ARTISTS have to some extent always considered patronage a necessary condition for their material existence and development. They may attach humiliating associations to the word ‘patron’, but on the whole they have compromised in one form or another and regard patronage as one of their basic needs. The church, temples, monastries, kings and nobles, the state art galleries, commercial speculators, art collectors, museums and political parties have from time to time played an important role in controlling the general direction of art forms. Their historical importance cannot be denied.
In our time, however loudly the artist might have proclaimed his freedom and individual liberty and asserted this revolt against past tradition and bondage, he has nevertheless sought refuge under some sort of patronage, either in the form of an art collector or a commercial gallery or the state. In an age of industrial civilization, his voice is lost unless it is accompanied by the huge machinery of publicity. Specially in Europe, an artist cannot exhibit, or gain recognition or even exist, without the support of a gallery or a collector.
It is not out of a love of art – which was one of the main reasons for the support given by kings and feudal lords to an artist – but as profitable business ventures that most of the patrons of today have come forward with this change of heart. The emphasis on the role of an artist in society has also shifted.
In India, too, the changing patterns in economic, political and social structures resulted in changes in the patrons of art and the nature of patronage. Interest in contemporary art was aroused due to the increased appreciation of our ancient art which was interpreted by individual scholars – specially foreigners – in India and abroad. Patronage depended on the ruling British officials and their understanding of the fine arts. Cheap imitations of decadent Victorian art forms were patronized by the British elite in India and later by the ‘cultured’ Indian bourgeoisie which did not want to lag behind.
As a reaction to this the Indian nationalists supported the works of the ‘Indian School’ of painting developing in Bengal at the beginning of this century. But artists like Amrita Sher-Gil and Rabindranath Tagore received nothing but indifference and criticism as they did not flow with the main current of their times. History has shown that rebels and avantgarde artists who do not fit into defined patterns are refused any kind of patronage.
The period between 1940 and 1950 saw the emergence of a new class of patrons who have influenced to a great extent the chief characteristics of modern Indian art and who continue to be the main source of private patronage. This class consisted of foreigners – English and European – who had been working in commercial firms and foreign legations. They reacted very favourably to the new experiments of Indian artists and sculptors.
In the late forties, especially in Bombay, they supported enthusiastically this wave of bold and revolutionary work created under the inspiration of modern trends then popular in Europe. Such paintings were bought in large numbers, articles were written in the press, and all manner of material and moral encouragement given to these artists. Gradually the number of these patrons increased. Their influence, their taste, their likings and preferences played an important role in the evolution of modern tendencies in Indian art.
After India became free in 1947, an important development took place in the field of the plastic arts. Government came forward with the intention of helping the artists financially, channelising their talents and energies in a more creative form, coordinating scattered art activities, and providing a larger audience by making the public more art conscious.
With all the possible resources at the disposal of the state, it was expected that this new patron would be able to remove the many hurdles which Indian artists were facing and which distracted their attention from their creative work. Inspite of many useful services which the state could have rendered, the artists were conscious of the possible harm which it could do by indirectly interfering in their creative work and supporting those trends and ideologies considered more useful or artistic, or by boosting the elements which would support its art policies. Nevertheless, artists were willing to wait and see and judge state patronage on its merits.
State patronage has come to us under various forms – the formation of the Lalit Kala Akadami, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and a project for similar galleries in every state, the purchase of works of contemporary Indian artists for various offices of Indian embassies and the commissioning of artists for murals and other decorative work on government buildings and in government-sponsored industrial and agricultural exhibitions.
In the absence of any defined policy, there is hardly any coordination in the activities of the various committees and bodies formed for the purpose, with the result that at one place the sweet will of an aesthetically ignorant government official dominates, at another that of cultural snobs of high social standing but devoid of any aesthetic discrimination. One such committee rejects the work of an artist, but another honours it. Such contradictions have created much confusion in the mind of the public and indignation and frustration among the artists. The hope of a healthy, constructive guidance to the art movement as a whole in a broader perspective under state patronage has been destroyed.
The most important art body sponsored by the state is the Lalit Kala Akadami which, after seven years of its birth, is still floundering, taking a policy decision one year and voting against it the next year. Lack of clarity and consistency in its policies has been its dominant feature. Vast sums of public money have been wasted on its various committee meetings where endless projects are discussed without any idea of seeing them materialize. The elaborate staff employed could have been utilized in a much better way. Some of the committee members are just sleeping members and utterly indifferent towards the proceedings. They are there because of their past ‘services’ to art and are completely ignorant of the problems which the Indian artists face today.
The only activity of the Akadami which is directly concerned with Indian artists on the whole is the National Exhibition of Art held every year. So much criticism has already been levelled from various quarters at this annual event that it seems unnecessary to repeat it here. As yet no book or magazine on contemporary art has been published – which is, surely, one activity which should have been given priority.
The same is true of the National Gallery of Modern Art, the decoration committees, and so on. These can play a very important part in revitalizing and activating the art movement if only they took a serious interest in their work and realized their responsibility. Biased opinions and personal preferences based on a narrow rigid ideology – held by certain responsible members of these committees – cease to give any stimulus whatsoever to Indian artists. On the contrary, the artist has been left disillusioned with hardly any faith in the usefulness of these committees.
Somehow, the government was inspired by the example of Mexico and proceeded to patronize Indian artists by commissioning them to paint murals for public buildings. Without understanding the different conditions under which the art movements of Mexico and India developed, big schemes were proposed for murals and sculpture in various government buildings. These were considered the basis of a permanent solution to artists’ material problems and also a means of encouraging an art-consciousness amongst the people through works of large dimension.
During the last five years endless discussions led to serious differences between architects, the public works department, art advisers and artists about the nature of these commissions with the result that not a single scheme could be passed by all the committees concerned. Whatever small assignments were finalized resulted in such poor artistic expression that there has been considerable rethinking on the advisability of plans where the artist is neither technically nor aesthetically competent to carry out the work.
The best example of such uncoordinated activity is at an industrial or agricultural exhibition – which is an annual event in Delhi – where decoration work is done by artists and art students. Government officials, contractors, engineers – who perhaps never saw a painting or a piece of sculpture in their life – guide and advise the artist about the work. Artists who can manoeuvre to get a commission earn enough money to last them two or three years for work done within a week or a fortnight. They have been severely criticized in the press, but the same sorry tale is repeated every year.
It has been realized gradually that under the present set up, state patronage instead of stimulating the creative faculties of artists has stifled them. This is true of both the artists of the older and the younger generations. It may have given them financial security through jobs and scholarships, prizes and commissions, but the sources of artistic inspiration seem to have dried up, whatever the reason.
There has been undue eagerness, almost a race, among the known artists to be appointed on one committee or another, to get a socially respectable, highly paid post, to manoeuvre a commission, to manage a free trip abroad. It never occurs to them to ask why their artistic instincts are freezing. During the last ten years many of the talented artists, who had revealed a spark of originality and a promising creative future, have become mere art administrators of one form or another.
It is tragic, but the patronage showered in this manner is proving suicidal to the artist. The need has arisen for both artists and the state to reconsider seriously the implications of such patronage and make necessary changes before it is too late.
The nature of private patronage is different from that of state patronage. Private individuals just buy paintings and works of sculpture after they have been created like any other commodity in the market. They may have personal preferences, but on the whole such patrons encourage the artists in their creative work.
The number of foreigners interested in contemporary Indian art has grown substantially in recent years due to the numerous embassies, legations, foreign firms and the increase in the number of visitors from abroad. Some of them have acquired large private collections of their own. Their likes and dislikes are based on either instinct or on an understanding of genuine art forms. They have the advantage of keeping in touch with the current art trends in Europe by frequent association and their earlier background. It is a fact that they have formed the largest group of private patrons of contemporary Indian art. Most of the paintings sold today in an art exhibition are bought by them. As they do not stay for a long time in India, we can always expect a continuous flow of foreigners who gradually get interested in art and start buying paintings. The fact that some of them have been invited to be judges in the national art exhibitions organized by the Lalit Kala Akadami proves that even a body like the Akadami has some faith in their understanding and critical faculties.
The commercial art gallery, though recognized in Europe as the only institution capable of giving patronage to artists in the free and competitive art market, has not as yet been able to make any mark in India. Though it has had some success as a commercial venture, neither the artist nor the public has been able to accept the idea of this ‘middleman’ as the ultimate solution to the material difficulties of artists.
Exhibitions organized by the artists themselves in hired halls are still what art lovers and patrons are accustomed to. But the advantages acquired by art galleries in establishing a permanent place where works by different artists are available at any time and the resources and wide contacts available to a gallery in effecting a sale to a larger public are being realized. At present, due to the lack of sufficient finance, gallery owners avoid incurring risks. They merely play the role of middlemen who take commissions on works sold at the gallery.
But in future when potential buyers increase and Indian art gets more recognition outside India, some big financiers and speculators will be attracted towards this business. They will consider paintings a commodity worth speculating upon, thus making an art gallery much more important than it is at present.
In the last few years some enlightened industrialists have become art conscious. They have reproduced modern paintings in their calendars and diaries, besides acquiring some for their drawing rooms. Unfortunately, their number is still too small to be of any substantial help. But, if this spirit spreads, their circle can asset itself as an important part of private patronage in India. Also it helps in making modern art forms more popular among the ordinary people when they see them reproduced in calendars and posters.
In the present stage of transition when many important developments are taking place in the art world, when new forces are gradually emerging out of a sympathy and understanding towards the fine arts, it is important that artists be more conscious and aware of these happenings and react to them in a positive manner. Unfortunately, there has been no attempt at a minimum degree of unity and understanding among artists themselves which would enable them to criticize the functioning of government sponsored art institutions or to explore new channels of patronage from amongst those sections of Indian society whose support would be unconditional and of a permanent nature.
The compromisers have a tendency to succumb at the first opportunity offered, without considering its implications and general effect on the art movement as a whole. Some artists have managed to secure highly paid jobs, others occupy responsible positions in the Akadami and important art bodies, and the rest have given their support to art galleries and other private institutions. Almost all have acted with selfish motives, compromising their principles, their honesty and integrity.
Among the most important sources capable of rendering help to many artists in a spirit of mutual gain are the universities. Till now they have been completely cut off from the fast developing cultural life of the country. Art exhibitions which are hardly visited by any of the students could be sponsored by universities in their halls; a permanent art gallery exhibiting works of contemporary Indian artists could be established; artists could be commissioned to execute murals in the university buildings and colleges; occasional lectures on art could be organized. Such activities would make students art-conscious and help to gradually develop an appreciation of the fine arts along with a desire to acquire original paintings for their walls instead of the cheap prints which today are seen in almost all middle class homes.
It has been felt that the middle classes have been taking a keen interest in art exhibitions and in contemporary painting. They comprise the main bulk of visitors at an art exhibition, and are inquisitive and keen to go deeper into a work of art. It is necessary that a conscientious drive be made to help them in cultivating their tastes in the arts so that they develop a genuine enjoyment and a real understanding.
Special exhibitions should be organized where prices are deliberately kept low to give an incentive for acquiring original works of art and hanging them in drawing rooms. Artists should agree to be paid on an instalment basis. Inspite of the limited resources of a middle class family, it should not be very difficult for it to occasionally buy a small painting. If this class becomes art conscious, it can be of substantial help to artists. Today, considering its corrupted taste for Bombay films, the vulgar reproductions on calendars and popular sentimental fiction, this hope that it can become a patron of art one day may seem far-fetched, a dream, but, with coordinated effort, it may not be such an impossible task.
Instead of looking towards a few very rich clients who can afford to pay exhorbitant prices for works of art, it is much better to build up a bigger class of patrons so that the artist remains free in his creative experiments.
* Reproduced from ‘Artists and Art’, Seminar 16, December 1960.