Issue 19

Art Is Personal, the Personal Is Political, They Are Social and to Most Ephemeral

The solar system known to man has one sun. All the planets in spite of being individual entities, revolve around this fireball, and it dictates when days start and end, where, when and why shadows fall if at all, across these planets. The world of art too works along similar lines.  Though marked by various ‘isms’, it finds itself in a state of the ‘contemporary’ unregulated by any one visible entity but regulated by many that aren’t visible to the layman. The art that is visible on the hallowed walls of institutions committed to ‘encouraging’, ‘preserving’,  ‘promoting’ and ‘teaching’ art, function as peepholes. They cease to be passive observatories,  for these institutions are functioning within a community that lets very few cross from the fringes to the inner world.  

Art, often understood as the application or expression of human creative skill and/or imagination, would lead us to question whether imagination works within the defined, or does it instead navigate its way around what is known and negotiate a new understanding by creating something that isn’t. While art has been written about through the lens of practises and periodisation in abundance, it continues to remain a phenomena that eludes many. By virtue of its scope to permeate the various categories we live within to compartmentalise life,  it is personal, the personal is political, they are social and to most ephemeral. If art in itself conjures up this thesaurus marked by subjectivity, then what is contemporary art? How is it connected and altered to the larger idea of economics, and where do institutions come into this large network of connections, while attempting to decode this phenomena? 

Contemporary Art refers to specific conditions of artistic production that have flourished under the latest phase of global capitalism, also known as Neo-Liberalism in some areas. This segment of artistic production insofar is maintained by a global network of art institutions. 

Contemporary Art, thus as we know it today can be seen as a product of post-socialist transition. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1991, was seen as the fall of one of the superpowers,  the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but more importantly the failure of the ideology it represented, Socialism. This political event rooted in history becomes an important place to find the initial beginnings of Contemporary Art, in the margins of the Western World. The manifestation of the institutionalisation of contemporary art took place at its own pace in the  Western world, but did so more clearly in Eastern Europe, where the transition of political regimes were taking place from socialist to capitalist. This has also been dubbed as  ‘Capitalism by Design’

It is thus visible, how the inception of contemporary art, one that altered artistic behaviours across an entire region, modelled after the Western world was heavily rooted in the idea of capitalism, thus being directly related to economics, and politics. 

Museums, both privately and publicly funded, galleries, university departments etc present an image of ‘art’ to the viewer with a sense of authority. An educated gaze might raise questions, but more often than not, the layman will absorb this as the definition of what art is in present times. Thus, altering the present narrative of this world, and its functions. After jumping down this rabbit hole, I further started linking these institutions to the larger understanding of economics. The art world too is affected by it, as can be seen by what we know as the ‘boom’ periods, when art sales sky-rocketed, this too cannot be devoid of the collectors and their collections, for they fall at the heart of this economic marriage, but how big a role does economics have, is a question I am nurturing. The Soros Centre for  Contemporary Art network (SCCA) for example, played a huge role in establishing what contemporary art was in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This was a philanthropic model 

which was implemented throughout the 1990s’ in eighteen post-socialist countries. Its activities created a series of changes that led to a managerial revolution in the arts. The main outcome of this revolution was the eclipse of the patron, and the rise of philanthropic initiatives. 

This can be seen as one of the many ways institutions that ‘facilitate’ art, alter the artistic behaviours and the language of contemporary art on a whole. One of the manifestations that represents the poignancy of how the period of ‘transition’ for these nation-states affected art can be seen with the help of Documenta as an example. The history and the name of  Documenta – a or perhaps one of the most influential spaces for contemporary art. Its history is connected to the ‘transition’ period as well as the institutionalisation that took place in the aftermath of World War II, in West Germany. Its early artistic objectives were intricately related to documenting the advance of democracy and the spread of the ‘free market’  ideology, it in a way mapped West Germany’s break with its authoritarian past. 7 

In light of how the change of political and economic ideologies changed the nature of these institutions, it is important to note the interaction they have with the world at large. While the role of ‘contemporary art’ has been influenced by larger forces, it has shaped these forces in turn. Contemporary Art and its supporting structures thus become important tools in cultural diplomacy. They have the ability to represent through the means of an artwork or an artist’s concern, alternatives to a larger question. 

These linkages thus hold merit in my eyes, as an artist and academic. In light of the connections one makes, it gives Barthes’ analogy of the ‘Death of the Author’ a new meaning. It questions the free will and the choices that exist behind these manifestations and decisions, is the artist being created, or is the artist creating out of free will? The very conception of contemporary art was political, and its growth ever since has only intensified its ties to the forces of economics and the politics of the globe. It would not be premature to recognise art as something that goes beyond the idea of a vocation, but as powerful collateral to negotiate and mediate the world at large. 

Vishnupriya Rajgarhia is a Levett Scholar from the University of Oxford, and represented the British Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. She is currently the youngest Assistant Professor at Anant National University, previously having taught at Ashoka University as Visiting Faculty.

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Issue 8

Why making money isn’t the Recipe for Social Change: A response to Manu Joseph’s suggestion for youngsters

On the 14th of February, 2021, environmental activist Disha Ravi was arrested on charges of sedition for sharing a ‘toolkit’ and supporting farmers’ protests online. She was charged for being part of a ‘global conspiracy’ because she was associated with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future. Following her arrest, Manu Joseph, a recognised journalist, and columnist for live mint magazine wrote an opinion piece, suggesting a plan of action for the ‘sound minded’ Indian youth, to truly bring about social change. Joseph not only critiqued various young Indians’ choices to be activists but also suggested they would serve the country better if they found jobs, started on a ‘doomed business’ and aided the economy instead of “fighting battles they do not understand”. 

While the opening lines of his piece truly baffle me as part of the generation he is addressing, I cannot overlook how these ideas resonate with the larger Indian public his age. The assumption that the only correct way to bring change in society is by becoming a part of the system which the youth believes needs to change is one of the primary differences between Manu Joseph’s generation and ours. Equating young protestors and activists to misguided and unemployed individuals with nothing better to do is an easy narrative most of us have heard over dining table conversations with our parents. However, the question we all must ask is why the ‘privileged youth’ of ‘sound mind’ choose to protest if the avenues for economic and political upheaval were an easy alternative. Manu Joseph, in his piece, writes that contemporary activism in India is influenced by the West, if not an extension of it and fails because it does not have the same humanitarian networks backing it as the United States does. But what this ‘practical’ advice and observation seems to ignore is that young activists in India choose to speak up despite the system and its flaws, and not because they are unaware of the lack of protection from non-state organisations and the consequences of their actions but to get rid of the pattern itself. 

Joseph argues that the most effective way for the youth to ‘serve their nation’ and ‘take care of the unlucky ones’ is through encashing on the for-profit world, rather than ‘choosing the easy option of festive grandstanding and do-gooding, which is often harmful, at best useless or an inefficient way to make the world a better place.’ When Joseph states that choosing activism is the ‘easy option,’ he contradicts himself and his point about state scrutiny for activists and the lack of a humanitarian organisational mechanism for the protection of these individuals. If protests and sharing a ‘toolkit’ was in fact ‘inefficient and useless’, and ‘an easy option of festive grandstanding’, a 22-year-old, unemployed youth would not have been scrutinised and subjected to charges of sedition by the government, and young protestors would not need a mechanism to protect themselves from state action. 

Another argument that Joseph makes, which is also commonly used against the youth in this country is that they do not understand their battles and are influenced by Western ideas and aspirations which often only work in the West. A response from the ‘young’ to these arguments would be to ask questions about their assumed naivety, address how the State, since its inception has borrowed several ideas from the West and continues to do so. Western ideas and aspirations are not merely being used by the youth today, but have been part of discourse across the country since its inception. Further, protest and activism are not merely borrowed Western concepts but have been part of the country’s political culture throughout history, be it Gandhi’s call to protest for Independence, or the ‘Jungle Bachao Andolan’ by tribals in Singhbhum. Joseph says that, “The young who hope to be “good trouble” can be ruined by the state, and their handlers, who use them to achieve political and ideological ends, cannot always save them”. The understanding that the young will be, and can be ruined by the state, and their ‘handlers’ will not be able to save them is premised on the belief that these activists have ‘handlers’ and are being influenced by people who will not be able to support them in the long run, completely negating the youth’s ability to think, reason, form opinions and then act.

The Court granted bail to Disha Ravi on the account of the contents of the toolkit being ‘innocuous’ and denied any account of her being part of a larger conspiracy to harm either the state or any particular community. However, the action taken by the government, and the article written by Joseph represent sentiments against the young and their actions, often misunderstood, simply because they are forms of direct dissent and expressions of freedom instead of the path that the youth has always been expected to follow. Maybe, the problem is not that activists are misinformed, unaware, gloomy individuals seeking a moral advantage as saviours for the ‘unlucky’ but that, the way they choose to bring about change is different, more spontaneous than the generations before them. Maybe, all of us truly believe that, ‘We have only one job: if we are lucky, we must take care of the unlucky; everything else is merely an argument about the best way’, as Manu Joseph puts it, and our generation’s way is different from his, possibly because of avenues like social media that connects us globally. Maybe we are not after the drug of ‘do-gooding’ alone but are only seeking different means to make the world a better place. 

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University, who is often found sketching or reading for leisure when not immersing herself in mandatory class assignments. 

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Issue 8

Can Banksy Bring Dadaism Back To Life?

The explosion of different street art movements comes from the combined effort of various artists who practise hybrid forms of graffiti to make a mark by any means possible. But if there is one player who grabs the spotlight beyond the art world, it’s Banksy. 

A professional prankster, Banksy is a street graffiti artist and a global sensation. Banksy’s flair for street art combined with the proclivity for mystery, drama and danger ensures that every new Banksy piece ends up making headlines. Banksy’s work, ranging from Kissing Coppers and Unwelcome Intervention to Hammer Boy and Girl with a Balloon, embraces social commentary through provocative visual depictions. But the true essence, the philosophy behind his art is often related to the 20th-century art movement, dadaism. 

Dadaism or the Dada art movement began in Zurich, Switzerland in the mid-1910s. In pre-war Europe, the movement emerged as a form of protest art with congregations of artists, intellectuals and writers expressing different forms of subversion in the wake of World War I. The European avant-garde movement aimed to ridicule modern life, apply absurdity to art and question the values held by the bourgeois. 

The movement was based on some key ideas. Elaborately explained by thoughtco., three ideas were basic to the Dada movement—spontaneity, negation, and absurdity—and those three ideas were expressed in a vast array of creative chaos.

Spontaneity was an appeal to individuality and a violent cry against the system. Even the best art is an imitation; even the best artists are dependent on others, they said. Romanian poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) wrote that literature is never beautiful because beauty is dead; it should be a private affair between the writer and himself. Only when art is spontaneous can it be worthwhile, and then only to the artist.

To a Dadaist, negation meant sweeping and cleaning away the art establishment by spreading demoralization. Morality, they said, has given us charity and pity; morality is an injection of chocolate into the veins of all. Good is no better than bad; a cigarette butt and an umbrella are as exalted as God. Everything has illusory importance; man is nothing, everything is of equal unimportance; everything is irrelevant, nothing is relevant. 

And in the end, everything is absurd. Everything is paradoxical; everything opposes harmony.

A pioneer of the Dada movement, Marcel Duchamp, incorporated these ideas of the movement to critique establishments that decided what art ought to be and how it ought to be created. In doing so, he combined spontaneity, negation and absurdity and came up with what some consider the first piece of conceptual art ever created, Fountain

Fountain is a standard white urinal that was signed and dated ‘R. Mutt 1917’ in black. It is a part of Duchamp’s series of work called readymades where ordinary objects would be designated as works of art. Fountain is one of Duchamp’s most famous works and a classic example of dada. By submitting an object like a urinal that is bought in the plumber’s shop as an entry for an art exhibition, he intended to test what people thought of as art. He wanted to change the idea of what was conventionally considered art and assert that the artistic expression was of greater significance than the object of art created. Thus, the dada movement was one of the first art movements that challenged the foundations of art. 

Although the movement did not represent particular styles of art, it favoured collaboration, spontaneity and chance in the process of creation. As traditional dadaists intended to reject traditional forms of artistic expression like painting and sculpting, they worked on ready-made objects, created photomontage and made use of non-conventional mediums. 

While the lifespan of the dada movement was known to be short-lived, Banksy’s creations and artistic stunts have brought this movement back to life. In one particular stunt, Banksy made use of an invention of the dada movement, auto-destructive art. The dada notion behind auto-destructive art comes from the idea that it aims to either redefine art or ridicule it.

In a 2018 Sotheby’s art auction in London, Banksy’s famous image Girl with a Balloon, which depicts the image of a girl reaching out for a red, heart-shaped balloon, was sold for $1.4 million. A few moments later, the picture started shredding and sliding down in strips. Sotheby’s claimed that it had been “Banksy’d” through the use of a hidden shredder in the photo frame. The act is viewed as a dada act because it was an attempt to critique the pretentiousness of the art world and show how easy it was to transform what people considered precious art into strips of paper. 

From critiquing consumerism and capitalism to calling out social absurdities, the elusive graffiti artist is often critiqued for falling prey to the cultural system. The stunt of shredding the image Girl with a Balloon led to its increase in value in the art market. Thus, a stunt of provocation ended up being co-opted into an exhibition. While past movements have influenced the future trajectory of art, it is important to remember that cultural sensibilities and audience interaction with art are as important as the art itself. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

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Issue 8

Development: A Disaster in Disguise

On February 7, 2021, Uttarakhand was hit by yet another disaster. A glacial lake outburst in the Rishiganga river of the Nanda Devi National Park caused severe flash floods in the state. The Chamoli district was the worst affected region by the upsurge in the waters of the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers. In addition to the immense loss of life and property, the estimated damage caused to the ongoing hydro-projects is over Rs. 1500 crores. However, this calamity cannot be dismissed as a natural act, especially since it has its origins deeply engraved in human activity and intervention. 

The Himalayas are a highly fragile and sensitive ecosystem with frequently occurring earthquakes, avalanches and floods. Developmental projects like hydropower plants, bridges and roads in these areas disrupt the natural course of activities, thereby resulting in the large magnitude of natural disasters. In addition to this, the melting of the ice-caps, escalated by Climate Change and Global Warming has made the Himalayas extremely volatile. And the lack of proper disaster management in these places only make matters worse by making rescue operations all the more challenging. 

Despite Rishiganga’s history of being a highly volatile area (major lake burst in 1968, 1970 and floods in 2013), Uttarakhand government has continued to sanction construction of both large and small hydropower projects in the state. Currently, over 80 major hydropower projects are either operating or under construction in the state. Additionally, the state has 33 small hydro projects under operation with 14 projects in the implementation process. 

The government’s reluctance in prioritising the environment also came to surface in the Union Budget, 2021. The Environment Ministry was allocated a total of Rs. 2869.93 crores, However, the Tapovan-Vishnugad, the worst-hit hydro project during the recent floods had an investment of over Rs. 4000 crores. This reveals the bare minimum effort from the government in matters of environment renewal and conservation. 

During the disaster of 2013, we witnessed the heavy price the people and the community had to pay due to the encroachment by the government over ecologically fragile spaces. In 2014, the Chopra Committee discouraged the construction of dams in periglacial regions, taking into consideration the 2013 cloud burst. However, the government’s neglect of the objections raised by experts and the protests by the local people is what caused the disaster, a disaster that was disguised and marketed as development. 

Though hydropower projects are India’s attempt at tapping and utilising its renewable source of energy, the sensitivity and fragility of their locations cannot be ignored. The Uttarakhand disaster is a warning sign for all the development activities happening in the various delicate ecosystems of the country. Another such disaster waiting to happen is in the Little Andaman island of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. 

The government think tank, Niti Aayog proposed a plan to make Little Andaman in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a free-trade zone by constructing a mega financial tourist complex. The document called ‘Sustainable Development of Little Andaman Island – Vision Document’, wants to use the strategic location of the island to build an area that could compete with Singapore and Hongkong in the international market.

Furthermore, for this project, the document proposes the de-reservation of 32% of the Reserved Forests and de-notification of 31% of the Tribal Reserves of the total 95% of forests that cover this area. The aim is to create financial and residential districts along with leisure spaces to increase tourism. The project also proposes the creation of nature resorts and retreats.

Being one of the worst-hit areas during the 2004 Tsunami, Little Andaman is geographically vulnerable and prone to tsunamis, floods and earthquakes. The document proposed takes no account of this fragility of the area. Allowing construction and development here might result in a huge loss of life and property, along with extensive damage to the ecosystem.

Moreover, the Onge tribe that inhabits Little Andaman, is one major indigenous tribe that continues to live in isolation. The de-notification of 31% of the area of their residence would not only leave them displaced but also expose them to the outside world. Along with the Onge tribe, Little Andaman is also home to the endangered Leatherback Sea turtle. The de-reservation of forests would thus result in a loss of habitat for both animals and the people, thereby endangering their lives.

The proposition by Niti Aayog has raised several red flags amongst the conservationists and environmentalists regarding the loss that might take place. What’s alarming is that the document uses the terms sustainable and holistic development, but the proposed plan, as of yet, does not include any concrete steps or provisions for the rehabilitation of the local people and the wildlife. Thus, once again the government’s intention lies in increasing revenue through the exploitation of both the ecosystem and the indigenous population without providing appropriate provisions.

With an increasing pressure to strengthen the economy and expand international trade, the government policies have been taking a monetarily beneficial perspective while environmental renewal and conservation in India, has taken a backseat. 

India’s policies and projects in regards to both economics and the environment reveal a non-sustainable model of development that not only includes the displacement of animals and forests but also indigenous people, from their original habitat. Without any provision for their rehabilitation, the future appears bleak for these communities. It has thus become a pressing need for policies and laws to be both economically and environmentally sustainable for the country. With the increase in development projects in recent years, the future of India’s diverse ecosystems continues to remain uncertain and vulnerable.

Artwork by Muskaan Kanodia

Muskaan is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.

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Should India’s environment laws give the State so much power?

By Mansi Ranka

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in March 2020 and introduced changes to environmental governance for the country. These changes focus on making environmental clearance a swift and easy process while giving public consultation a backseat.

The draft has led to widespread public concern. About 100 environmental groups and individuals have opposed draft EIA 2020, calling it anti-environment and anti-people. One of the main causes for distress in the new draft is an exemption from prior environmental clearance to about 40 different industries like clay and sand extraction, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants. This ex post facto environmental clearance puts aside the primary goal of environmental protection to focus on achieving ease of business. In April, the Supreme Court held that such practice would be detrimental to the environment and that development must be approached through an “ecologically rational outlook”.

The other main cause of concern is the dilution of public consultation. The new draft exempts projects from the public hearing, an important opportunity for local communities to learn about the project and demand social obligations from them. This gives the corporations power to officially evade local development needs, which were anyway rarely met. environmentalists have accused the government of using EIA to expand their own political control by favouring corporations by legitimising environmentally degrading projects.

The new EIA draft incorporates systemic weakness into the law, making environmental violations the norm for corporations. The Ministry does not even pretend to see EIA as anything more than a bureaucratic instrument to make environmental clearance (EC) easier. 

Environmentalists have been arguing for the need to strengthen environmental law more than ever, as we are already experiencing climate change in the havoc wreaked by floods nationwide. The letter sent to the MOEFCC also proposes that we go back to the EIA 2006 notification. But in reality, that is not all that better either.

The MOEFCC is currently reviewing the public comments that they have received on the draft. Right now, it is important to think about what it is that will really help strengthen the environmental law in our country. How can the law ensure that big corporate profit does not override people’s welfare and environmental protection?

The state controls the distribution of state-owned natural resources. What is the safeguard against the exploitation of this power? What if the government allocates natural resources in a way that contradicts public welfare?

A similar question was brought up before the Supreme Court, in the 2011 public interest litigation after the 2G scam. The PIL raised questions about the State’s ownership of natural resources and their fair distribution. The judgement clarified the Supreme Court’s position on who distributes natural resources by saying, “Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and …  is empowered to distribute natural resources.” So, the State has the power to decide what happens to natural resources. But on what basis does the state decide? The judgement goes on to say, “while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to the public interest.”

Thus, as long as we trust the Indian State to “act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust”, we can be certain that it will distribute natural resources for the “common good”. The judgement concludes that the State should be the trustee or guardian of the people in general, and hence be responsible for natural assets.

Trusteeship is a Gandhian socio-economic idea, which holds that wealthy people should be the trustees and ensure the general welfare of the poor people. The theory relies on Gandhi’s conviction that capitalists aren’t beyond redemption and the wealthy could be persuaded to help the poor by becoming more egalitarian.

Now, the Indian State is supposed to act as this trustee and ensure common good. How does the state define this ‘common good’? Historically, the state has not acted in ways that can foster this kind of trust. The state has often wished to ascertain huge profits through corporations by allowing them to monopolise. This is obvious in the draft EIA 2020. The “common” good then becomes economic development by few big players. This is excluding the very people it was supposed to act as trustee for. And yet, the State can claim to handover natural resources for exploitation to a few players in the name of common good and public trust.

Furthermore, the draft EIA is pushing for people to be excluded from participating in this process, making the idea of common good paternalistic. The tilting of the scale to give the trustee unchecked power is possible under this idea of trusteeship. This is because in Gandhi’s theory it heavily relies on subjective goodness in the capitalist, the trustee, to act for general welfare. It is necessary to question this of trusteeship. Can the state function as a true trustee without mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency?

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

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