It is difficult to decipher or talk about what goes on inside an artist’s mind. Perhaps one way of figuring it out or writing about it is to pay close attention to influences that shape it, or at least have the potential to do so. This piece covers some, by no means all, of these influences, aiming to start a dialogue with stakeholders in the art community.
- Art Academia
As Pakistan moves towards streamlining, or making concrete, art and design curriculums, educational bodies and university administrations have little to no concern about the development of young minds that inhabit these spaces. From their first day on campuses, students are systematically trained to become makers, not thinkers.
There are many different ways in which I am thinking about this. For one, disciplinary boundaries in local art schools are often difficult to transgress; a fine art student interested in typography, for example, will get little to no opportunity to learn this on campus. Training is so departmentally focused that students rely on modes of making in their own discipline, and cross-disciplinary collaborative possibilities and ways of thinking are denied. Making, compartmentalised making, is reflected in how most artists operate in Pakistan—shut away in their studios, not engaging with other practitioners. Ideas need clarity and persistent probing that dialogue with fellow practitioners can encourage. Lack of institutional support to have multidisciplinary dialogues is a reflection of how curriculums are structured. Another way of saying this would be to highlight that a lot of art that moves us happens in conversations. If young makers are not talking to each other about their practice, and/or are curious about their work, we know for certain that their mind is solely invested in making, not thinking.
Most studio training in local art schools divorce theoretical concerns that students are made privy to in their parallel Liberal Arts training—this, however, might not be true for all studio courses, but majority of them operate in this way. Studio faculty and departments implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, make their disdain for theoretical concerns and/or conceptual development known. If students fail to pay attention to or take seriously their Liberal Arts courses then, they cannot be blamed in entirety. This way of thinking about conceptual development aligns art education in Pakistan with superficial aesthetic inquiry, which is to also say that art education is solely invested in the visibility of skill. I am going to illustrate this with an example: what does it mean to sit on the floor for hours and make paintings now? What about painting? When you ask students what it means to paint, in 2018, they will not have an answer. They would not know why they sit on the floor and invest time in learning to replicate old forms. Yes, of course, one could make a case for learning via emulating, but that is not enough—not now, and perhaps has not been for a very long time. So what about painting then? Or sculpture? Or textile? Well, not much.
I also think that we need to move towards demystifying art education and production. There are no born artists, and I believe that all the ingredients that one needs to become one can be learned—there are parental influences among others that can shape one’s career, but that is not my concern for this piece. Some artists are more curious than others, more intelligent, and by extension their ideas and works are complicated and ask for a more sustained inquiry. However, critical inquiry and curiosity can be instilled. We cannot make practitioners intelligent, but we can train them to think critically about the world and their practice. Needless to mention, this does not happen frequently. If it does, it needs to be pushed further. (I went to college with limited skills and lack of conceptual clarity/depth. Whatever little I know about art and critical theory has been learned—partly because of interest, but mostly because of how I was taught.)
(What I have written above might be construed as generalised, but I am looking inside and am privy to the operations of art academia in Pakistan. I am a part of it, albeit a minuscule one.)
- Visibility of Skill
This phenomena snaps more clearly into focus when students are putting up their work for final thesis juries. Particular attention is paid to how finished and coherent their projects appear, often encouraging students to redact or edit all the groundwork. With conceptual groundwork edited out, the success of projects is solely measured in terms of skill and how those ideas are made visible. Always showing work that is finished, perfect looking, is detrimental, and makes students realise, from early on, that visibility of skill is all they need to be successful—in academia and later in the local art market—and makes inconsequential all their process. Such editing of process work strips their art of most, if not all, conceptual depth. If reliance on the visibility of skill is all they need to succeed, one can imagine that very little is going on in the artist’s mind. This kind of visibility also allows for and promotes easy consumption; and this way of making and training in the arts is not only the norm, it is encouraged and perpetuated.
- The Art Market
Training to appease the market starts early in art academia. With so much emphasis on the visibility of skill and finished pieces, students’ primary goal becomes selling—and thinking about their practice secondary. When thesis exhibitions open, local art schools are flooded with buyers. With the sole purpose of their visit being procurement, there is little to no engagement with young makers, further cementing their already developed ideas about art production.
Commercial viability by no means should be discounted. Young makers need financial support to make their practice sustainable. However, selling without proper engagement encourages makers to solely make. What then do we expect from the minds of makers who learn very early on in their careers that aesthetically pleasing pictures and objects sell faster, and that conceptual clarity and complexity is not a requirement for commercial success? We are inundated with painters who can paint, sculptors who can render three dimensional pieces close to reality, but there is actually very little depth to their work. They are so invested in making visible their skill that they often fail to figure out the critical operations of their own medium (and what it means to make art now).
Gallery representatives also come to thesis exhibitions, co-opting young practices into their roster and hampering their development in the long run. It is important for young artists to show their work, but it is a double-edged sword. There is no doubt that this kind of exposure can be good; galleries, however, want the same kind of paintings/photographs/sculptures that were already exhibited in students’ thesis projects. Fast-forward three/four years, promising young artists are making the same kind of work that they were making earlier. If everything around us is constantly changing, how can an artist’s work remain static over the years? Why is this happening? Because similar work sells, and sells a lot. Then why think at all? Why allow the inside of the mind to get complicated when making without thinking is commercially viable? As long as young artists are okay with their works matching furniture, we will have mindless, uncritical production—the local art market facilitates this way of making and thinking.
In conclusion, multiple stakeholders limit the scope of what an artist’s mind is capable of producing and thinking. In the world structured by “post”—one would often see pieces with titles like “After Caravaggio”, “After Peter Paul Rubens”, and “After Rashid Rana”—most contemporary artists here will not be able to tell us that appropriation is at the heart of post-modern practices, hinting at originality is essentially flawed, and that in a world structured by mechanical reproducibility authorship is shared and not singular. With disciplinary boundaries fading in academia, ours remain firmly engraved. Inculcating in artists a desire to produce without questioning and talking, and to make visible solely their skill.
Thinking, being in tune with one’s mind, mindful making, and thinking through making requires time. Time and slowness that academia and the market cannot afford, or does not want to afford. Those who can afford to be slow, have the means to be slow, which is not the case with most practitioners. It comes as no surprise then that the state of the artist’s mind is, in fact, the state of art academia and the market.
Omer Wasim is an artist and teaches in the Liberal Arts Programme at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.