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This is a forum for sharing knowledge, gaining insights and shaping opinions. We will not sit on the fence here or play favorites. The language of art has changed in a blink of a year– today there are market makers, power brokers, savvy investors, flippers, fakes and fund managers. Collectors are nearly extinct. Why? Because collectors can see and COLLECTORS MIND. So together, let’s take a small step to make today’s buyers into tomorrow’s collectors. The future of art depends on it!

Sunday, January 10, 2010


It is with uncomfortable regularity I keep seeing versions of ‘top’ artists lists being compiled across sections of the media. The most recent one that caught my attention was one that came out in a leading English daily, prominently proclaiming the ‘10 Artists who shaped the noughties’.

While these lists are convenient thin slices generated largely by those in the know and for the benefit of those who are not, they often muster up more controversy than consent. The intent of an exercise such as this is to draw attention to a sub-set of artists who have made a distinguished and definable contribution to art significantly more than those who have been left out of such an equation. This is where the problem lies.

At the outset I would like to recognize and acknowledge that any kind of ‘grading’ or ‘ranking’ especially in art cannot escape the subjective eye of the opinion maker and of course there will be differing opinions on who gets included and who gets left out. It will not be unfair to state that these choices often reflect personal perspectives (and biases) on the few names that shined brighter than the rest. However, the real danger of these prophecies is that the reading public is left with too many ‘invisible gaps’ to fill and s/he is never really sure of why the artists selected actually deserve a place on some infamous list that has been thrust in their face.

I think ‘list-makers’ have a certain kind of responsibility to articulate more clearly the criteria (as loose as it may be) that informs any such selection. For example, it would be much more palatable for a reader to digest a list of ‘top ten’ artists ranked by auction sales in a definable period of time. While this is a market-driven parameter that speaks to the commercial popularity of the artist, one could combine it with more aesthetically driven criteria such as participation in prestigious art biennales, inclusion in museum shows and important curated exhibitions etc. When the thought process and criteria for selection is adequately laid out as a preamble to a list of names, it goes a long way in contextualizing the choices and helps explain anomalies that otherwise seem to be outliers. For instance, a top ten list that starts with Tyeb Mehta and ends with Thukral and Tagra (and excluded the Dodiya’s and the Kallat’s) seems quite absurd in the absence of footnotes. Had the list maker prefaced the article by saying that these artists were selected and ranked by their performance on the auction circuit nobody would have raised an eyebrow although I suspect that if one did indeed get down to that level of due diligence, many of the names featured would go missing.

Yet another aspect of list-making that is somewhat problematic is the ‘category’ of inclusion. Modern and contemporary artists are often lumped together and the distinction is never clear to the layperson. Modern masters are often referred to as the face of contemporary art while newly minted stars are elevated to master status. When selection is made across broad categories, the unspoken criteria that informs such selection seems even more muddled.

A simple note at the beginning that only artists who are alive are included would have provided temporary relief for not seeing giants like F.N Souza on the list (although at the time the article was published I am quite certain of at least one other artist included who is no longer with us anymore so that clearly could not have been a criteria). Then there is the question of Nationality and who fits the bill for ‘Indianness’ and therefore can be included. Why is it ok to include someone like an SH Raza who has made France his home since 1950 but exclude Anish Kapoor who was born in Mumbai in 1954 but lives in the UK since the 70’s and has enthralled audience with seminal works of art in museum halls, public spaces, gallery walls, and the auction floor. If the search is for most happening new kid on the auction block than can one ignore the hail and hearty Calcutta born Raqib Shaw who broke the $5million barrier with his ‘Garden of Earthly Delights III’ in 2007 making him the most expensive ‘Indian’ artist dead or alive!

Throwing a list of names together and seasoning it with one example each from a variety of sub-categories such as ‘modern artists’, ‘contemporary artists’, ‘women artists’, ‘diasporic artists’, ‘video-artist’, ‘performance artist’. ‘curator-artists’ may be convenient but it is certainly not convincing. Even if one were to condone the generation of such lists and look for parallel examples from the world of music or cinema, we will see that even a ‘greatest hits’ chartbuster or a box office generated ‘top films’ blockbusters is based on some logic that is not gravity defying.

Note: Through this inquiry I am simply drawing attention to common threads that weave through this and other ‘top ten’ type of lists that are made and circulated by highlighting specific examples of the same. No personal prejudice against any writer and/or artist is intended or implied.