Debating modernism

Print edition : December 08, 2001

When Was Modernism? Essays on Contemporary Cultural Practice in India by Geeta Kapur; Tulika Press, 2000 & 2001; pages 439 (hardback), Rs.1,400; pages 454 (paperback), Rs.875.

THIS book makes heavy demands on a reviewer. There are two reasons for it. The first, and the lesser reason, is the turgid prose, which has already prompted a number of reviewers to eulogise it without really coming to grips with it. The second and more important reason is the battery of interesting ideas from an original perspective being presented in the framework of international debates that is very relevant for India which is undergoing a rapid process of globalisation of a fairly laid-back sort, so every nuance that the author expresses must be weighed and tested before one accepts or rejects it.

As the title, 'When was Modernism?' suggests, this book is part of the Raymond Williams/Clement Greenberg debate, with Geeta Kapur coming down fairly heavily on the Williams agenda that states: "The innovations of what is called modernism have become the new but fixed forms of our present moment. If we have to break out of the non-historical fixity of post-modernism, then we must search out and counter-pose an alternative tradition taken from the neglected works left in the wide margin of the century, a tradition that may address itself not to this by now exploitable because inhuman rewriting of the past but, for all our sakes, to a modern future in which community may be imagined again."

Greenberg, with his formalism and arbitrary presentation of U.S. art as global contemporary art, is not taken to task casually. A case is built up against his reductionism and formalism, sometimes with faint praise, as in articles dealing with Nasreen Mohammedi's and K.G. Subramanyan's work, to a sharp criticism of how "Clement Greenberg with a neat but meagre scheme attracts such vast adherence in the institutions of modern art" and an explanation that "why he is seen to stand for a contemporary version of the universal aesthetic, is at least partly because he confirms the centre-periphery model of Euro-American modernism." Then the author moves in for the kill by pointing out how "formal purism developed in the years after the Second World War on behalf of American art, and we can see that it is through retroactive reductionism that Greenberg emphasises the iron rule of the universal."

Moreover, this was not just an aesthetic exercise that brought U.S. modernism to a dead end. It was part and parcel of the Cold War armature that reduced it to becoming the same sort of baggage as "cultural freedom" and other U.S. values imposed as universal ones, which were bound to die out with the Cold War itself.

From the start there were few takers in India for such an agenda. Despite Greenberg's visit to this country in 1967 with an exhibition of U.S. artists in tow, he failed to make the desired impact. A much more subtle figure like Octavio Paz was needed to wean Indian artists over to a Western platform. In fact, Kapur correctly points out how "the ideology as such did not make headway because of the nationalist self-regard persistent even among the most international Indian artists."

It was evident, as the Japanese art critic Karatani Kojin notes, that the U.S. agenda of modernism imposed on the world really does not serve as a sound basis for explaining in a sufficient manner the existence of modernism globally, "since in the West and in Asia, the modern and pre-modern are distinct from one another, it stands to reason that modernity must be conceptualised separately from Westernness, but since the origin of modernity is Western, the two cannot be so easily separated."

Indeed, similar developments can be observed in both Japan and India and Japan's artistic development can be a lesson for India theoretically. The process of developing a modern expression in a society which has been slow to evolve its own individual and civil independence is fraught with unforeseen dangers. Tanaka Yoshio points out: "It was clearly visible that 'our own art' changed its clothes into the 'art of Japan' in our country, where the individual was not established and the 'art of Japan' easily slipped into becoming 'the art of Fascism'." Geeta Kapur notes a similar danger with regard to revivalism in our own contemporary art. It is evident that in societies where the historical process of the emergence of the individual and of a powerful civil society did not overthrow the feudal prison of the imagined community or the iron rule of estates, one could not, like Breton, foresee a situation in which "strange and wondrous inner forms could be planted in the outer soil of communism".

In such a state of affairs, while internationalist progressive groups soon saw a break between the formalist artists and those who were primarily political progressives, the former were able to withstand the onslaught of Cold War formalism by challenging it with a "concretist" position that gave them a posture distinct from formalists of the Greenberg type, but still distinguished them from the political progressives. This is visible in the Japanese Gutai Group of the 1950s and the Indian Group 1890 of the 1960s.

Yoshihara Jiro, the founder of the Gutai Group, states: "Gutai art does not alter the material. Gutai art imparts life to the material. Gutai art does not distort the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the material shake hands." In comparison, the Group 1890 manifesto states: "The incapacity to see phenomena in their virginal state resulting from the conditioning of history creates the illusion that life can be ordained and made to flow from the image of one's own ego, whereas the creative process has its own volition and genesis, which does not conform to anticipation by man.... Its being emanates its own connotations." Here we see an assertion of independence and at the same time an endorsement of formalism over history. The explicit rejection of politics by both opens the door to either creating a parallel modernism through an 'informal aesthetic' such as that of Tapies or Fontana, or walking unsteadily towards the as yet uncharted path of post-modernism.

Geeta Kapur specifically blocks the latter path by stating: "Once we admit history - over and above art history - the matrix from which the concept of the avant-garde arises, then there are always plural histories in the reckoning". And more than that, Kapur states: "I will argue that if the avant-garde is a historically conditioned phenomenon and emerges only in a moment of real political disjuncture, it will appear in various forms in different parts of the world at different times."

This is a clear-cut pluralist position and one distinct from an art theory based on a position of class struggle. That is why she describes the period of intense theoretical and political discussion and of the evolution of the present survival strategy of the Communist Party of India as one of "disarray and sectarianism". The fact is that while the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) of the 1940s cannot provide an eternal model for the 1960s, it is still capable of being an avant-garde in the spirit of Peter Burger, but without his "transnational" trappings, more in keeping with the perspective evolved in Mao Zedong's 'Yenan Forum on Literature and Art', a document not mentioned in her book, despite its importance for art theory in the semi-colonial world. It gave us the perspective of rejecting an apolitical posture in art as well as political slogans and posters standing in for art. This perspective allows us to understand the acceptance of folk trends by progressive artists as the expression of the peasantry who were the militant backbone of the resistance to imperialism at that time as well as for their alternative expression to imperial academic art. Geeta Kapur describes this process in India as " a narodnik style of politics". In the same way she characterises the proletarian internationalism of the 1920s which was very much a catalyst of the Chinese revolution, as "utopian". Her perspective allows her to see that "the Communist Parties (sic) of India, the CPI and the CPI(M), support the irreversible project of modernisation with a reasonable, secular nationalism" and that "the Left fronts in India, given the growth of fundamentalist reaction, may now be the only organised movements to speak the language of modernity." But she is not willing to give them both, or even one of them, the credit for having ensured that "here indeed the modern continues to be placed nowhere more correctly than along visibly socialist trajectories". Rather she sees that it as a reflection of "forceful anomalies in the developmental process of the Third World".

This hesitation in giving credit where it is due does not allow her to really link up the evolution of our contemporary art from the likes of Chittaprasad, Zainiul Abedin, K.C.S. Panikkar and Somenath Hore to the likes of Vivan Sundaram, Krishna Kumar, Soman or Sovi Savarkar, and explore the current trend of genuinely radical art that is beyond the part-digested gimmickry of many of the artists that Geeta Kapur intersperses her discourse with. However, the fact that she has brought us as far as considering these issues is in itself something to be glad about and reflects the objective worth of her contribution to the ongoing debates in global art historiography and places us concretely within them. But the task of delineating the evolution of our radical contemporary artistic expression still needs to be chiselled much more precisely than a pluralist vision allows.

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