‘Crocodile Tears’ by A.S. Byatt set me on this trail. Coming from an Indian middle class family with zero interest or affiliations with the art world, entering an art gallery for the first time when I was all of 20 came as a bit of a ‘wow’ moment for me. Pristine white walls, focus lights, splashes of colors and everyone looking dazed.
That was way back in 2001 at the Art Gallery in Nehru Planetarium in Mumbai’s Worli area. Since then, I must have trawled numerous art galleries, fine art museums and events where art is the focus. Some places, I cried out in wonder and astonishment at the brilliance on display! At other times, I have wrinkled my nose and curved my lips in a sneer – jeez, why would anyone PAY for this! There have been the in-between times when I have taken a serious liking to someone’s works after dismissing it off at first glance, and the few “rare” times when I threw a gauntlet at a gallery hand to ‘hand me a brush, and I will show you a masterpiece’. Err, the masterpiece was never painted nor “hung”.
More than the art on the walls, it was the goings-on inside the gallery that elicited – still do – reactions from me. The oh-so-la-di-da society ladies; the khadi-trotting, kolhapuri chappal-strapping, kohl-eyed, hair-a-wild-coif type impresarios (socialites); the staunch-faced, cigar-smell reeking ‘suits’ and his dolled up ‘mrs’ come to talk art mart & business; the critic with his permanently squinted eyes; the ‘art is an uplighting, sprititual experience’ puritan, and the punk youngsters who want to a break in this world. Of course these are stereotyped, all characters you would recognize though. Each of them have mastered the art of “viewing art“.
Yes, you heard that right. Viewing art is an Art in itself. “Viewing” Art, mind it, not staring, gazing, peering, stealing backward glances again and again of the paintings. Viewing is seeing something through a medium, a lens perhaps, or a glass, it’s not direct. When we look at a painting, we don’t just see it, but we study it, we challenge it. We engage with it until we have heard what the canvas has to say or it has done telling us its story.
Which brings me all the way back to the first line of this post: A.S. Byatt’s “Crocodile Tears”. How does one judge when to stop staring at an art work and move on to the next? How indeed! Does it take 15 seconds? A minute to be polite? A whole 3-and-a-half minute to appear a serious connoisseur? A leg-aching 10-and-a-3/4 minutes to fool the audience that you have transcended the canvas in front of you to take residence in another realm?