Art is what it is… or is it?

For many approaching art today, a sense history is not integral to aesthetic appreciation. Through two art biennales, just after the end of the war and again earlier this year, new forms of art that embrace digital media as well as online spaces, the inflows of diaspora with their own aesthetics, an emergent, young upper middle class who seek through discreet or declamatory discretionary spending social differentiation by collecting and displaying art and a new generation of gallerists, inter alia, broadly define the context of Sri Lanka’s art post-war. Of course, underlying tensions over ethnic identity, economic and social rights, concerns over language and marginalised political aspirations will continue to inspire the more serious and for me, the higher art to rebel and reflect. This is not new. One speaks of major periods and movements in Sri Lankan art history. They have all been linked to either rebelling against or interrogating an existing socio-political status quo and an inherited, imposed aesthetic. The question for readers is whether it is important for those interested in art today to know this nuanced history, and to what degree?

To the art historian, gallerist or student of art, the obvious answer is that without locating contemporary work, or any artist within a historical frame, their art and lives can’t be appreciated, and in a commercial sense, valued. But art should also be about increasing appreciation of specific frames of reference, critical spaces, new representations and creative interpretations. The pathetic fallacy that only those who visit galleries are interested in and can appreciate art is a fiction strengthened by 27 years of war, when serious existential concerns trumped for many the pursuit and appreciation of more aesthetic pleasures. And even in representations of violence through art – say for instance in the 90s – the work of artists interrogating oppression and violence were displayed outside of the loci of the structural violence that inspired this art, and often, the artists were themselves hostage to and products of.  For example, spaces for the display of art in Colombo (defined and supported by the State, familial wealth or the aesthetics of a collective) were often an ill fit to truly capture the violence of ordinary life, depicted and questioned through art. One still had to go see art. Few did, at the time. More do today, but not enough.

If you’re still with me, the question today is not so much how much we know of Sri Lankan art’s progress to 1943 to 2012, and the major shifts therein, but how we approach, appreciate, and to the extent possible, support art and artists. Here the fictions of substantial wealth (to access and acquire), and significant knowledge (to assess and appreciate) still hinder what surely must be a renewed thrust amongst all artists and gallerists to open up Sri Lanka’s established art world to new audiences. Appreciation is aided by the likes of Google’s gigapixel captures of the world’s most coveted art to the presence of gallerists and their artists on online social networking platforms like Facebook. To recall what I recently wrote in my regular newspaper column, if the 1990s art movement was characterised by “a rural periphery” that “equated the personal with the political”, post-war art in Sri Lanka faces interesting choices of engagement, disclosure, interrogation and framing. Art needs to unsettle, question, pose the inconvenient juxtapositions and paint our compromises. Whether through pixel or canvas, bent steel or burnt clay, brushstroke or fenestration, art can help us critically appreciate what we are today. A book I picked up that was published recently purportedly looking at the power of Sri Lankan art from 1943 to 2012 completely missed the power of readers like you supporting art. And this goes beyond the mere appreciation in physical or virtual spaces. It goes to the nub of what’s needed to really create a new aesthetic, a symbiosis, never settled, easy or friction free, between artist and audience, consumer and creator. For too long, real and perceived barriers of wealth, class and knowledge have excluded a wider appreciation of art. This is changing. New gallerists are challenging old thinking. New artists who appeal to new curators and collectors are challenging an older generation. Older artists are discovering new forms of engagement. Exciting virtual and physical spaces that interface with the public are opening up and young artists who exploit the potential of these spaces are blossoming. New forms of production are giving rise to new ways of expression.

As with any other period, the resulting art ranges from the frightful to the sublime. The point remains, however, that you don’t need to know about the ’43 Group to appreciate art today. Start with what moves you, and then move on. Talk about art. Take your children to websites of galleries, local and international. Walk with them into an appreciation of art. Talk with them, and with others, about art. Support the artists who speak to you. Promote Sri Lankan art through tweet, blog post or photo.

Art is not always what you think it is, and is far more than a few make it out to be. To discover art is really, to discover oneself.


Published in Life Times, April 2012.


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