Between Modernism and Modernization: Locating Modernity in South Asian Art

Article excerpt

When working in New Delhi in 1985, I saw an exhibition of watercolors by Laxma Goud, a prominent Indian artist, at the Lalit Kala Akademi, the national institution for contemporary visual art. Rumor had it that the late U.S. collector Chester Herwitz had purchased the entire exhibition. Herwitz was a familiar figure in the Indian art scene; for several years he had regularly visited India, traveling to all the major cities collecting contemporary Indian art. He spent liberally, buying art in bulk, so to speak. Herwitz's perception of the way the market for art develops, and his faith in the work of contemporary Indian artists, proved correct. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the nonexistent market for contemporary Indian art suddenly boomed. In 1995 Sotheby's held a major auction in New York of contemporary Indian paintings from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Charitable Trust (Sotheby's catalogue: 6724 "Herwitz"). Of the 220 art works put on auction, 180 were sold for over $1.2 million. Laxma Goud watercolors sold for between $1,500 and $4,900 each, perhaps ten to fifteen times their original purchase price.

This anecdote may be interpreted in several ways, and I will revisit it at the end of this article. At present I will focus on one inference that is pertinent to my subject: the unduly exaggerated influence that collectors, curators, and museums based in the West may have in determining the representation of contemporary South Asian art in an international arena. This situation is the result of a specific historical and theoretical condition centered on the concepts of modernism and modernization-concepts that have framed and continue to determine prevailing perceptions of South Asian art during the post-Independence period (India and Pakistan gained independence in 1947). In the context of contemporary South Asian visual art, the concept of modernity produces a framework that is multilayered and complex, not a rigidly structured and progressive narrative. This perspective enables us to ask substantially different questions of the modem period in South Asian art that do not remain locked into continually referencing developments in Western art.1

Part One: Modernism and the Past Situation

Among the several repercussions of World War II was the occurrence of two events of immediate pertinence to this argument. In the years immediately following the war, India and Pakistan gained independence from two centuries of British colonization to emerge as modern nation-states. During these years, as Serge Guilbaut phrases it, "New York stole the idea of Modern Art." This period, the late 1940s through the early ig6os, when the center of the art world shifted from the war-ravaged urban centers of Europe to New York City, is generally regarded as the high point of modernism in Western art. On August 8, 1949, Life magazine featured Jackson Pollock as "the world's greatest living artist." Of course, as Guilbaut notes, the circumstances that led to and made possible this recentering of modernism in the United States are several and complex, including the politics of Cold War diplomacy, McCarthyism, U.S. economic prosperity, and the aggressively persuasive writings of the art critic Clement Greenberg.2

Greenberg's narrative of modernism was a teleology wherein a series of developments in European painting from the 1860s onward were highlighted and interpreted as stages in a progression toward a unitary goal which was to arrive at the essence of painting as a medium. According to Greenberg, this goal was reached in the early 1960s as a result of the efforts of successive generations of uniquely creative European and U.S. artists, who, as originators of radical breakthroughs in artistic problems, were elevated to the status of genius. Audience access to modernist art was also similarly exclusive, since a specialized knowledge of art history was a prerequisite. In subsequent postmodernist critiques of modernism's exclusions, Greenberg is often identified as the main culprit, whereas, in fact, modernism's biases about the definition of art and the role of an artist have far deeper historical roots. …