Story of a storyteller
By: Quddus Mirza
“The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.” (City of Glass) Paul Auster
What is news to everyone else is actually a story for its makers. Thus an ordinary person is surprised to hear journalists’ comments like, “He did a good story today”, “I managed to file a story on this before anyone else”, “Our reporter did a full investigation for his/her story”. The word“story” implies that an important event is merely a fable or a textual exercise for its author. The journalists know it will last only for a day before the next edition of the newspaper is printed and distributed.
Whatever way it is described, every aspect and activity of our societal life is documented in the press, including the art world. The details of the art community are communicated to the general reader of newspapers and magazines but who are the individual scovering these art events and doing profiles of visual artists? How do they end up doing this beat? What are their experiences and observations and how do they perceive the practice of art in our world? Questions like these intrigue everyone interested in art.Zeinab Mizrahi, an art journalist working for a mainstream paper, shares someof her ideas and opinions about her profession, artists and art world in general.
Journalists are normally are not very keen on covering visual arts. What made her take up this beat? “Actually mybeat was livestock and agriculture but once, it so happened that,our regular art reporter was on medical (maternity) leave, so I was picked asher replacement,” says Mizrahi.
She says she immediately developed a liking for it. Earlier on, she used to hate art because “I always thought artists were pompous and pretentious people, so remote from reality; they existed in a different and imaginary world. When I go to exhibitions, I realise artists are just like everybody else. They are very keen and inquisitive on what I write and if I write about them, whether theirown picture will accompany the text etc.”
“Often they do everything to get a good and big coverage,” she adds shyly. What is that ‘everything’, I ask. “For instance,playing hard to get and posing to be inaccessible; or in their exhibitions, pretending as if they have not seen me. A few try to allure me by offering some gift like a dress, book, or even one of their drawings or a smaller work. Occasionally I get invitations to join them for a drink or to go to meal with others after the inauguration, even though I hardly know them or have met them for first time.”
So does she accept these offers and items? Mizrahi tries to be honest about it. “Sometimes yes and sometimes no. I like to own artworks but there is a problem; only artists who are not established or who are not going to make big— in my opinion — are prepared to part with their canvases as bribes. I think someone should advise them to use money instead. Earlier on I used to feel shy about getting things from them, but not anymore. Besides, all my fellow reporters are milking politicians, self-styled reformers, businessmen, showbiz personalities and civil servants.”
Sadly, she says,art is too low in the list of priorities of our public and press, especially Urdu dailies. “So we have to be content with small fortunes, like a pirated print of Paulo Coelho novel, a pair of socks from a local store or a meal at some fast food restaurant,” Says Zeinab Mizrahi.
What is the experience like of talking to artists about their work? “There are many artists who can not talk sense about their own work. There are several who do not listen to your questions. They have their own philosophy which is often incomprehensible. I remember asking a famous sculptor about his work during his retrospective and he went on to give a labyrinthine monologue on creativity, essence of art and what not. On the other hand, when a minister who was visiting his show asked the same question, the sculptor responded in one line “it is about materials and processes”. Also one of the most favourite themes for many artists is their childhood experience without realizing that no one is interested in their past and how it was spent.” People come to see their art.
Mizrahi holds forth on a recurring topic in the artists’ conversation — their international success. She claims to have heard this phrase so often: “I showed my work in Dubai, in Dublin and in Detroit, and people really admired my art”. And this, she says,is not just the case with contemporary art which one assumes is more understood abroad than at its place of production, “but it is more surprising or rather depressing when I come across these claims made by artists who are doing commercial art— the art that is made only to match with the colour of sofas and the shades of walls in their buyers’ houses.”
About the proliferation and performance of galleries, she says: “I believe the large number of galleries is better for artists and art because these provide more venues and create space for diversity. But, lately, I have observed that some galleries are just shops or upgraded framer joints, which treat and trade art as if it is a piece of furniture or any other commodity. For them selling is the main purpose. But if a person like me comments in a critical tone, they get offended. Once, after a bad review, a gallery director threatened to shoot me but the gallery is now closed down since the owner of the property was unfortunately killed in a road accident. The directories selling shoes for a local designer. Another gallery owner, a reformed framer, sent me the message not to enter his gallery but, like a shameless creature, I go there again and again only to find plagiarized versions of paintings proudly displayed; or nomadic women in tiny tops rendered in innumerable quantity, sold for incredible prices.”
This kind of work, she says, is highly praised by our writers and reporters, usually in their incomprehensible diction, and is widely collected. “This shows how ignorant our public is towards art; so are our artists, galleries, collectors, critics and reporters, including yours truly!” she concludes.