Speeches & Silences: What Our Cultural Institutions Speak For and Remain Silent Over Today
“It did initially feel like a little bit of a hollow statement to make, given the limited nature of our contracting with police, but as days went on and I had conversations with staff, artists, and other people in our community, I recognized it is a powerful statement to make. The goal (in) making such a statement public is to compel change.”
Speaking to ARTnews, the statement that Mary Ceruti, the director of Walker Art Center in the US, is talking about is the institution’s decision to stop contracting the Minneapolis Police Department for matters of security. Yet while Ceruti imagined the idea of disbanding the relationship “hollow” (even when one considers the seven long years of this partnership with the MPD), the same couldn’t be said for the rallying cry that’s bellowing deep in the heart of America today: that of defunding the police, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. If you’re curious about why Walker took the first step, jog your memory—Minneapolis is where George Floyd was killed.
Let’s come to another museum, the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas. In a statement, its director Julián Zugazagoitia mentioned: “The museum’s security approved this request from the KCMO Police Department on Friday, and this was not unusual, given the spirit of our long history of cooperation.”
This approval was about the Kansas Police Department’s patrol units being given permission to utilize the museum premises for staging purposes if needed to physically brace against BLM protesters. No sooner was this information made public that outrage poured from all over about the museum and the director’s complicity in supporting racist structures of oppression. It took a few days for the units to vacate the lot, but the message had come across clear.
Police vehicles at Nelson-Atkins. Courtesy of Hyperallergic.
Amidst calls for defunding the police and divesting assets in support of Black and other marginalized communities, art workers have been quick to point out the collaboration galleries and museums have with the police today. We fail to realize today that standing beside the artworks for security is often a retired or off-duty cop. Breaking off such ties is a bold and powerful statement; museums are seen as bulwarks of culture, heritage, and what politics would call ‘soft power’ centers, and a reaction from them is bound to shift gears.
So what are we to make of the organizers of the India Art Fair, when this year they allowed the Delhi Police officials to cordon off and disrupt a part of the fair over complaints of some artworks being too political and against the recent CAA?
Art Remains Political
‘The Wall: Community Art Building Mural’ was imagined as a collage of paintings inspired by the women at Shaheen Bagh, while a performance of Faiz’s song Hum Dekhenge (We’ll See) would be played in the background. The concept was about highlighting the solidarity and celebration of women who had come out on the streets from the comfort of their homes. Yet before this could be properly executed, scores of Delhi Police officials arrived at the scene in what could only be felt like a raid and stopped the proceedings. The organizers were quick to shut down the performance.
A sign outside the IAF warning against any protestations. Courtesy of Artnet News.
It’s interesting to note that PTI recorded the statement of a senior police official saying: “We received a PCR call that some paintings depicting the CAA were being exhibited at the fair. A police team was sent to check it, but no such painting was exhibited.” Myna Mukherjee, the curator for the exhibition that was cordoned off, however, wasn’t angry at the presence of the police, but rather the organizers:
“India Art Fair organizers don’t seem to have a spine whatsoever. Police were more fair to us than the organizer folks. We deferred to the Fair’s rules. There was no sloganeering. We talked of unity, resurgence and solidarity, and women’s leadership.”
The hullabaloo was at the cost of a bystander’s islamophobic reaction towards the art carrying Urdu calligraphy and Faiz’s lyrics. But to disassociate the idea of contemporary political happenings from art in India would be a pitfall into which we can’t afford to jump. Indian art post-independence owes its growth to socio-political engagements that were happening in the country. The Progressive Artists Group embracing western modernism was a clear reaction to break away from the pre-colonial idea of a ‘court-artisan’ in a newly independent India; The Radical Group of the 1980s emerged a result of an anti-feudal, anti-caste sentiment that arose against the backdrop of the Emergency; and today’s prevalence of protest art is just another mark about how art is influenced by societal thought and changes. So it’s fair to ask, what does the establishment, which we know has a powerful stake in influencing such thoughts and changes, do about it?
Not much, I fear.
Old Buildings In Need Of New Ideas
When the Progressives of the ‘50s detached themselves wholly from pre-colonial conceptions of patronage, they embraced the salon/gallery system of the West. What became its unintended consequence, however, was that art, which earlier rested at the heart of village life and community, now became confined to four walls often out of reach of the common masses. In their zeal of distancing themselves from their past, they distanced themselves (and their new art) from the masses.
The presence of the Radicals was a challenge to this—their exhibitions were done in public squares and open markets for the layperson’s eyes, which couldn’t be bothered about dressing impeccably and walking through a gallery. But the Radicals’ existence majorly revolved around the Emergency, and its dismantling saw the gradual dismantling of the movement. To take down this literal image of high art from its plinth now required the action of government institutions—museums and galleries that weren’t going anywhere, that were made for everybody.
If we remove the question of funding and management, I would not hesitate to compare the size and importance of the Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art or National Museum with the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York. They’re all spaces of phenomenal heritage and value, and they’re all deeply seared in the public mind as the seat of our histories and culture. If there’s an exhibition at the NGMA today, it’s automatically assumed to be of importance and value that would enrich all of us. If I’m to give in to my boyhood’s fervent want of seeing the Koh-i-Noor diamond back on Indian soil, I know it would be in a vault in the National Museum or the Rashtrapati Bhawan Museum.
When the Guerrilla Girls staged their protests about the misrepresentation of female artists vis-à-vis male artists, they were held in these very spaces because they knew their value; and because museums held such power over the public’s mind, the authorities knew they had to change what they were doing for fear of a lashing that would tarnish their reputation.
Courtesy of Tate.
In India, however, things aren’t particularly taking that course. National museums and galleries today are slowly becoming what they’re meant to house: relics of the past. Their non-participatory role in social changes today is only ensuring their removal from the public mind, which we can’t afford to imagine. We'd need to begin by grasping transparency around issues like wage disparity, discriminatory patterns of hierarchy, and language barriers to initiate change. These spaces are bastions of history and culture, and with every revising morsel of history that we’re consuming, they need to reexamine their exhibits, recontextualize their objects, and seek to highlight what history has hidden in our annals of independence.
Indian cultural institutions need to proactively concern themselves with providing the marginalized a platform of accessibility. True, today we have a richer variety of art and artists that are engaging with contemporaneous times and while it must be acknowledged that private spaces have become much more accessible, it’s still not enough—ask yourself, would you prefer a field trip to a biennale which you can’t even pronounce or an exhibition at the National Museum? In fact, the greater art ecosystem is also largely an enterprise in a capitalist world, and no space would wish to endanger its flow of money by being too political. And at a time when I see more art coming up on walls and roads, I can only imagine what that money is ultimately enriching us with.
A part of the problem rests with the absence of a space that caters to contemporary art on a national scale (the ‘modern’ art period ended by about the early 1990s) and a part rests with the decisions of its management—private or government alike. But change is being seen: ICOM, the international body for museums, has found itself in the middle of a bitter debate regarding the age-old idea of “what is a museum?”—an idea that today feels inadequate and discriminatory to several hundreds of spaces that have come up. The existing definitions were established by the first world; now, the third world is shaking things up.
Times are changing, and museums and galleries can’t afford to stay neutral anymore, but if I could be allowed to be cheeky here, kya hum dekh paayenge?
By Shankar Tripathi
Indulging his socially-distanced time in writing about the arts, Shankar's interests lie in art, history, and coffee, while reading art history and sipping on coffee. A regular contributor to spaces like Art Fervour, he recently completed his undergraduate studies in History. He is the former President of The Symposium Society.