Monkey’s Right to Paint
And the Post-Duchamp Crisis
By Bedri Baykam
Illustrated. 319 pp. Literatür. 1994
In June of 1987, Baykam penned his definition of the meaning of “Art”, and perhaps using it as a forward to his book, Monkey’s Right to Paint and the Post Duchamp Crisis, would be a fair warning of what to expect from the text going ahead. By his classification, art is “…to clean your hands on your pants. To be a naughty boy. To scare the establishment. To be liked by the bourgeoisie 51 years later…To consider ‘being sworn to’ as ‘pride’ and to be attacked as ‘the proof of power’. To think that you are the best while you feel insufficient. To dare”.
It is the last which keeps coming through in the book; the author’s daring in the face of the western establishment of the art world. A self-proclaimed “cultural guerilla”, Bedri the Turk speaks passionately on the internalization of contemporary art and the domination of what he considers the “MUCOS Syndrome”, which by his own definition is “Multi-culturalism’s ‘Own Source’ Syndrome”.
Divided into two parts, and rich with images spanning multiple artworks by both known and predominantly “unknown” artists, the primary source material for the chapters of the book are written over different time periods in the authors life. The first half titled Fighting Prejudice with Text: Monkeys’ Right to Paint is almost autobiographical, giving us glimpses into his days as a young and high-spirited Turkish artist living in America and Europe, when he fought the good fight against racial and cultural prejudices by the denizens of the art world. This also leads it to be read by-in-large as a critical discourse on the control asserted by the international (read western) museum directors, critics and curators on what constituted as acceptable contemporary art and how they have assumed the right to define who constitutes as an artist worthy of recognition and international standing. Here he speaks openly and with disdain of the blatant biases displayed by these formative players in disregarding the abilities of Eastern and Southern artists to participate in the post-modernist dialogue, and has highlighted numerous instances where non-western artists were kept encased in the niche of ethnicity and culture, as though they were unable to have evolved their artistic styles beyond African masks and calligraphy. This part of the book, as aptly titled, relied profoundly on borrowed texts and articles, some of his own and most belonging to colleagues, critics and friends he made during his years abroad.
One such person, I was pleasantly surprised to come across, is Rasheed Araeen, a British artist of Pakistani descent whose writings Baykam happened upon while visiting the La Hune Library in Paris. According to him, Araeen, whom he viewed as an ally, “has been fighting against the same racial prejudices of the Western art establishment” via his art review Third Text: Third world perspectives on contemporary art and culture. Through him, Baykam addresses the conundrum of institutional racism which Araeen has stated that when raised as a question, “…the response from the art establishment always comes in the form of an evasion or some new manoeuvre to dislodge the whole question altogether. It’s still a taboo to talk about or discuss this question within the art world…” A most definitive kindred spirit.
The second part of the book, The Post-Duchamp Crisis: Fighting Text with Text, is almost as an ode to Duchamp: the man, the artist, the un-intended revolutionary. Describing him as man whose “whole attitude was one of a calm smiling aristocrat who didn’t care much for money, because he had established a life that didn’t need much of it”, Baykam speaks of him with utmost respect and reverence stating him as “having a greater impact on the contemporary art scene than Picasso”. He talks of the irony of the fact that where Duchamp’s greatest success lay in omitting his own trace from his artwork, he had unintentionally spawned generations of artists who produced works based on his influence. Here, Baykam takes us on a brief journey through the different eras of art when Dadism influenced, Cubism evolved, Post-modernism came to the fore, Pop prevailed, Minimalism enthralled and Neo-Expressionism crashed down as a wave. We see the rise and influence of capitalism in the sphere of conceptual art where anything goes and everything sells for a price as long as there is a market for it. Duchamp, in Baykam’s words is “the first really pure Western contemporary” whose influence has helped create “Pop-side” likes of Koons, Warhol and Steinbach, and the “conceptual side of Kosuth, Flavin, de Maria etc. For those who don’t agree, well…they “will have to write their own book.”
Baykam’s words may come across to most as harsh and almost bitter. A diatribe if you will. But underlying the oft-times seemingly rambling turn of phrase, which some may mistake for an unstructured prose, is actual food for thought.
I will confess there were moments during my own reading that I found myself shaking my head, wondering at the audacity of the author to be so vocal of his contempt for the narrative of the contemporary artistic community of that time. Then I would come upon something which would give me pause, such as extracts from the “manifesto” he wrote in 1984 against the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition titled The Human Condition, which featured artists from predominantly American and European countries and of Caucasian ethnicities. The lack of artistic presence from places in the East and South were glaringly obvious, to the point that Baykam said, “I wish that a show entitled The Human Condition also referred to some humans other than those that belonged to the Human Condition in Zurich and Chicago…”, while also posing the question, “Is the Western world once again in the process of building modern art history as solely the history of occidental artists?” Where certain artists must fit into box X if you are from the West and box Y if you are non-Western.
While some may feel that the author’s words may not be applicable to today, as numerous artists of non-western origin are recipients of multiple accolades, we in Pakistan must begin to study and create an honest critique of whether or not our internationally acclaimed contemporary artists are truly seen at par with the rest of the “Big 5” countries artistic communities, or is it just because they unintentionally feed into the present day almost orientalist narrative of Western perceptions of the Eastern world. Are we forever doomed to be smeared with the blood and pixilation of generic ideas created to shock and awe?
Through writings that begin well into the 70s and critiques of works spanning over 100 years compiled in a book published in the 90s, Baykam confidently states that his definition of art will still be valid in 2029. And here we are, almost 10 years shy of his prediction, unable to argue with the veracity of his statement. Maybe it is time that we begin to dare as well.