Last Saturday I did something that I had always dreamed of doing – I bought a can of spray paint, met up with this friend of mine who goes by the name Art and helped him make a mural. Even though we made it in his garage, later in the cab, I couldn’t shrug a feeling of accomplishment, a strange sense of achievement. It was as if I had suddenly come face to face with my rouge self. I felt like a street artist, breaking the law and making a statement while honestly, I was painting in his studio space.
Meanwhile, on my ride back home, I realised two things. One, I needed to find a cool name like Art to disguise my identity and two, that there is art everywhere. Someone or the other has used the public space to say something. Some are legally done as a part of the city beautification scheme while others are underground artists who emerge in the dead of the night and leave a symbol in the public space. And this kind of art is often called subversive – a rebellious stroke, an indecent gesture, a seditious overstatement.
But, when does a work of art become “subversive”? And to whom? To what? And isn’t every kind of art, subversive to someone? Is graffiti subversive? Was Andy Warhol subversive? Is Ai Weiwei subversive? Was Hussain subversive? What is subversive for me may not be subversive for you. Similarly, what could’ve been subversive for Picasso may not be subversive for Banksy or Space Invader.
So with these questions in my mind, I rang another friend of mine, who is an art teacher by the day and a graffiti artist at night. I hoped that him being an art teacher would make him my guide on this topic but alas, he left me even more confused. He said that subversive art – which could be anything from a mural to an installation – is not subversive at all. It depicts reality in a rather surreal way which we, droids of the system, perceive as subversive. So, when Banksy did murals of a beautiful life through a cracked wall, people called it subversive. But, he was just giving a glimpse of reality to people. And so were the Simpsons with their opening sequence about sweatshops.
So, that got me thinking even more. Is subversive art actually a form of realism? And if so, then why is it called subversive? What is even more interesting is the fact that today if you are an art collector, you have to own a piece of subversive art. Otherwise your collection is incomplete. So, why’s it still called subversive?
After a week of trying to understand the whats and whys and the hows of subversive art, I am still as clueless and awestruck as ever. Maybe you could help me a little.From HT Brunch, November 4
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