The art of power

Updated: Oct 06, 2019, 07:17 IST | Paromita Vohra |

Where progress depends on having one's talent noticed, those in the position to notice, recommend and promote become deeply, invisibly powerful

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

ParomitaOnce upon a time, the words struggling and artist went together like gin and tonic. Not so much anymore. Any gin artists have with their infused tonics would be beautiful and expensive, because art is big business. So it's inevitable that power hierarchies slowly develop. Where progress depends on having one's talent noticed, those in the position to notice, recommend and promote become deeply, invisibly powerful.

No surprise, then, that stories from the Indian art world emerged in last year's wave of #MeToo, through the anonymous Instagram handle @herdsceneand. Several well known artists were named, among them, Subodh Gupta. After the first account emerged, several more people spoke up with their allegations.

Last week, Mr Gupta sued the Instagram account for defamation and a "token Rs 5 crores." Rupees five crores must indeed feel like a token amount to Mr Gupta whose sculptures of steel bartans have sold for fabulous sums. For others, Rs 5 crores is not so much token as total annihilation. The court has ordered a takedown of all references to allegations of sexual harassment by Subodh Gupta and asked Facebook/Instagram to disclose the identity of the account administrator in a sealed envelope for the court's eye only.

It is difficult to read the accounts from #MeToo. Some incidents discomfit, because they feel open to interpretation. Others are stomach-churning in their ugliness and casual violence. But, most disturbing is what is revealed when you look at these accounts as a whole: a world where power congeals around men, whose consideration of women colleagues is almost always objectifying and sexual, not professional. It's a violent and minimising world for a young person to inhabit. All the more so in the worlds of freelance work, the gig economy, with its fake sexual freedom and lack of any structure where you could actually complain. If there is one thing we see here, it is that a big part of making due process work, lies in altering structures of privilege, and underlining ethical behaviour.

Let's say, Mr Gupta feels he is wrongly accused of something un-provable. If he has the resources to sue and take down allegations, why wouldn't he? But, isn't it possible for two things to be simultaneously true? It could be true that an allegation is doubtful, but that doesn't mean the larger truth which #MeToo emerges from is false—workspaces are sexist, sexual harassment is rampant and the concealed matrix of privilege and cultural capital, constantly evades the grasp of due process. Who has the intellectual resources to accommodate two parallel truths, to find meaning in ambiguity, if not an artist?

Perhaps it might have been possible for Mr Gupta to ask for take downs of allegations, without suing for such a large sum. It feels like he wants to make an example of this collective. But he could instead have been an example of a politically creative approach to justice; asserted his innocence without disregarding the #MeToo movement.

Well, perhaps it is not possible for individuals to act against their self-interest or feel a need for angry revenge. It is up to the world then to respond: to un-make this privilege, to stop lamenting the fates of alleged geniuses who've already had a good run, and create new structures that make space for the creative voices of women who've spoken up.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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