Caution, quality reigned in the art market (2012 in Retrospect)

New Delhi: The recovering art market following the meltdown of the last few years brought along with it a degree of caution, heightened awareness about quality, more bargaining to get value for money and bigger canvases and ambition in the world of Indian contemporary and modern art in 2012.

India also saw the inauguraion of its first art biennale at Kochi Dec 12, drawing on a cast of 88 artists from 34 countries and 1,500 performers.

Business picked up this year powered by the new segments of young buyers who looked for affordable art to begin new collections, brisk e-commerce, a diversified and bouyant auction market and new art fairs like the United Art Fair pushing education and hand-holding to new levels for first-time buyers.

Galleries with deeper pockets and a new rush of private archives - owned by collectors and entreprenuers - have given fresh life to exhibitions with multi-media displays that are more interactive, long-haul and socially relevant. Art, in some ways, freed itself from the confines of institutionalised spaces to move to democratic and public venues to trigger fresh dialogues and engagement between people, issues, aesthetics and societies at large.

Since the beginning of this year art was used as a frequent tool for soft diplomacy with the government hosting South Asian art camps and galleries choreographing their group showcases with Asian, western and Indian artists to facilitate cultural exchanges. The globalisation of Indian art changed track in 2012, with art falling back on traditional roots to compete with western ethos in international arenas - at biennales and art fairs across Asia, Europe and the US.

Till a few years ago, an emerging group of artists was aping the West to develop a univeral global language in art with new media expressions - to address issues common to the world, art analysts said.

Artist Paresh Maity, who was honoured with the Dayawati Mody Award for 2012 for contribution to art and culture, said: "Indian artists could have a different language, but the content had to be from our culture."

Two major exhibitions mirrored the nuanced history of Indian art. "Indian Highways" was a travelling exhibition of contemporary Indian art in China reflecting new social realities within the mosaic of Indian sensibilities, while "The Last Harvest: Sesquicentennial Exhibition of Paintings by Tagore," was a collection of nearly 100 paintings that came to the country in November.

A series of South Asian and ASEAN artists` camps and exhbitions backed by the government opened up new engagements in the regional front to look at shared realities.

"Art fairs, galleries to the Kochi Biennale... Artists are getting more ambitious. Works are getting larger but our aesthetics still remain decorative - grounded in Indian figurative motifs. Our legacy has always been decorative. And the world which has gone through major changes in art is coming round to appreciating our decorative
aesthetics. I genuinely think it is India`s moment in the sun," art critic, curator and writer Kishore Singh told IANS.

Kishore Singh, who heads the publications, exhibitions and curations wings at the Delhi Art Gallery, one of the leading art houses in the capital, said the business trend in arts in 2012 has been "bargaining".

"Buyers have been demanding more for less. I think it is a trend which will continue for a while," he said.

The dividing line between art, sculpture and the new media has been melting down since the beginning of this year, says curator and writer Sushma Bahl.

"There is crossover between different art forms. Works are conceptually stronger because artists are becoming more articulate with stories to narrate through their art. The concepts are serious," Bahl said.

"Post-conceptual" as a trend is being chanted by many younger Indian artists - who are falling back on simple everyday realities as the basis of their narrative art.

The stories told through art this year had more to do with engagement with community, social ills, state of the country and history. The utilitarian aspect of art was in sharp focus this year than the years before.

A flip side in the campaign to make art more identifiable with issues was an element of "phony conceptualisation and commitment to causes". It crept into the works of several leading multi-media artists.

"Everybody was trying to make art more socially revelant in an attempt to think out of the box... I think our artists were trying to ape the west. The western artists have been doing it (concepts) for several years and we are years behind," Bahl told IANS.

As a result, the spotlight was back on paintings this year rather than on conceptual aesthetics work happening. It had more to do with the mind than the skill of the body," gallerist and curator Sunaina Anand of Art Alive told IANS.

In terms of market, "the focus was on quality and the correct market price".

"Several works of F.N. Souza were available in the market, but their prices were varied. Anything and everything could not pass off because the buyers were more well-informed and were cautious about what they were spending on," Anand said. Masters of modern art ruled the price chain like in other years.

Prices of quality art in 2012 ranged from Rs.75, 000 to Rs.2 crore, a senior gallery owner said, adding that it instilled new confidence in the country`s nearly Rs.2,000-crore art market.