Until the early 1960s in India, “an expressionist realism of different shades” actively participated in the “enactment of modernism” with the idea of social transformation through works, explains art critic Geeta Kapur . The artists with this engagement were MF Husain, Ram Kumar, Satish Gujral and others. By the 1960s, however, this stream seemed to have suddenly run out. The aesthetics of the powerful played a crucial role in this change.
Shortly after World War II, New York suddenly emerged as a world art center with the introduction of a new style of painting called Abstract Expressionism. The flattering of paint on canvases of unprecedented size without any identifiable image are the hallmarks of this new style. Conceptually abstract expressionism seeks to eliminate any literal content or subject from the work.
As historical atrocities and tragedies unfolded in the forms of World War I, the Great Depression, Nazism, Stalinism and World War II, artists found themselves stripped of their means of representation and of power. social function of art. They no longer had any hope that “there will be a better tomorrow”. This historical disillusion is reflected in the “non-content” of their works, which in effect become unintelligible. Unintelligibility, as the German intellectual Theodor Adorno puts it, is the very content of works under modernism which destroys the hierarchy of meaning and intelligibility. It takes on meaning in a philosophical sense but at the same time it reduces the aesthetic experience to a simple painting or “pictorial paintings” in the case of abstract expressionism. Because, it is not the painting but the gesture of the painter to watch. “The gesture on the canvas was,” says Harold Rosenberg, “a liberation of value – political, aesthetic, moral. The artist’s rejection of all values stems from his pessimism that the world is no different and better ”. Therefore, “he wanted his web to be a world”. This theoretical legitimation may seem significant in many ways, but it is not enough to explain how Abstract Expressionism was accepted around the world as a breakthrough in modern art.
Even before this new style was in the spotlight, America’s largest gallery, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, an institution supported by Rockefeller, purchased most of his works. Soon after, MoMA organized numerous large-scale exhibitions on Abstract Expressionism in America, Europe, and Asian countries including India. This series of exhibitions has always drawn on eminent art critics and historians to theorize and contextualize this American style of abstraction as opposed to one that emerged decades earlier in Europe. As a result of this link between artists, galleries and critics, in the mid-1950s, Abstract Expressionism established itself not only as an important movement, but as an “advance” in art so that all criticism against it has been severely repressed by critics, collectors, publishers, university professors, etc. almost totalitarian. John Canaday’s reviews and numerous letters to the editor in The New York Times testify to this fact.
There was another turn of events which coincided with these developments. During this period, the US government realized that Abstract Expressionism with its “lack of content” could be used as an effective tool in propaganda against the USSR and the Soviet bloc, if it were endowed with of cultural centrality. With this focus, MoMA’s international agenda, as art historian Russell Lynes puts it, was overtly political: it was. “On top of that, as Abstract Expressionism celebrated unbridled freedom and freedom. individualism of the artists, it was also in tune with the value system of US capitalism and imperialism as opposed to individual and artistic freedom suppressed in the communist regime.
The absence of an obvious subject equated with the political neutrality of an artist can seem very simplistic. Rather, it was recognized by American institutions engaged in the Cold War that dissident intellectuals who believe they act freely could be useful tools in shaping international propaganda in favor of America.
When American cultural establishments propagated Abstract Expressionism as an “advanced” and quintessential modern art form, “those who had been part of the Paris school, including some of the best Indian artists of the 1950s, looked sympathetically to New York in the 1960s ”(Geeta Kapur). The American program of exporting cultural freedom to India under the guise of scholarships has also exerted considerable influence on Indian artists to renounce their previous social commitment. As Geeta Kapur puts it, “Fellowships for artist residencies in New York were offered in the 1960s and 1970s to well-known Indian artists by the JD Rockefeller III Fund as a sort of postscript to its members. blatant intervention strategies in Latin America; and the American side was highlighted by Clement Greenberg’s visit to India in 1967 ”, when he accompanied the international touring exhibition of“ Two Decades of American Painting ”sent by MoMA.
Various forms of abstraction appeared persistently between the 1960s and 1980s in the works of major Indian artists like VS Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, Raza, Jehangir Sabawala, Akbar Padamsee, J Swaminathan, KCS Panicker, and many more. By introducing folk / ritual motifs into their modernist visual vocabulary, they all sought to evoke a sense of Indianness. But its roots can also go back to abstract expressionism. To justify the fascination with the flat surface, Abstract Expressionists considered oriental, primitive and childish art as examples of universality and naturalness, of two-dimensionality and decoration. Indianity or indigenism as manifested in abstraction therefore seems largely to be a mask over a style that has been projected as the symbol of freedom for political ends. Contemporary art is not immune to such ideological whitewashing either.
Art critic and author. Teaches Art History at Thiruvananthapuram College of Fine Arts
BLURB: In the mid-1950s, the US government realized that Abstract Expressionism with its “lack of content” could be used as an effective tool in propaganda against the USSR and the Soviet Bloc, if it were endowed with ‘a cultural centrality.