Two years ago, when I first began the infuriating exercise of writing about art, I wished someone had written a brief introductory guide, perhaps titled “How to break into the Indian Art World”. Older and wiser, I realise now that had there been such a manual, it would have been terribly brief — because the truth is you must “arrive” even before you can ever hope to belong, or even simply just fit in.
I stumbled upon this epiphany one evening at an opening at Nature Morte, New Delhi. It was past 9 p m, that “hurry-up-please-it’s-time” hour when the outdoor bar shuts and the “party” shifts into Peter Nagy’s office. There isn’t any door policy; no one to demand how you dare enter this hallowed space. You know, instinctively, that you’re not invited because you are a nobody (yes, art writer, “nobody” means you). Having relished the dregs of my wine, I was about to make my exit when I ran into a curator prancing about with a mostly full glass of red. “I see you have access to the private stash,” I said rather enviously. “Darling, I’ve earned it. I’ve paid my dues,” she said with an immodest smile. I clearly hadn’t, and the way things were going, considering “access” was likely to be consistently denied, I was actually relieved at my lack of aspiration. That’s partly because it’s infinitely more comfortable and less futile to pet a cactus than to try to ingratiate yourself with the artistic community.
On the other hand, when I moved to Delhi five years ago, I was almost instantly adopted by the literary world. I didn’t have a byline or a book, but that seemed irrelevant. What mattered was simply that I was convinced I wanted to write. I had shamelessly gatecrashed barely five book launches before I began to receive invitations to writers’ homes and to literary events. I was no longer a stranger; I was part of the community.
Certainly, India’s literary world is incestuous; but it isn’t as cliquish or as cut-throat as the art world. A writer friend recently articulated it as the difference between bonobos and chimpanzees. “We’re like bonobos,” she said, “there are just enough of us for it to be peaceful.” True, there are run-ins between writers and reviewers (most of whom are writers too), and it can get somewhat vicious — Palash Mehrotra revenging himself on Annie Zaidi for her not-so-flattering review of his Butterfly Generation by trashing her book in an interview; or Patrick French quarrelling with Pankaj Mishra in print as to which of them was more like Lord Curzon; or the uproar when Hartosh Singh Bal writes one of his nasty pieces indiscriminately attacking pretty much everybody. These brushes aside, the literary world is mostly about coexistence, where writers and reviewers will eventually get drunk together and all is generally well.
In the art world, however, you usually cannot make your way across a gallery without inadvertently stepping on an artist’s ego. Everything you say or don’t say, everything you do or don’t do can and often will be used against you, and you’re usually not quite sure why. Almost every artist I’ve met grumbles about the fact that there is no honest art writing out there, and while the idealist in me initially agreed, I know now exactly why there isn’t: It’s a community that’s so set in its profitable alliances it doesn’t take too kindly to any newcomers.
And I’m convinced it all boils down to money. An Indian writer would need to have a pretty enormous print run to earn anything close to the kind of money an artist makes. In fact, the stakes are so low in the literary world it’s almost impossible to find a full-time writer, because writing simply doesn’t pay the bills — unless, of course, you’re writing commercial fiction. The art world, despite the now-depressed market, is the far richer of the two. By and large, writing remains a struggle, and you know what they say about how struggle builds character.
Those writing about art wind up with one foot in the literary world and the other being constantly trodden on by the art world. The art world is desperately seeking reincarnations of art writers like Rudy von Leyden, whose criticism stemmed from deep knowledge of, and intimate friendships with, the artists of their generation. But given the intolerance, backstabbing, petty jealousies, and generally dismissive attitude – and the oh-so-high stakes – where will they come from?
The author is editor-in-chief of Artinfo India and a consultant to Zubaan Books.
Every week, Eye Culture features writers with an entertaining critical take on art, music, dance, film and sport