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What the pandemic has revealed about the arts in India

🔴 T M Krishna writes: It has highlighted the inadequacies of our cultural space, the lack of economic support for artists and the dangers of allowing social media to dictate art-making

In the past two years, our inner and outer worlds have been altered. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

Trying to imagine a post-Covid artistic universe while we are facing a new virus variant is risky, but we need to begin thinking of that possibility. Since March 2020, our minds have been stuck, cemented to the present and the immediate past. Understandably, our works of art have either been acts of desperation or immediate responses to current experiences. Little has come from reflection. In the past two years, our inner and outer worlds have been altered. Existential questions of what it means to be an artist, the role of technology, the lack of any economic fallback and our relationship with the audience have been hounding us.

In this two-year span when our social media face became our real self, portfolios conjured by social media, such as Content Creator and Influencer, have become much more impactful. People who are adorned with these titles behave in an artist-like manner and produce things that have a semblance to art. But are they artists, and are they creating art? Much like drawing a distinction between cognac and brandy, we have to differentiate between the artist and the content creator. All artists are content creators, but all content creators are not artists. The influencer, at times, is an upgraded content creator. Someone who has garnered enough attention and influence to monetise his status effectively. There are, of course, those who, by virtue of their real-life popularity, jump the queue and are instantly seated on the influencer high chair. Many artists are not sure which category’s membership they seek. They would like to be artists who create content but the last two years have shown that the qualities of artistry can be sacrificed at the altar of content that has potential for virality.

Where is the art in all this? Some may believe that this discussion is high-brow elitism. Do we artists not need to ponder over the ethics of art creation, its social positionality and emotional energy? Let us not conflate the digital medium with the social media circus. They are not the same. Within our respective genres, we have to question the influential social media environment. It is amusing that even those who agree that social media manipulates our emotional status, picks on our vulnerabilities and accentuates divisions are unable to see that algorithms do exactly the same thing to art. When art’s intentionality is morphed, the art experience is twisted. I am concerned that when the temporal world returns to normalcy, the way we make and receive art would have become distorted. I cannot brush away these thoughts with the convenient explanation that this is a type of evolution.

What about artists who have been unable to work this numerically orchestrated hidden mechanism? They have been left behind only because they do not know how to play this game. Are we going to just say they lost out because they didn’t adapt? It is our responsibility to take care of them and ensure that injustice is not meted out. Unfortunately, rarely have we taken a social justice stance about art, artists or aesthetics. It is high time we do.

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There is no one art world; there are worlds around and within worlds. Many of these remain in local clusters, unseen and unheard by the mainstream powerful socio-cultural brokers. Artists who belong to these art worlds have been struggling to keep their artistry alive. Their lives came to a standstill in 2020. With public spaces becoming “no-entry” zones, these artists remained at home, unable to sing, dance or act. This caused emotional distress and economic ruin. There has been no mind space or incentive to train, imagine and create. Two years of artistic inactivity has had an impact. Most artists always work other jobs to remain economically afloat. With art becoming useless, the “other jobs” have robbed artists of their art. Therefore, when the post-Covid season appears on the horizon, artists will need to somehow rediscover their spirit and abilities. This is easier said than done. There are also practical difficulties — costumes becoming un-usable, instruments damaged and infrastructure needing renovation. We need to provide support for all these necessities.

I also have this lurking fear that “public spaces” will become more and more out of bounds. I am not questioning the need for restrictions during Covid. But we all know that the Indian political establishment has always wanted control over public spaces. The pandemic may have provided them with the perfect excuse to further limit our access. No court will dare challenge it, at least in the near future. By the time they awaken, we would have normalised the heightened restrictiveness. Therefore, this is not just a problem of public spaces and protests; it is as much about creating art in the open.

The pandemic has highlighted the inadequacies of our cultural space, the lack of concern and the dangers of allowing social media to dictate art-making. When we emerge from Covid, if we are a sensitive society, our plans will be directed towards those who are on the margins or have been pushed to the margins. The successful ones do not prove that things are working well; they only highlight the asymmetrical nature of our society. But, in our culture, the temptation to just let things be in the hope that it will slide back to the way it was is very high. We believe that things will work themselves out. But they will not. Artists and art forms will disappear and we will not get to know until it is too late. Whenever we archive or document an artist or art form we have lost, we are not saving anything or anybody. We are merely registering our collective failure.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on January 7, 2022 under the title ‘Art, virus and the algorithm’. The writer is a musician and author.

First published on: 07-01-2022 at 04:00:03 am
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