Russian artist Anna Leporskaya’s Three Figures (1932-1934) became one of the most iconic unintentional defacements of classic work in the history of the art world when it was vandalised by a security worker at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center at Yekaterinburg in Russia in February this year. The offender reportedly drew eyes on two faceless subjects of the painting using a ballpoint pen. An artistic masterpiece, with restoration estimated to cost over 250,000 roubles (£2,468; $3,345) and which was on loan to the multi-functional museum, cost an investigation and suspension of the guard—an incident which the administration believes is ‘some kind of a lapse in sanity’ and ‘a stupid mistake’. The painting was ‘vandalised’ as the guard was supposedly ‘bored’ on the first day of his job. However, the incident also underlines the question—is art created for everyone’s delight? Or can it be construed in different ways?
Experts feel art case studies are certainly a matter of subjectivity. Leporskaya’s Three Figures is one example in comparison to unintentional defacements of classic works like Cecilia Giménez’s infamous botched restoration of Ecco Homo (Behold the Man) in Spain. Giménez made the face of Jesus Christ— painted in 1930 by Elías García Martínez —look like a monkey. The eighty-three-year-old amateur artist had nothing but good intentions when she turned her attention towards a deteriorating fresco of Jesus Christ painted on the walls of the Sanctuary of Mercy church, in the small Spanish town of Borja, in early 2012.Spanish artist Pablo Picasso once said, “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting people have to understand… People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.”
Since the overall degree of art engagement in the masses in the country is evidently lower, the most significant impediments lie in the lack of suitable platforms of access, as well as in fewer points of entry that might target disparate audience groups, instead of a gap in understanding. Nupur Dalmia, curator-director of Vadodara-based Gallery Ark (soon to be The Ark Foundation), says, “I find a majority of people that are not well used to engaging with visual art, expect to potentially do so in formats limited to commercial—when purchasing artworks, and academic, for instance in a museum,” she says, quoting art historian and professor at JNU, Naman Ahuja: “Art enters every aspect of our lives such that it is no longer separate, or an effort. Creative expression is a part of our being, and its absence would be the most unnatural thing of all.” Owing to its subjective nature, how one viewer consumes, interprets, and appreciates a piece of work might be different to another. “It’s the most individualist form of expression ever known which has changed collectively through different periods and movements. I appreciate different artists and their works due to the context in which they were created, the politics behind it and what they represent. The rise of technology has made access to art more democratic,” says Goa-based multidisciplinary artist Osheen Siva.
Siva expresses her vision through murals in cities, digital art, canvas paintings, and comic strips. She specialises in expressionism and incorporates visuals of dreamscapes, monsters, mutants, and bright colours, all deeply rooted in her feminine and queer identity and Dalit Tamil heritage. Well, if art is understood by the masses, it is just perhaps not the way in which it is consumed in gallery spaces or in the form of visits and specific times allocated to appreciate it. “For decades now, through art residencies and funded projects, it has taken the form of site-specific, research-led works permeating villages, satellite towns, deserts, and seashores. You can’t ignore it; you can’t not see it as it resides in public spaces, both rural and urban. Everyone understands it but this understanding takes many forms,” says Delhi-based Monica Jain, curator-director of the Art Centrix Space. So, can it be about anything good? “For art to have a hold on our psyche, it must challenge our notions, elicit a response, good, bad, shocking, soothing—anything. For this reason, it can have many interpretations as the minds of the artist and viewers often, if not always, coalesce,” says Jain.
Accepting the change this is not the first time a painting has been vandalised in Russia. In 2019, a man was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after he vandalised a 19th-century painting of Ivan the Terrible at the state-run Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The same work was also attacked in 1913 by a mentally-ill man who slashed it with a knife three times. However, living in times when both pencil and pixel are treasured in today’s day and age, the future lies in accepting art collectively—both from a technology as well as aesthetics point of view. “Art is always a combination of serious inquiry and play… the studio is at once a laboratory, a silent sanctuary, and a funhouse,” says Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat. In fact, some examples suggest how art has and will always continue to create new possibilities—complex and brilliant —making us think beyond the imagination.
For instance, in 2021, Beeple’s digital art piece Everydays: The First 5000 Days introduced the world to the changing art landscape. US-based Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple, created a drawing every day for the last 13-and-a-half years. From starting with a pen and paper to computer software such as Cinema 4D, the jpeg file collage was offered as a single lot sale and realised $69.3 million (roughly `503 crore).Globally, the most talked-about banana duct-taped to a wall by artist Maurizio Cattelan sold for $120,000-worth (`85,35,360) at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Florida. This artwork was a brilliant example of how the meaning and importance of objects change depending on the context. And sometimes it can be irreverent or whimsical. The work titled Comedian went viral on social media as most people failed to understand how a decaying fruit could earn the buck or if it is a ‘priceless’ art form meant for the elite who don’t know the price of a banana. But art for most people is open to interpretation, no particular meaning can ever be said to be true.
Dalmia says, “Art is necessarily open to interpretation as it is subjective, and will affect every individual differently, even so slightly. I think of viewing an artwork much like a unique and private conversation that is guided entirely by individual references from memory, personal aesthetic, even mood.” But does art always have a meaning? Since some of the unique pieces are open to interpretation, as in the case of the banana, a viewer may refer to a piece as a reflection in his own life or connect it in some way or the other. Yet, there are times to be interpreted in any form or material. For instance, in 2015, an art experience called the Tate Sensorium at Tate Britain used innovative technology in 20th-century paintings by Francis Bacon, David Bomberg, Richard Hamilton and John Latham.
A new approach to interpret these paintings made the viewer use technological components like the use of binaural and directional audio to produce 3D sounds, a perfume release system to heighten scent and pioneering touchless haptics technology to create the impression of tactile sensations. Visitors wore a biometric measurement device to record the emotional impact of the activity.In India, Museum of Art & Photography (MAP), Bengaluru which is set to open later this year has introduced a range of art centric activities in digital avatar, making art inclusive. MAP and Accenture Labs have collaborated to present India’s first conversational digital persona of the celebrated artist, M F Husain. One can ask Husain’s digital twin a question related to his early life, family or career to receive a simulated response from him. A 3D hologram at the museum’s physical space will also come soon.
“Art can mean different things to different people. In some ways it reflects who we were and who we hope to be—it is the landscape of our imagination. For decades now, art has been considered a luxury reserved for the elite or the knowledgeable. However, as a new-age inclusive institution, MAP aims to change this perception and to prove that art is meant to be enjoyed, valued and understood by all, irrespective of their age, social status, caste and religion. The idea is to make art accessible to everyone—inclusive enough for the common man and stimulating enough for the connoisseur,” says Kamini Sawhney, director, MAP, Bengaluru, whose vision is to take art to the heart of the community and build bridges between diverse art forms and audiences. ‘Art is Life: SoundFrames’ celebrates music and its power to bring people together. The three-day digital programme held in December 2021, presented over 25 events inspired by music including concerts, performances, panel discussions, film talks, educational workshops and exhibitions. MAP invited musicians and artists, across genres and geographical boundaries, to be part of this festival.