if Duchamp and his ilk took over Playboy magazine. That painting by Duchamp could be Miss January. “Our playmate of the month likes long walks on the beach, working out on the stairmaster and making out in the MoMA while everyone’s looking.”

Hell, the Matisse painting could be Miss January – what bloody difference does it make?

Or if Dali and assorted surrealists decided to remake Superman:

Bystander 1: It’s a flying tiger with an elephant coming out of its mouth!

Bystander 2: It’s a violin playing goat!

Bystander 1: And don’t forget the giraffe with brightly colored machine tools in the bathtub on the side.

Bystander 3: No, it’s Gala posing as both Superman and Josef Stalin at the same time, depending on which way you look at it!

Not that I am against abstract stuff per se, mind you. Part of the fun of being an artist is seeing the world in one’s own way, I’m sure. But when it gets to the point where you can pretty much put anything together and sell it on the strength of your interpretation of it, one begins to wonder where art ends and marketing begins. 

Part of this marketing exercise seems to involve putting the work in a particular genre. Consider the term “Modern Art”. Kind of a cop-out, isn’t it? It’s like naming a newborn baby “Baby”. (Hold on, they actually did that in Dirty Dancing.) 

At least the Dadaists had the sense to just open a dictionary and pick out a random word and name their genre after it. Can’t give them points for effort, but at least they were honest.

I don’t follow these trends too closely, but not too long ago, “post-modernism” was the flavour of the month. I asked Angshu what it meant and he said, tongue firmly in cheek, that “Postmodernists express incredulity to the metathesis.”

Which, in plain English, (apparently) means that they don’t believe in categories. Kind of a safe haven if you can’t quite figure out where to put yourself, ain’t it? And what is more, even the term “post-modern” is sort of a cul-de-sac. You already have modern, and now you’ve got post-modern. Where are you gonna go from here? New and improved modern? With active salts?

Come to think of it, the active salt idea might work. I could exhibit a tube of toothpaste. Maybe they’ll even put it up in Kala Ghoda next year.

Full (sheepish) disclosure: I actually love some of the artists I mentioned in my rant. Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus absolutely blew me away. It was that painting that got me interested in art in the first place. For reasons I don’t completely understand, when I see  pictures of Jackson Pollock’s paintings, I feel *something*, even if I can’t define what I feel.

But you gotta admit, pretending to be the unartistic boor who ought to know better is a lot more fun when you’re blogging.

No wait, I am an unartistic boor who ought to know better. 

6 thoughts on “Ars Gratia Arse

  1. Kala Ghoda… sigh! I was there last year and had so much fun eating and shopping and doing nothing remotely intellectual!

    An art connoisseur I met once, described modern art as quantum mechanics of art – beautiful, abstract, unintelligible and here to stay! As one who’s had advanced problems understanding quantum (and modern art) I can sympathise, but as a scientist I dont really agree. There is a 15 foot painting in the Canadian National Art Gallery that has three vertical stripes (red, blue and white) and cost the gallery upwards of $1,000,000! The tour guide spent 2 precious minutes explaining the significance of each color, and the optical illusions created by looking at red next to blue (or something like that) and I’ve still not figured out how three long stripes of color can be so precious and artistic!

  2. Rajendran says:

    What can you say about this middle aged statistician? That he loves topology, Billy Wilder and gold flake cigarettes apart obviously from Monet, Manet and their likes.

    I remember gaping at “Fish in the naphthalene ring”. Its one of those things that would have made Hunter S.Thompson want to pick up a paint brush.

    To add to that list of masterpieces, I once saw an exhibit at the MOMA that was an 18 minute video of a look-a-like of Raza Murad moving his hands in obtuse directions with a repeated deadpan statement – “I am making art”. I still wonder if it was a spoof on someone like Jackson Pollock or if he actually meant it to be artistic.

    Very nice piece again! varatum varatum

  3. bollyviewer>> Modern Art as Quantum Mechanics makes a lot of sense to me in a wierd sort of way.

    Back in the 60s, an artist named Piero Manzoni once created 90 hermetically sealed cans labeled Artist’s Shit and managed to sell it to museums. Each can was weighed and priced according to the value of gold per gram at the time. One of these cans was auctioned a few years ago for $80000. I think he meant it as a satire of modern art, but I’m not sure the museums got the memo.

    Now, you don’t really know what’s inside those cans, and if you open them, you destroy the value of the work. Schrodinger’s Turd, anyone?

    Raj>> I’ve always wondered about satires of modern art being featured in modern art exhibitions and museums (see Piero Manzoni reference above). There’s no fun in being subtle if the object of your jab doesn’t get it at all, is there?


  4. I’m impressed. Most of the time, I’m not even sure they’re different people 😀

    Isn’t there a painting of Monet by Manet somewhere? Or is it the other way round?

    I’m really counting on the active salts idea to make my name in the art world. It’s good to hear from an unbiased source that it’ll work. Thank you!


  5. Abs 'urd says:

    (Coz I can’t say my abs “hurt” with a soft “t” without wincing, thanks to one too many (seemingly death-defying) roller-coaster rides during the Spring break. “No pain, no gain” is a truism all right, O-U-C-H & W-O-W!)

    Speaking of “arbitrariness of art,” what left me zonked (after THE vacation from which I now need a vacation) is finding out that a certain Matisse masterpiece I’d been following on and off has mysteriously morphed into *my* comforter! (I know! Sounds like the premise of an absurdist short story by Gogol, but no. It’s true. Little else has left me feeling *this* nonplussed!). No more vacations for me! 🙂

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