Archiving The Intangible: A Collective Making Art Theory & History Accessible To All

Archiving The Intangible: A Collective Making Art Theory & History Accessible To All
Image Courtesy: Critical Collective

If you’re an art student, you’ve probably found yourself to be the brunt of an age-old joke shot around by uncles and aunties questioning your career. The words ‘starving’ and ‘artist’ have existed codependently for centuries now. Folks pursuing art know that mockery comes with the lifestyle as a package. Unfortunately, there is some truth to the joke. Art is undoubtedly an essential part of our lives yet it remains disconnected in the sense that its utility and scope are questioned as a profession. In contradiction, academic art textbooks, courses, and degrees will burn a hole in your pocket. It’s a typical case of the can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

Born out of the same frustration was a massive publication called The Critical Collective. Art critic, curator, and founder Gayatri Sinha launched this website in December 2014, three years after its inception with the help of art history experts, Partha Mitter, Parul Dave Mukherji and Rakhee Balaram. The collective’s intention was to fill the gaping void in art publications, simply put, make knowledge free and accessible to anyone seeking it. It’s now bloomed into a 700-page, extensive archive of Indian and South Asian visual art. However, the text is the soul of this publication. At first glance, Critical Collective strikes you as an ancient state-of-the-art library, the kind you go to if you’re an explorer in an Indiana Jones or National Treasure movie but in a desi setting.

“The texts we work with are tilted towards the academic rather than journalistic style of writing. They have to have a certain sense of overview, stability of perspective, instead of just being located in the review domain,” explains Sinha.

Split into three chronological sections as presented in the subtitle, Art History, Cinema/OTT, and Lens-Based Practices, each one is overseen by one of the respective editors and offers more than 100 years of Indian art, charting its transformation from the late 19th century through the country’s decolonization to the present day. Their essays are supplemented by short nuggets of info held in highlighted boxes, with an epilogue of artist and critic interviews thrown in for good measure. And yet, the collective is devoid of the condescending narration art historians are associated with and fresh art enthusiasts cringe at. It’s rather a symphony of different voices using interpretation to form a 3-dimensional, referential hologram of art. Eighty authors have contributed micro-histories to it, designed to emphasise the multivalence art possesses, across a subcontinent powered by linguistic, religious and geographical diversity.

Any art fanatic will claim they’ve hit the mother lode with this collective. From demystification of Islamic Cosmography to depiction of seasons in high-medieval paintings, translated texts from Mughal India to interpretations of folk art like hand-looms in Salem and zoomorphic motifs of the Naga community, its Art History section is a rich and honestly, overwhelming sea of stories from the past embroidered into present narratives in a timeless dance of human expression.

Cinema/OTT is an outright paradise for cinephiles who believe a film to be an entire universe with its own ethos and pathos condensed into a storyline. You’ll find eye-opening, perspective-based essays that discuss cinema as a reflection of society and vice-versa.

Lens Based Practices dive into the depths of photography and its relationship with identity. The text somehow achieves the same internal transportation you experience looking at a well-captured photo from a different place or time.

The term archive seems reductive for The Critical Collective which encapsulates the pendulating process of impressions cast by a piece of art and the emotional response it receives. The experience of reading between the lines through their text is almost metaphysical. Where archives collect and preserve art, this collective proves to be a multi-dimensional library of the intangible, covering the inspiration, the creative process, the mind of the creator, and the art itself, along with all the realms in between.

Find them here.