‘It’s become fashionable in the West to take a degree in fine arts’

‘It’s become fashionable in the West to take a degree in fine arts’

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 21 May, 2016
Dr Grant Pooke.
Dr Grant Pooke, who teaches art history at the University of Kent and has written numerous books on the subject, speaks with Bhumika Popli about the role of art in our fast globalising world.

Dr Grant Pooke is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. He is also the co-author, with Aditi Anand, of Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand (Harper Collins, Delhi 2016), and has written extensively on Indian and Western art.

Q: You have co-authored several books on art. How difficult or easy is it to collaborate with someone else, especially when you’re writing about art and art history?

A. As a general principle, I would say that collaboration results in better academic outcomes rather than those arising from just a single endeavour, although naturally it’s also a question of context and objective. Aside from plurality of voice, I think co-authorship tends to encourage a certain reflexive sharing of perspectives on the research or pedagogic process more broadly, but all collaborations are different.

I have published some monographs on a sole author basis. My first biographical study, Francis Klingender 1907-1955: A Marxist Art Historian Out of Time (2008) and Contemporary British Art: An Introduction(2011) were research-based explorations in which the aim was to test and apply specific archival, thematic and methodological approaches. It was useful here to have the space and some discretion to work in a particular way. On the other hand, the co-edited critical anthology, Fifty Key Texts in Art History (2012) involved almost thirty gallerists, critics, art historians and aestheticians across three continents, a range determined by the subject matter. Narratives for Indian Modernity: The Aesthetic of Brij Mohan Anand, which came out last week here in Delhi, was the culmination of a four-year collaboration with the co-author and biographer, Aditi Anand and the curator and art historian, Dr Alka Pande.

But generally, yes, I feel that academic collaboration extends the range and depth of professional engagement. Inevitably, in any project there will be differences of perspective, pressures and constraints of a kind, but I think such can be highly constructive.

Q: What modifications or changes would you like to see in school curricula in India with respect to art history?

A. Having not lectured within a university or college context here, it’s difficult for me to offer an informed response to that question. Naturally, India has its own contemporary and more vernacular approaches both to the subject and its teaching, but from observation and discussion with colleagues here, I think there are perhaps differences in methodological emphasis for a range of cultural and historic reasons. For example, although there is a formalist art writing tradition within the UK and within Europe, it parallels other critical and methodological approaches which are employed to teach art histories. My sense is that a formalist and biographically-inflected art history and arts writing tradition is part of a more durable tradition here.

Q: Who are the artists you admire the most?

A. There are a range of artists whose practice I respect. Recently I have been re-visiting work by the British landscape artist Nigel Cooke. He has explored aspects of the sublime and the entropic within the genre which are both theoretically inflected but also relevant to a range of contemporary social and environmental concerns. The work of Jake and Dinos Chapman (often referred to as the Chapman brothers) is satirical, subversive and conceptually rich. Part of the declared intention behind their work is to encourage a certain self-suspicion about the various claims made for human rationality since the Enlightenment. Given what is happening in parts of the world right now, the concern is timely.

“It seems to me that contemporary Indian art, although subject to the same globalising pressures as elsewhere, has a distinct trajectory and aesthetic. As Namita Gokhale has recently noted, Indian culture exists as part of an ‘intuitive’ process of continuous and ongoing translation, I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor.”

Q. How long does it take for a work of art to withstand the test of time in your opinion?

A. All works of art whether within an occidental or Indian context are situated within canons, a legitimating framework and set of culturally attributed values. The imposition and legacy of a Western canon inflected with colonial values has been largely divisive, and not just in India. But I’m not convinced that any work of art is truly transhistorical and in some sense “beyond” history. Sure, there are certain works of art which are frequently reproduced and have a certain iconicity which Walter Benjamin famously referred to as their “aura” but all forms of visual art ultimately move in and out of cultural and canonical fashion.

Q: To what extent do you feel writing about art differs from other forms or genres of writing?

A. All art historians and journalists have their own particular style and way of approaching the craft. The Modernist art critic and tastemaker, Clement Greenberg, once likened the iterative process of writing to “paring it down like a physicist” which I think does capture something of the discipline and difficulty of fashioning readable and meaningful arts criticism and prose. But some academic art history writing can appear deliberately opaque in its use of subject-specific terminology even if such is chosen as a kind of professional shorthand.

Q:  Have you noticed any significant changes in the contemporary arts scene in recent years?

A. It’s an expansive question and requires more space that we have here. But I think in the last few decades contemporary art has become a globalised and increasingly co-opted discourse. I think we can see this in the development of biennales and in a range of neoliberal market trends. Most visual artists continue to face real pressures just to sustain livelihoods but are equally subject to its dynamic.

Q. Where do you think Indian art stands today, if we compare it with dominant aesthetic trends elsewhere?

A. I have seen much visually and conceptually engaging art practice in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Cochin over the past five years. For example, the intergenerational Master Strokes exhibition recently on at the India Habitat Centre, curated by Kishore Labar, was diverse and rich both in coverage and content. It seems to me that contemporary Indian art, although subject to the same globalising pressures as elsewhere, has a distinct trajectory and aesthetic. As Namita Gokhale has recently noted, albeit in a literary context, Indian culture exists as part of an “intuitive” process of continuous and ongoing translation, I can’t think of a more appropriate metaphor which captures the increasingly globally-networked and reflexive art practice here.

Q.  Do you feel that a formal fine art education is essential for an artist’s growth?

A. It’s become fashionable in the West and in Europe to take a degree in fine arts as a preparation for professional practice irrespective of genre or medium. It also reflects a certain symbiosis between contemporary art practice and theory which was the hallmark of the Young British Artists for instance. I think the BFA/MFA ethos has been imported or exported from America to some extent. But no, if someone has talent, ability and application they can make it without formal training, although it can of course really help especially in terms of peer support and mentoring.

Q: What would be your one advice to students aspiring to take up art history in

A. Realise your vocation and follow your passion.


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