Sunday, 17 December 2006

Art or Design?

I felt something clarifying during Ashoke Chatterjee's speech at Srishti's Graduation Ceremony last night.
I've always had an ambivalent, not to say cynical, attitude to 'design', as opposed to 'art'. To my mind design has been about branding, commodification, market forces, the creation of desire, the commodification of pleasure. Art has been about a free, agenda-less space of exploration and and non-alignment. That's why I've thought of Business and Art as being a binary opposition. I've wanted to challenge the orthodoxies of contemporary capitalism, expose the ideologies that masquerade as givens.

India teaches so many lessons in so many, often unexpected, dimensions. I knew I was coming here to learn something and to grow. I also I wanted to be sharply critical of globalization, middle class spread, and 'India Inc.' Now I'm beginning to see that the ideologies that need to be dropped are my own. It's my own ignorance that needs addressing, not that of others. I new nothing about the Eames Report, commissioned by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958. And I was completely ignorant of the meaning of design in India, at least as institutionalised in the National Institute of Design, confusing it with my garbled disgruntlement at the advertising and marketing saturation of the urban west. Ashoke Chatterjee made design sound like revolutionary work.

Here, in the world's largest democracy, waste and want are in sharp relief. Whatever issues Europe is grappling with - multiculturalism, terrorism, secession, urban/rural divide, food production, ecology, intellectual property, education, healthcare - they all seem writ larger and more urgent here in India. Would I call myself an artist or a designer if I took Agenda 21 as a manifesto.
And who would care anyway?

I've grown up as an immigrant in the West and have always felt to some extent uncomfortable there. A little brown boy dressed up against the cold in a smart, ill-fitting suit. The steady sun does what the violent wind cannot, and now I'm starting to feel my real body again. I'm an Indian and proud of it. That means embracing my colonial history and the wild diversity of this place. There are so many things that I disagree with, that I'm horrified by, that I'm dismayed by. But nevertheless somehow there seems to be a deep commitment to truth here. I feel a responsibility to do whatever I can to express that truth in the face of the bigotry and narrow-mindedness that is also rife. I need to engage in the debate. This debate is more live here than I've ever experienced it in the insulated west.

There, I took refuge in my role as an artist against the overwhelming materialism, complacency and individualism of popular culture. Art was a firewall against the deluge of spam in my mental space. Here that role seems flaccid, irrelevant, and even decadent. The free space of enquiry is just as precious here, surrounded as it is by poverty and distress but it is not self-sufficient. it demands commerce with it's environment. In the third world ethical engagement is unavoidable. And the transcendental quality that artistic work affords is here available everywhere in living spiritual practices. They need neither apology, disguise, or material justification. So what's the point of being an artist?

And what about design? During Ashoke Chatterjee's lucid discourse it became clear that Design might simply be what I'd always thought Art might hope to be - engaged, ethically grounded, socially relevant, responsible, practical, fun. Design might be concerned with the creation of deep beauty, not the self indulgence, frippery and ornamentation that I've become resigned to in the art scene of the west.

That's not to say that there isn't a tradition of 'community art', 'social realism', or 'socially engaged practice' in the the UK. I've had my brushes with those. In fact just before coming to India I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Jeremy Deller, one of those who are most intelligently weaving economics and social dynamics into the art market. And I've also been closely involved in setting up the new MA course in Arts & Ecology at (the now seemingly doomed) Dartington College of Arts But somehow, notwithstanding miner's strikes, inner city depravation, social stratification, Jamie Oliver, and freak tornados in Kensal Green, the canvas just seems so much tinier than it is here in Asia. And perhaps, after all, I feel a blood bond. The biggest issue of the last hundred years - perhaps overshadowing even the Holocaust - is the still hardly acknowledged reality of British Imperialism.

Here's Poonam Bir Kasturi, one of the Srishti faculty I keep hearing of but with whom I've yet to have a conversation.

Here's Niti Bhan on the relevance for designers of the recent Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change

Here's Ashoke Chatterjee:

And here are some excerpts from the Eames Report itself which Ashoke Chaterjee referred to. The full report, which led to the foundation of the National Institute of Design, is here

'The change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West on the East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.

The advanced complexities of communication were perhaps felt first in Europe, then West to America which was a fertile traditionless field. They then moved East and West gathering momentum and striking India with terrific impact – an impact that was made more violent because of India's own complex of isolation, barriers of language, deep-rooted tradition.

The decisions that are made in a tradition-oriented society are apt to be unconscious decisions – in that each situation or action automatically calls for a specified reaction. Behaviour patterns are pre-programmed, pre-set. It is in this climate that handicrafts flourish – changes take place by degrees – there are moments of violence but the security is in the status quo. The nature of a communication-oriented society is different by kind – not by degree.

All decisions must be conscious decisions evaluating changing factors. In order to even approach the quality and values of a traditional society, a conscious effort must be made to relate every factor that might possibly have an effect.

Security here lies in change and conscious selection and correction in relation to evolving needs. India stands to face the change with three great advantages :

First: She has a tradition and a philosophy familiar with the meaning of creative destruction.

Second: She need not make all the mistakes others have made in the transition.

Third: Her immediate problems are well defined : FOOD, SHELTER, DISTRIBUTION, POPULATION.

This last stated advantage is a great one. Such ever-present statements of need should block or counteract any self-conscious urge to be original. They should put consciousness of quality – selection of first things first – (investigation into what are the first things) on the basis of survival not caprice.'

The report goes on to extol the qualities of the lota, qualities which seem to me to add up to beauty.

Later on is this passage:

'Buckminster Fuller, a man of great perspective, gave this problem to a group of students – Design a package of services and effects which will be the most essential to salvage from a city about to be destroyed – the program was of course limited – but it was not an exercise in civil defence. It was a careful study of relative values – what do you take with you when the house burns down ?'

Here in India, and in the context of this placement at Hewlett-Packard, I'm consciously confronting myself with the question 'what am a professing to do?'. Everything about this country only amplifies this question. What is my true profession? Am I part of a problem or of a solution? I wonder what kind of art I should hang on the walls of my burning house...

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