Thursday, February 07, 2008

Art criticism

Georgina Maddox

What is the importance of art critics? Do people take it as seriously as they do in the West when a show is panned by a critic, asks Maria Elena, another student from Milan, who is here to study Indian art.

To answer her question, the field of Indian art history and criticism is very young. Even younger than Contemporary art practice. Our first art historian and philosopher was the Colombo born Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy who created a pan Asian understanding of Indian Art. He rescued our much maligned monsters, since early European art historians had reacted negatively to the vision of many headed gods and goddesses that they had encountered in the temples and caves of India. Our histories and criticism were largely oral and it was with Coomaraswamy that a disciplined and structured format of art history and criticism began, one that was accessible to the West (since what the Shilpashastra did was more for practitioners than audience). There were others, like Karl Khandelwal who played an important role in writing about and talking to artists like Amrita Sher- Gil, while it was Rudy Von Leyden, an Austrian scholar who wrote critical pieces on the Bombay Progressives for newspapers.

It was only later that critics like Geeta Kapoor and Gulam Sheikh, who are once again, not read by the common man, began writing critically about Indian Contemporary art. This was followed by a spate of erudite writings by media people who showed a deep commitment to writing on art, like Ranjit Hoskote and Girish Sahane.

In today’s day, it is not the common man who reads art reviews but those who are already interested in art. Within the charmed circle of critics, collectors and gallery owners, a review can play an important part in determining whether an artist is appraised or panned. However, we are yet to come to the stage where a critic’s review can make or break an artist’s career.

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