Monday, November 23, 2015

MANASH BHATTACHARJEE - This Is the Way a Culture Dies

If those cave paintings where human beings drew representations of life marked the beginning of human culture, this mob and police intimidation of art is surely the death of it

Art is our integral and spontaneous response to the contradictions of life. This is what brings heterogeneity into our world. On Saturday, two artists at the Jaipur Art Summit at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Anish Ahluwalia and Chitan Upadhyay, faced police questioning, for a work of installation art, ‘The Bovine Divine’ by Siddhartha Karawal. The installation was of a cow made of styrofoam, suspended by a balloon, to raise awareness about “how cows consume plastic and die due to its consumption”. But the police acted at the behest of people complaining about cows being displayed “inappropriately”. The artists, their protests coming to no avail, were forced to bring down the cow, which was then forcibly taken away by the police, duly garlanded and worshipped by the protestors.

The flying cow, used as an artistic symbol for spreading awareness of an environmental problem concerning the health of the cow itself, belies the angry sentiments of the protestors. The religious minded cow protectors had got it wrong. To see the whole event, however, as a proof of the difference between rational versus irrational mindsets would be missing the deeper issue. It won’t be enough to read the flying cow as a symbol of ‘secular art’, trying to draw attention to a problem that is ‘scientific’, pertaining to the cow’s health.

Even if the artists have stated their “message” was raising awareness, art is not simply its message, or to put it another way, art cannot be reduced to the singularity of what it signifies. An object of art is many things at once, and any good art will revel in the multiplicity of interpretations. The title of the installation does not appear to be necessarily ridiculing of the idea of the bovine as divine, though one can read a satirical provocation intended in the phrase. In the context of the installation’s attempt to point people’s attention to a material problem the cow is ailing from, the title plays at irony.

The relationship (and difference) between art and religion lies at this interface where the former can satirise the latter. If art cannot take place, if artists cannot play with symbols and meanings that some may consider ‘religious’, and if such gestures and events are open to public harassment and intimidation by law, then the government should declare that we are living under the diktats of a religious state...