Artist and Rajya Sabha MP Jogen Chowdhury has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley seeking exemption for art under Goods and Services Tax (GST), saying that artists cannot be slotted in the same category as businessmen and traders. On implementation, GST will bring artworks in the 12 per cent tax slab, making it that much more expensive for buyers. The contemporary Indian art industry has been in a state of crisis for the last five years since the downturn in real estate and later, demonetisation. Chowdhury whose own works have sold for crores of rupees in auctions overseas, said: “It is unfortunate that the government thinks that my creation is just one of many ‘goods’. No other creative activity has been thus taxed.” (The Indian Express, August 5, 2017).
In popular imagination, the artist is a dreamy, impoverished type whipping up radiant sunflowers aka Van Gogh or other, ecstatic embodiments of nature’s awe-inspiring landscapes. The myth endures, that art is a noble pursuit, the artist a valiant and determined struggler, entirely unconcerned about mundane issues of bills and taxes. After all, what kind of artist will admit to wanting to make a whole lot of money off his paintings?
Surely, only a bad one. But when we subscribe to the stereotype of the talented craftsman as a bohemian idealist who considers the joy of creation an end in itself, hence entitled to special privileges, we do a disservice to all creative and (ostensibly) not-so creative professions. When a reporter asked author Mario Puzo what motivated him to write he replied bluntly, “Money”. It seems patently unfair that accountants or doctors, after slogging for years for entrance exams, should pay more tax than the so-called, other, more virtuous callings.
Besides, it is a matter of debate which creative discipline, exactly, the term ‘art’ encompasses and extends to. Is it just people who put charcoal and paint to canvas, or does it include a musician, a cartoonist, a filmmaker, or even the 25-year-old engineer, who develops an app to aggregate vegetable vendors in a small town in India? Any original endeavour that provides thrilling new insight to an old order, whether it’s an essay or a stand-up comedy act, falls within the broad definition of art. In which case, there can be very little justification for taxing AR Rahman differently from Jamini Roy.
In Ireland, for example, from 1969 onwards, there was an artists tax exemption scheme that applied to visual artists, composers and writers on the grounds that they made very little money and needed to be incentivised to create. It was reworked in 2004 after the recession forced the country to overhaul its tax code and citizens complained because high earning performers like U2, and writers like Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), weren’t paying their taxes. Mexico has a payment-in-kind programme that allows artists to pay income tax with their work: If an artist sells between one and six pieces of work in a year, one must be donated to the government.
It is a matter of concern that there are no well-thought-out schemes and government-driven initiatives to encourage careers in art but providing tax waivers is not the solution. If anything, with the GST bill, India’s art industry will get the legitimacy it so desperately needs. Speculative buying 8-10 years ago has created an atmosphere of suspicion, and for new collectors to come up, billing systems need to be put into place. Entirely unjustified and wildly fluctuating prices have made patrons wary about the quality of what they’re buying.
So far galleries have functioned in an opaque and unscrupulous manner and it is one of Delhi and Mumbai’s worst kept secrets that along with jewellery, the dreaded ‘black money’ is displayed on people’s walls. There’s something about understated obscurity and genteel poverty we may love about art but it’s an ideal worth shedding. The muse, will no doubt, continue to visit a tax-paying artist.