As an artist, Sowgandhika Krishnan shares her perspectives on how various art forms have been evolving, and how imperative it is for artists to share value with the audience.

What can a B-school teach you about art? A lot actually! My decision to be an arts entrepreneur happened while studying the last module of my MBA. My B-school had a big hand in it. My programme coordinator and classmates believed in my artistic and entrepreneurial abilities more than I did, but I will leave all that for another day and another article. The most valuable lesson the B-school taught the artist in me was that it’s all about shared values!

Why is shared value a valuable lesson for the artist? Art surely adds a lot of significance to our lives as artists. For many of us, it is our mode of expressing our creative thoughts and feelings, and our way to a happy mind, body, and soul. But what about our audiences – do we share value with them? Are we doing enough?

Art that shares value with the audience

The viewer or audience has always been essential to any art form and artists have regaled audiences and even provoked them in a bid to share value. Paintings, for example, have used the concept of ‘point of view’ to enable the viewer to see the painting from a certain angle. In his painting ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’, Gerard van Honthorst places the viewer across from the ‘Madonna’. The viewer feels he is a part of the scene.

Image-showing-Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_ShepherdsGerard van Honthorst – Adoration of the Shepherds

Caravaggio understood viewer perception and visual pathway. He took into account how the environment would affect the viewer’s visual experience and created a specific setting in which the painting was viewed.

Image-showing-painting-by-CaravaggioMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – Sette Opere di Misericordia

At a time when the Viennese society shunned talk or portrayal of sexuality and had different moral standards for men and women, secessionist painters like Klimt explored sexuality and the human body through their paintings bringing the much-needed change in thinking and social value to their viewers.

Image-showing-Gustav-Klimt---THe-KissGustav Klimt’s The Kiss

‘Sangeet Nataks’ (the Indian counterpart of the Operas) used elaborate settings, rich costumes, arches, richly covered furniture, and perfume to scent the air when the much-acclaimed actor Bal Gandharva took to the stage. It was about creating an unforgettable customer experience! In short, good art/entertainment is supposed to share value with the viewer by making the viewer enjoy, understand, be involved, and appreciate the art while taking home a message that is intended to make them think.

image showing Bal Gandharva in play

Bal Gandharva – from the book; Bal Gandharva – The Nonpareil Thespian by Mohan Nadkarni

From Caravaggio, ‘Sangeet Nataks’, Klimt, Banksy to OTT platforms and online concerts, a lot has changed in the entertainment world over the years. NFT (non-fungible tokens) is the new kid on the art block. Recently, the animated GIF of Nyan Cat sold for roughly half a million dollars in cryptocurrency.

Image-showing-Nyan-Cat Chris Torres – Nyan Cat

Then Christie’s auctioned the artist Beeple’s digital collage for a whopping 69 million dollars. Interestingly, the buyers of these NFTs didn’t acquire copyright or trademarks or exclusive access to the work, nor possession of the “original” digital file. These digital art pieces can be downloaded or used by anyone, but ownership remains with the buyer and is verifiable via the blockchain ledger.

Image-showing-Beeple-NFTBeeple – Everydays: The first 5000 days – digital collage

While that adds a lot of economic value to the artist (69 million dollars does!), the energy it consumes and the carbon footprint it leaves behind questions its social value. What exact value it adds to the buyer is still an evolving topic of debate.

Rethinking our approach to the traditional performing arts

Closer home in the world of traditional Indian performing arts where I belong, shared value, unfortunately, seems restricted to the elite audiences that understand the form. Not many classical dancers, musicians or instrumentalists make an attempt to explain something about the raga, the instrument, the storyline, aspects of the choreography, footwork, or the mudras (hand gestures). Many still start their performance with no details explained. While that works well with an elite audience that understands the art form, it does not work with audiences that don’t.

We now have audiences who do not necessarily understand the language of the original composition or the specific musical tradition, or the nuances of a specific dance form but wish to watch and know more. Some are totally new to it. How do we share value with this audience? For those of us who live outside India, the audience is now international and there is a huge cultural difference. Enabling the ordinary viewer to understand the art form would be a superb attempt at cross-cultural learning. It will ensure repeat audiences, will interest younger audiences, and will help the art and the artist survive.

With a huge segment of audiences preferring popular entertainment (read movies) and only a very niche/specific elite audience following a traditional classical art form, it is just a matter of time before traditional arts will lose out on younger audiences. Opera houses all over the world have realized this and have relaxed the dress codes for audiences, and even arrange behind-the-scenes tours, open-air shows, and kids shows, in a bid to bring in younger audiences. They also have an introductory session to the ballet/opera being performed. Guided tours at museums are a step in the same direction.

A lot of younger Indian artists have gone the fusion way to reach out to younger audiences. They have used social media to put out tiny bits and pieces of their work and they rock at what they do, but a lot remains to be done. Grabbing audience attention is great. Sustaining it needs an audience that is genuinely interested in the art form, and this depends on how we create and share value. It’s time to rethink our approach to the traditional performing arts and to our audiences. After all, it’s all about shared values!

To all my fellow artists – Belated World Theatre Day wishes and a very Happy International Dance Day!

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