Tapati Guha-Thakurta. The Making of a New "Indian" Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. 352 pp.; 96 b/w ills. $85.00
Partha Mitter. Art and Nationalism in Colonial India 18501922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 475 pp.; 30 color ills., 190 b/w. $89.95 The study of Indian art history is predominately archaeological in approach. Rarely does imagery from the colonial period onward receive serious critical inquiry. With colonial and modern/contemporary arts largely ignored, we neglect the India of today, preferring to look to the glories of past traditions. Unwittingly, perhaps, art historians perpetuate the colonial myth of an unchanging India. Its art is defined usually in association with religion or kingly power. Preoccupation with the past, a time of greatness before European corruption, also engrossed Indian intellectuals and nationalists during the time of the British Raj. For the nationalists, regaining the past (even an imagined one) was a tool they needed as they struggled to combat British arrogance and control.
Tapati Guha-Thakurta is a fellow in history at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her book is based on her 1988 doctoral thesis from St. Antony's College, Oxford. Partha Mitter, lecturer in modern South Asian history at the University of Sussex, is best known for his Much Maligned Monsters (1977), a historical look at the reception and contorted representations of India and her arts in Europe.
The new "Indian" art referred to in GuhaThakurta's book is the Bengali school of art whose artistic leader was Abanindranath Tagore. Propagated by a host of nationalists and Orientalists, the Bengali school sought to regain from the colonial (art) establishment an indigenous voice and artistic mode. Though Mitter's title suggests a more comprehensive pan-Indian coverage, his book turns out to be overwhelmingly Bengali-centric and he focuses on the Tagores. Both Guha-Thakurta and Mitter examine how and why the Raj instituted art education, and the shifting role of artists/artisans. During the colonial period the art imposed was academic naturalism. However, the appropriateness of teaching fine art rather than industrial or decorative art was questioned among the colonialists, reflecting policies at home and the debate between those people of color. Hence, there is a territorial passion over the few cultural icons marginalized peoples still possess, for example, Native Americans' "ownership" of their own spirituality and art in the wake of the New Age that claims it.
Fusco explains why many artists of color feel that they have more legitimate reasons for stressing the interracial, the intercultural, the multicultural, border crossing, and hybridity in their art. She explains that artists of color mix Western and non-Western influences, art and ritual, high art, and popular culture because they are genuine reflections of their experiences between two or more worlds. Theirs is a lived cultural experience-not a postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial theory.
This complex issue is addresssed by hooks throughout her book, especially in the chapters "The Poetics of Soul: Art for Everyone" and "Talking Art with Alison Saar," in which hooks and Saar address the controversies surrounding Saar's alleged appropriation of black folk art. These chapters are especially illuminating because Saar, a fair-skinned, middle class African American, has been accused of cultural appropriation by other black artists/critics for what appear to be superficial reasons beyond her control, namely her fair complexion, Despite cultural criticism extolling border crossing, hooks argues, most people still embrace fixed notions of essentialist traits in regard to their own heritage, as well as in regard to someone else's heritage. In this case the word "essentialism" may be defined as a philosophical position that gives objects a pure essence (a material or social makeup that can't be transcended)inscribing it with an immutable identity (unchangeable in time or etched in stone).
The discussion of Saar's sophisticated interpretation of black folk art offers artists, scholars, and others helpful insights to understanding exploitation and cultural appropriation. Stating that it is the use of what is appropriated that is the crucial factor, hooks still acknowledges that there are times when appropriation is racist and inappropriate. She interprets Saar's installation Fertile Ground as an understanding of the earth's power expressed in Native American spirituality and the belief systems of the first Africans who migrated to the Americas long before the arrival of Columbus. The installation commemorates spiritual resistance.
Both books include profiles of the photographer Serrano, but each writer emphasizes different issues. Fusco discusses with Serrano the relationship of his works to his ethnicity and to politics. Both interviewer and artist challenge the way art critics have tried to situate his work within the context of art that deals with ethnicity. Fusco feels that Serrano's work is better interpreted as a reflection of culture as an institution and symbol and of the power invested in various icons. Serrano, who considers himself an artist, not a Hispanic artist, describes his photography as an expression of personal viewpoints that lead to broader implications. Regarding the controversy over his work Piss Christ (1989) and NEA censorship, Serrano states that his work was politicized by outside forces so that now people expect to see something recognizably political in his work.
In her last chapter, "The Radiance of Red: Blood Works," hooks reclaims the power of blood-one of the central metaphors in the contemporary feminist movement's challenge to sexist oppression. She and other feminists feel that if blood, particularly women's blood, regains status and is held in high esteem, patriarchy can be undone. Although hooks does not directly mention it in the text, this Western feminist concern with female blood is related to Native American concepts of the power of women's menstrual blood.
Focusing on Serrano's use of blood imagery (which has helped shatter cultural taboos), hooks analyzes the photographer's aesthetic sensibilities. She examines his insistence on artistic self-actualization through a devotion to an "aesthetics of transgression" (p. 218), in which allegiances to fixed static ideas of creativity are freed. She sees his work as a query of essentialist understandings of identity, gender, race, and nationality. For hooks, Serrano's blood photographs are not only commentaries on the position of aesthetics in ordinary life, they are also an interrogation of Western metaphysical dualism. Blood imagery challenges epistemologies that deny a continuum of relationships among all living organisms, offering instead a vision of synthesis that is whole, "dynamic, evolutionary, creative . . . a counter-hegemonic aesthetic vision" (p. 220).
Fusco's essay on Mendieta's work from 1988 until her homicide or suicide in 1993 is perhaps the most poignant and compelling view of any female artist discussed in either of these books. Fusco traces the story of Mendieta's artistic development from the New York 1970s feminist and Third World art circles through her sojourns in Mexico to her last years in Cuba in the 1980s and 1990s. After nineteen years of living in the United States, Mendieta returned to Cuba, carving her figures and her self-portrait body sculptures into the caves at Jaruco, outside Havana, interacting with Cuban artists, and working with the Carter administration's Cuba rapprochement program. During this period she titled her work in the Taino language (spoken by Cuba's indigenous peoples) and blurred the Western demarcations of art and archaeological artifacts, among cave painting, iconic glyph, and sculpture. Fusco discusses the division of the New York art world along ethnic, gender, and economic lines when Mendieta's husband, sculptor Carl Andre, was accused, then acquitted of her murder. The defense used her artistic/spiritual involvement in Santeria as so-called proof that she was involved in Satanism and that she jumped to her death by her own will.
As a fellow Cuban American artist interested in re-establishing ties to the island, Fusco relates the many shared visions, hopes, artistic collaborations, disappointments, and contradictions she and Mendieta both experienced in revolutionary Cuba. As a person of color who has visited Cuba twice for art conferences, I became nostalgic reading this essay and others dealing with the Cuban art scene. Even after her death, Mendieta's work continues to inspire artists, feminists, and Cubans of various political persuasions. Fusco feels that the power of Mendieta's spirit after her death is proof that she could not have wanted to die.
Better than any theoretical essay at articulating the intricacies of interculturalism, colonialism, the Other, etc., is the cage performance collaboration of Fusco and Gomez-Pena. Traveling throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, and Argentina, and stopping at various cultural institutions, the two artists lived in a cage for three days at each place. They presented themselves as undiscovered American Indians from an island in the Gulf of Mexico overlooked by Europeans for five hundred years. Performing what anthropologists call traditional tasks, Fusco and Gomez-Pena worked within disciplines that blurred distinctions between the art object and the body, reality and fantasy, history and dramatic enactment. This performance focused on how people interacted with the protagonists and interpreted their actions. Fusco describes the teaching fine arts at the Royal Academy and teachers of applied arts at the Central School of Industrial Art, South Kensington. The latter school, of course, supplied most of the art teachers and curriculum to India since the patriarchal Raj thought applied art was more useful and suited to Indians. The British could not deny the richness of India's decorative traditions, which were respected in England, especially by followers of the Arts and Crafts movement. Sir George Birdwood, for example, instrumental in Raj art policies, admired Indian crafts. Following typical Victorian hierarchical views on art, Birdwood's admiration implicitly assumed the inferiority of Indian art, and he forcefully denied that fine arts ever existed in India. How academic naturalism became established, the identities of the early Indian artists, and how naturalism eventually was rejected by the Bengali school-all this, mixed together with the politics of the Raj and nationalists, forms the backdrop of both Guha-Thakurta's and Mitter's books.
Guha-Thakurta sets for herself two central themes:
The first concerns the different facets of the process of westernisation: the permeation of new techniques and modes of representation; the shifting status of artisans and artists; the expansion in patronage and market, and the emergence of new professional and commercial opportunities in art. . . The second section of the book moves from the sphere of the practice of the arts into the inter-related sphere of changing values and perceptions within which it locates the emergence of new art forms. Its major theme is the role and nature of nationalist ideology in art during these years, in its varying concerns with progress, national regeneration and recovery of tradition (pp. 6-7).
She admirably achieves her goals, especially the second objective of evaluating nationalist art and critically examining Tagore and the Bengali school. Rejecting Western art and its elevation of classical ideals and Renaissance art, Tagore and his followers sought a new national art based on Indian aesthetics.
In this new national art bhava, or inner feeling, eclipsed form. The watercolor wash technique thought to enhance spirituality in imagery became commonly associated with this school. By the 1920s this mystification of art, in which convoluted justifications for the art were equal to the image, had become its undoing. A new breed of Orientalist was represented by E. B. Havell, A. K. Coomaraswamy, Sister Nivedita (formerly Margaret Noble, the Irish disciple of Swami Vivekananda), and Kakuzo Okakura, all of whom were major voices in defense of the Bengali school and its objectives. Guha-Thakurta's appraisal of the contributions made by these individuals, their discourse engendered from earlier Orientalist views, is a welcome contribution to the field. Comments on how the Indian female image becomes an allegory of purity, incorruptible by colonial dominance, are also insightful.
While Mitter covers much of the same material (though the two scholars' views deviate), his project is even more ambitious. He painstakingly details Raj patronage and art education policies and motives. He discusses how prevailing aesthetics, including pre-Raphaelite views, commingled over time to create complex layering that formulated shifting elite and nationalist ideals. Supplying biographies of Indian artists who assimilated Western academic art, Mitter gives a particularly good overview of Ravi Varma, an artist who in his day was famous for his illusionistic skills, and who later was attacked by the Bengali school for depicting Indians in too westernized a fashion that lacked true Indian bhava (his females were thought to be too voluptuous).' Mitter then discusses Tagore and his followers extensively, though possibly with less critical detachment than Guha-Thakurta. Although I think he overstates Bengali's intellectual and artistic contributions (he includes a tedious section on the role of the Bengali press in popularizing pictorial imagery), Mitter does acknowledge that not all Indians accepted them as the sole nationalist voice and he includes opposing viewpoints.
The dialogue on what art is in India needs to transcend nationalist (and residual colonial) constrictions. Guha-Thakurta and Mitter clearly present the complexities and divergent attitudes during the late colonial period, a time we need to consider in order to evaluate how we look at India today. For much of the debate that defined art and how it was studied-or ignored-during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries affects contemporary Indian art historical scholarship. Together, the books by Guha-Thakurta and Mitter represent a major advancement in the expanding field of Indian art history.
1. A 1993 retrospective at the National Museum, New Delhi, freed Ravi Varma from the Bengali school's condemnation; see R. C. Sharma, Raja Ravi Varma, exh. cat. (New Delhi: National Museum, 1993).
2. For instance, Mitter tries to associate the Muslim artist Chughtai (living in Punjab) too closely to the Bengali school on stylistic grounds; see Marcella Neson [Sirhandi], "Abdur Rahman Chughtai: A Modern South Asian Artist" (Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 1984).
ANDREW L. COHEN, associate professor, University of Central Arkansas, will co-guest edit an Art Journal issue on contemporary South Asian art. His Temple Architecture and Sculpture of the Nolambas is forthcoming.…