I made a painting.
Its details, in a loose art gallery format are: Samarth Singh Chandel, A Four-Walled Paradise, Mixed Media, 29.7 x 42.0 cm, 2022.
But, it wont go up in a gallery space. It will be exhibited on the cream-white wall on the left side of my laptop that is still stained with the fossil of a mosquito I smacked with my slipper some weeks past. It receives this distinction because the last time I touched a 29.7 x 42.0 cm sized canvas was ten summers ago. And because those ten years present the space that I have traversed so far. A space consumed by a fraught dialogue with the omniscience of self-loathing and failure – a discourse that finally finds some solvency on that 29.7 x 42.0 cm sized canvas.
How do we make art when the intention of it is so far displaced from its practice? What do I do when we are brought up with the idea that making art for anything more significant than a hobby is a promise of self sabotage? Can the process ever be sublime and enriching, or at least meaningful, if each minute is drawn tired by anxiety, doubt, and those scrumptiously pessimistic thoughts about how isolated, superficial, pointless, ridiculous, pretentious and devoid of any inner quality or meaning my art is?
The image I project on my art is of course fractured by social media – that haven of neo-liberal capitalist socio-economic complex that espouses the politics of passion. Here, the individual is a free agent with limitless possibilities to choose from. It never gets tired of telling you that every strong impulse should be exploited for its economic potential. However, passion cannot be solely pursued if one cannot monetise it. In a capitalist order, money, and hence, wages become the single funnel for survival.
The increasingly unpredictable trends in job markets force the option of converting passion into a coin mint into a compulsive survival strategy for many. Finally, capitalism awards the rare (which by implication is valuable and worth attraction): your failure is then measured in terms of the money; the uniqueness of your art is decidedly reduced to social media traction.
And then the fault lines of caste, class, race, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, language and what not. As the British award-winning, self taught artist Scottee (also of the throwing-a-cake-on-Rihanna fame) says that his art is always mindful of the question “is failure determined by heterosexual, white, cisgendered, wealthy? Is it them who bring their taste to the table and say this is a failure?” His words, I think, apply equally well to all categories that hierarchise us, as well as art.
Now it would be a serious faux pas to jump to the corollary that art has always been for the not-so-heterosexual-white-cisgendered-wealthy and so forth. Art indeed is a privilege and class barriers flow into it. Yet, as this beautiful piece on the resistance imbued in indigenous folk dances of Kerala, or the burgeoning protest art landscape in India in the last decade affirm; art also belongs to the realm of the not-so-perfect; to those grudgingly caught in places, in structures, in ideas, in manners, in behaviours, in costumes, in realities that make them a little less alive than others.
The hallmark of art is that it compensates for that little less aliveness. It often transcends degrading distinctions in its expansive creative scope to reveal alternate visions of life that are rooted in profound meditations of the human condition. Art is freeing not because it corrects a wrong, but it uplifts and centres those experiences that are marginalised.
The cultural critic Maria Popova notes: “Every artist makes what they make with the whole of who they are — with the totality of experiences, beliefs, impressions, obsessions, childhood confusions, heartbreaks, inner conflicts, and contradictions that constellate a self.”
Art functions to transform this chaotic mess into something beautiful and thought-provoking. It is at once abstract yet clear: clear in invoking awe, shock, curiosity, unease through its message. Ultimately we are coaxed to pop the bubble to take the world into perspective – what Olivia Laing calls “unselfing”.
For Laing, art questions and ruptures the edifice that governs our lives. The maker, the work, and the viewer all partake in a duel with “existential questions of freedom, desire, loneliness, queerness, democracy, rebellion, abandonment, and the myriad vulnerable tendrils of aliveness that make life worth living.”
Then, the abridged version of the common axiom holds true: that art imitates (all that informs the) life (of the artist) – which includes that stormy vortex of failure that informs the validity of our efforts. Therefore, the paradox is that truly meaningful art can be created when we come to terms with, and subsequently dance with, all that we perceive as at odds with it. The notion of empathy, I feel, and Popova approves, is the linchpin that can set a rhythm for this dance.
Jack Halberstam’s work on the “queer art of failure” also helped convince me about the the meangingfulness of failure. Professor Halberstam, who teaches gender and American history at Columbia University, calls for an “emphatic embrace of failure as profane enlightenment”.
He proposes “failure” as a fresh mode of interpretation that challenges every contemporary notion of “success”. For Halberstam, refusing such successes by attending to the fates and inventions of those who fail is the best way into something else: “The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.”
At times, the power of negation makes possible modes of living not considered possible till then. In art, it can find a new lease of life. Perhaps, the strongest sign that you are going on the right path is the intimation that you are going wrong. Those 10 years, I have taken to come together, coalesced into what they call a “hot mess” and poured that mess on a canvas to make something slightly less messier, but more beautiful. Hopefully.
Samarth Singh Chandel is a second year student studying history and philosophy at Hansraj College, Delhi University. You can access his art blog here.
Featured image: Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get a Straight Line (1973) by John Baldessari. Baldessari, who passed away in 2020, attempted to document the “unbridgeable divide between the conception of an artistic idea and its execution”, which is affected by unpredictable external factors like chance/Princeton University Art Museum