"Art is the highest form of hope,” German painter Gerhard Richter famously said.
Indeed, the place of culture and art, be it in paintings or textiles, in human endeavour and optimism is undeniable. For the same reasons, it also ends up sitting at the top end of the human-needs pyramid.
For the longest time, till now, arts and culture have played an insignificant role in the lives of Indians while we chased economic growth. This is reflected in the lack of importance we have given to museums, textiles and crafts in our nation’s schooling system.
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During the past 15 months, the arts and culture industry has been hit severely owing to the pandemic-induced lockdowns. This has forced the closure of several cultural institutions and cancellation or postponement of almost every in-person exhibition and event. Karigars and artisans have been particularly devastated by the social and economic losses.
The arts and culture industry globally has suffered a major blow. Some will bounce back. Many will succumb, and some will also make the fledgling arts extinct.
The pandemic has also restricted the consumers into family bubbles, forcing them to find newer ways of living life. Many have found solace in pursuing some art, while others have rediscovered their own self in various ways. While India is limping back to normalcy, there could be a renewed enthusiasm with which we see and relate to art and culture in India.
Would we see the birth of new or reinvented forms of arts and artists?
In our view, there is a symbiotic relationship between art creators and their consumers. Even if most of the artists approach the creations as an outlet to their own emotions, they would often have a muse in mind. The muse might be one individual, or it might be a whole section of society. Either way, both the creator and consumers nourish their emotions from each other.
The current pandemic and our survival will perhaps add to the complementarity further.
Societies have always emerged with renewed desire for pleasure and beauty in life whenever they have battled crises. This happens with fundamental behavioural changes and resurging inspiration among people coupled with rapid economic growth. The post-covid-19 world could similarly usher in a new era of art consumerism in India. An unprecedented rush towards rebuilding the new normal, with “home” as a new centre of creativity, is likely to see a surge in consumers of art who are conscious of what they want. These consumers will have a voice, and a preference for living good and doing good. They will prefer local over global. They will spend more than before. Today, this may be just a wishlist and not clearly visible but is plausible.
This consumer engagement can only feed and thrive on a strong and resurgent tide of art creators. So, even before we wonder how the post-covid-19 world will traverse the journey from functionality to aesthetics in larger numbers, we must ask where and in what form will the creative renaissance happen.
Art cannot stay purely elitist. We hope that the next generation of movements will emerge in the form of visible, popular art of everyday life, with the ability to engage with people in more intuitive and interactive ways. If we look back at history, we will find that some of the finest art movements globally took birth among the most difficult circumstances.
For example, Art Deco appeared just before but really boomed soon after the last memorable global crisis, the First World War that was also enveloped by the Spanish flu. Blues, hip-hop, samba, and graffiti art were all symbols of expression, hope and despair in their own unique way. Each one was born in finding a collective creative voice to establish a strong counterculture and identity.
With our own rich culture, traditions, and aspirations of the youth, we just have to seed the idea of creative expression, feeling of empowerment and trigger self belief in the right fertile clusters. Most often, such seeds can be found in small groups of youth who end up inspiring a larger practice until it becomes visible. Could we identify such “seeds” and nourish them until they turn into a forest? What may emerge is something fresh, surprising, and contemporary with an ability to catch the eye and imagination of people.
Consumers react to what they see and if they witness some aesthetic emerging around them and talking their language, something accessible to them, then they will wholeheartedly embrace it. And pay for it. Today, they have very few such outlets, cinema being the most visible one.
What is certain in any case is that the art creators will have to deliver value at the right time and place. One can only hope that the art creators will harness this opportunity. If they do, then perhaps art can be the ultimate hope that consumers can cling on to and evolve in the coming decades.
We are at the crossroads and need to ensure that art and culture become a central part of our lives rather than the secondary place it has so far occupied.
Amit Karna is a professor (strategy), at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Anchal Jain is the founding partner at Valmore Action Advisory. Together they co-chair the creative and cultural businesses programme at IIM-Ahmedabad.