Social Narratives as Dictated Through Public Art
I’ll begin with three examples of public sculpture
Barbara Hepworth’s Single Form outside the UN building in New York
Without the context of the UN an audience will not find any meaning in it. Yes, it can be appreciated for its aesthetics but as a piece of public sculpture I find it to be without a greater purpose. There is almost no interaction possible with it.
Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago
It is itself the context. It is huge, shiny, reflective and fun to stand beside. It has become a destination in itself and people like looking at their own reflections on it and being able to take photographs with it. There is a great amount of pubic interaction revolving around it. However there is no greater idea that is immediately enforced upon the audience.
The Statue of Unity, in Gujarat
This one is unlike the previous two. It is deeply political. One can simply look at it, although to clearly see it you have to have a picture. Physically there is almost no public interaction but intellectually it is supposed to instill an idea of nationalism. The idea of a unified India, of power, greatness and national glory. It is supposed to hold together the nation with its gigantic presence. The audience is supposed to submit to its monumentality.
To me these are the three basic ways that public art engages social interaction. So now we can start.
“Art is a language that should be spoken in Public places.” This is something Satish Gujral said when advocating the practice of appreciating art rather than just saying – I don’t understand Art. He also said “it is important to propagate and promote the idea of public art.”
But what is Public Art? Art that is accessible in any public space is Public Art. This is in short the definition; however, it doesn’t really make things clear. It actually encompasses every bit of design, architecture, sculpture, poster, tapestry, mural, film, music, performance or anything at all that can be consumed by the public, whether it is outdoor or inside a publicly accessible building.
I will not try to include everything because it will take a lifetime to do so. I will touch upon certain practices and mediums and will leave out the rest such as performance, film and music.
Some works are only deemed works of art when housed or installed in an environment capable of defining it as art, such as a gallery or museum. Since most of such institutions have to be paid for, they’re not universally accessible. Something that caters only to only a few classes is not something I would call public. Other than this a work in the public domain is responsible for much more than any work that is either in private collection or in some basement. I believe that Public Art should not only be physically accessible but also intellectually so – for as many as possible. Ideally for everyone. In this respect advertisements are probably the most public of all art. This is because it aims at making a consumer out of everyone irrespective of any criteria. Whether you’re dirt poor or skyscraper rich, you know Amul is the taste of India. Doesn’t matter if you’re walking on the footpath or sleeping on it, an advertisement does not care.
However this is a very tricky subject because through the various dimensions of public art, social narratives can be controlled, dominated and even destroyed by those in power. As has been the case throughout history, public art and propaganda today are almost inseparable. What is Propaganda? It is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a cause or point of view. Most of public art created throughout history through political or religious patronage has been propaganda. At a certain point it stopped engaging with the public or attracting them. It was then just a series of proclamations. It commanded allegiance and obedience and was not to be questioned.
We then have the rise of different forms of mural and poster graffiti and anti-establishment public art forms in auditory, visual and audio visual media. Soon these forms were taken up by those in power as well to reverse the effects. Because taking control of public art is one of the quickest ways to change the narrative to whatever you need.
For example Banksy makes anti-establishment art then the galleries sell them. He creates a stunt and shreds a work while on public auction to dissuade that and it just becomes more valuable. But I will not talk about this.
Let’s just start at a time when this was not an issue. Cave paintings.
These were made as a community and with the community for the combined visual consumption of all who lived there. For whichever purpose they might have been made, whether for hunting rituals or simply due to an uncontrollable urge to create, they were made for the community. There might have been the idea of a greater power, or the glorification of some story that they shared among them and wanted the next people to know. There was neither bias nor malicious intent in these, as far as historians have understood.
Different forms of tribal art, even today, are just that, a community activity. A decoration and interaction with the surrounding environment. Pata began as such, warli still is to some extent. We also have traditions of alpona and rangoli, more or less similar in idea. Although never permanent, they can be very creative and are traditionally just decoration for a greater purpose of religious or social occasion but sometimes they can have stories of their own as well.
Even in the early civilizations in Egypt, China, Indus Valley, and Mesopotamia or in the West with the Mayans or the Inca, we do not find evidence of propaganda as we understand it today.
Public art however was still being used to control various aspects of social communication. The powerful instilled ideas they valued through art and mainly architecture. We see not only areas dedicated to bringing the people together such as the great bath in mohenjo daro but also housing built specifically to differentiate between people of different positions and occupations.
This becomes clearer and more pronounced in later civilizations in Greece and Rome, also in china, japan and very much so in India. It was in Greece, helped with the ideas of Aristotle and Plato that the ideas of public art grew exponentially. Public engagement through art became an important part of statecraft. Architecture and sculpture remained dedicated to serving those in power, propagating their glory and the glory of the gods in every religion across the world. Mostly the rulers were portrayed as gods through sculptures and in temples. This happened in India throughout the different kingdoms and ages and was much more direct in Egypt with the pharaohs being socially accepted as either gods themselves or their children. This re-emerged under catholic dynasties in Europe but they were representatives of god and not their kin. Religious architecture and sculpture was not really propaganda until the development and intermingling of new religions such as Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Up until then there was no contest and hence no need to advertise or promote one religion over another. Once these new religions started to grow, religious public art took new forms.
In India and across Asia we see Buddhist and Jain icons and huge figures of Buddha. The giant statues of Leshan in china, Kamakura in japan and Bamyan in Afghanistan which was recently destroyed by the Taliban. Across Europe we see the development of the image of Christ, Mother Mary and various Christian icons as the pagan religions are overtaken. The gothic age and then the renaissance saw the growth of Christian icons like no other ever before. The Notre Dame in Paris, the Sistine chapel in Vatican City, Giotto’s murals in the Scrovegni chapel. Islam came later but met Christianity head on with the Hagia Sophia and consequently the Blue Mosque. Both in Istanbul and both exceptional. Although Islam in general considered art as haram or sin, the great Islamic empires beautifully decorated their cities and the Minbar of Saladin is a great example of how exquisite Islamic art could be. All of these had one purpose above all else, to inspire faith and spirituality in those who would see them. One was supposed to look up in awe and find themselves to be insignificant in the presence of a higher power. Whether the ruler or a god. Sometimes it didn’t make a difference. And since these were all hotspots for various kinds of congregations, society shaped itself around these icons and cultures and religions have grown with these as their centres ever since. I must mention the murals of Ajanta as well since they are such a big part of Modern India and our understanding of Buddhist images however they were built at the time for only those within the umbrella of Buddhism.
Works of art in the public domain have the potential of becoming popular images and consequently markers in history. Social interactions in later times are then influenced and dictated by these images. Whether the images truly were that important or not doesn’t matter because they are now. When we look back or read history, we immediately relate the image with the time. They are inseparable. This is also true for cultural icons. We think of a city or a civilization and we think of a particular work.
Egypt – the pyramids and the sphinx
France or Paris – the Eiffel Tower
The Great Wall of China
Christ the Redeemer for Rio
India – the Taj Mahal.
Sometimes a set of ideals just gets incorporated through public will. Such is the case of Satyajit Ray’s works in Bengal. He is definitely one of the biggest icons of Bengali illustration
apart from the global fame for his films. I find it fascinating how we as a people have adopted certain aesthetic values that he held as markers of our cultural existence. Every time I go to a café in Kolkata or one of the new Melas that are popping up every now and then, I see images that are similar to or even exact copies of what he had done. And most of these are unconscious recreations.
Of course when talking of reproductions, we have to identify the printing press as the greatest invention for public art. And religious texts, especially the bibles are the most public of all texts.
There is also the aspect of traditions of printmaking and multiple recreations of artworks. There was the ukiyo-e print tradition from 17th to 19th century in Japan and in India there was the kalighat pata tradition. And now of course we have digital prints available throughout the world at galleries, museums, and also online. But I will not get into that.
Sometimes an icon is made to represent the culture through political propaganda. Such is the
case of the statue of liberty. It was not built as the icon of propaganda it is today. This is intricately linked with their national narrative of being the superior democratic power, the force of liberty and peace. Something well established and symbolized by the statue of Liberty.
Nationalism using such strong images was taken to the extremes just before and during World War 2.
But I’ll start with the Soviet flag, the gold sickle hammer and star on red. 1917 onward it has been a symbol of revolution, rationalism, progress and communism across the world. USA, through its capitalist counter-propaganda has deemed it dangerous, dismissive, terrorist and the ultimate enemy. In some cases, it truly did descend to inhumanity as all political powers do when left unchallenged. The impact that the image of communism had on the world was far greater than that of capitalism. Capitalism is triumphant through a million different images, companies, and promotions but communism, primarily, has only one. Red. Copied and recreated across the world at different times and under different situations for the same reason.
The USSR also attempted at a greater idea of public art. Socialist Realism. It was a kind of art form approved by the Communist party to promote the ideals of the party among the population. This of course, in time, limited imagination and became another machine of manufacturing consent. It no longer promoted certain values but started dictating them.
The one icon of communism across the world that most are now familiar with is Che Guevara.
He is as popular as the flag and images of him have spread worldwide and to every corner of the internet. Ironically he is also a great product. This is an example of how the opposition can be controlled by occupying the narrative through socially circulating images.
Now comes Nazism and Fascism.
shoulders, broaches, caps, boots, shirts and it was also as tall as the buildings and as wide as them. It was more than an image.
It was the idea of a superior race, greater, more powerful and dominant over all else.
The idea of a global thousand year reich was promoted by the new architectures and sculptures all over Germany. A key role in devising these visions was played by the despicable sculptor and architect Arno Breker.
Mussolini took the same route in a different disguise. He talked not about a superior race but a superior time, a greater civilization. Ancient Rome. Pure and white. He built the image of Rome in white marble – something that has become so ingrained in our minds that we can barely imagine those times without the idea of huge white structures. “white would come to
symbolize Mussolini’s maniacal plans for Italy.” His attempt at a revitalization of the former glory of Rome was an idea as attractive as the one we have in India now. Just like Mussolini’s Obelisk, his stadium of the marbles, or EUR near Rome we now have the makings of Ram Janmabhumi through public structures such as the Ram Mandir. Which was the greatest debate of the past two decades and now it has been resolved(?)
It’s sole purpose is the rejuvenation of a brahminical and vedic culture, a time which the current narrative has dictated as a greater and more prosperous age. The age of Ram.
Even in West Bengal we have our own sphere of propaganda. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Beautification of Kolkata. Although not as grand a plan as Ram Janmabhumi or even remotely visually pleasing, it does firmly establish a narrative. In the past 10 years Kolkata has been rapidly filled with images of Bengali icons constantly reminding the citizen to be aware of the glory whether true or not, of this state.
But India is used to propaganda. Not this one exactly, but throughout the history of this subcontinent, people in power have changed the narratives through architecture and sculpture. Mainly through the creation of temples, using both Buddhist and Hindu icons and later, Islamic architecture.
To start with, who better as an example than Ashoka ? He waged war on Kalinga and slaughtered the people. On returning, he repented and became a Buddhist which immediately absolved him of the genocide he had just committed. To assert his ascension to a holier and more peaceful plane he ordered the creation of pillars across his empire. These images not only asserted his position in those times but have continued to be symbols of power and prosperity. The one at Sarnath, the Lion capital, is now the emblem of the Republic of India.
There’s another set of images that we should know about but don’t so there’s not much to say really. As Indians we are all bound by birth to that one text we cannot live, or legally even exist, without. The constitution of India. Illustrated and printed in Kala Bhavan, in Santiniketan. It should be the most recognized of all texts yet I didn’t know of the illustrations till a year ago. Never heard of it or read of it even though I had political science and the constitution as a subject. I can guarantee, no one else in my batch knew either. Because all the copies of the constitution that I have ever seen are devoid of these images. Or even a mention of them.
Public Art has played an exceptionally important role in colonial India for both British and Indian propaganda. The British claimed supremacy in art through the ideas of perspective drawing and realism in oil paintings and this changed existing narratives of social perception of art.
In the beginning of the 20th Century the Bengal school was a key movement. It was directly anti-colonial propaganda aimed at changing the socio-political narrative of the so called great western civilizations. Artists like Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose tried to follow the oriental methods of art as an opposition to western realism.
The most important image created was Abanindranath’s Bharatmata, a personification of India as a mother goddess. Due to the icon being too Hindu for Muslims and too far eastern for Hindus this was a failure in political terms since it was not able to inspire unity or nationalism in the way it was supposed to.
Another artist who shaped social perception is Raja Ravi Varma. His works, since late 19th century, have been produced and reproduced as posters, postcards, porcelain dolls and much more. Most importantly his images have contributed to the image of India in the field of advertisements.
The one image that has only grown and become the icon of Independent India through hundreds of thousands of creations and recreations in hundreds of mediums is the image of Mahatma Gandhi. A man made immortal through art. He is in films, posters, sculptures, paintings, murals, and most importantly on money. Everyone knows who Gandhiji was. Or at least what he looked like.
I’ll end with one of Ram Sutar’s sculptures of Gandhi with two children.
To Gandhi’s right is a boy with a dove and to his left is a girl , probably holding a book. The mahatma himself towers over the viewer and commands reverence. He is not a fragile old man but the icon that has led the nation. Why this sculpture ? I actually found certain things to be a bit off. The boy with the dove might mean ahimsa and non-violence but choosing the boy and not the girl might insinuate that only the male figure is capable of preserving or bringing peace. Also, while the boy does not follow Gandhi’s powerful and hopeful gaze into what might be the future of a nation, he does look straight ahead while the girl is actually looking downwards at the boy. Why doesn’t she have a view of the future if that is what it is ? Finally even though the girl is holding a book, we cannot overlook the boy’s position to gandhi’s right side, the side of power and action while the girl is on the left, a side that traditionally represents the weak.
You may think I am reading too much into these things and you may not find anything wrong. That’s perfectly fine. The observation is still necessary. Currently the socio-political narrative is not within our grasp. We are simply consumers and pawns for causes we do not control. We are made to think we do not have that power. That we wouldn’t be able to even if we tried. It is our duty to disregard this. There have instances all over the world when the people have revolted and taken down or vandalized public statues which had become icons of state and social tyranny.
It happened in Ukraine with the statues of Lenin and recently it happened in the USA and Britain with the BLM movement. But these are radical and violent ways. This happened once there was no other rational method in sight.
This same process of removal or changing of harmful public art can start much earlier. Whenever we see an image we must ask “ what is wrong with this?” not to dismiss it but to decipher it. there’s almost always something wrong. So ask again “Am I okay with this?” If all of us do this, soon enough, the narrative will be a shared and socially agreed upon interaction rather than an idea forced upon us.
-The above is as was presented on 18th October, organized by https://www.instagram.com/sketchbookproject.insta/