Interpretive Approaches in Art History

4 May

If social sciences have been sprinting breathlessly towards positivism, art history has been running, equally fast, away from it. Art history’s subjectivist turn can be traced back to postmodernism, and particularly hermeneutics and phenomenology, which pretty much gave immunity to virtually all kinds of interpretations–as long as they were not blatantly wrong in hard facts or flimsy with inconsistency and incoherence.

Art history concerns itself not only with intentions of art-making, but also acceptance and reception of artworks — audience’s reaction and understanding of artworks, which can veer far away from original intentions (if any) of the artist. When audience’s interpretations are sanctioned as legitimate, art historians argue what they feel might as well be what others perceive from the artworks they’re looking at, relaying the legitimacy to at times highly personal feelings.

Ruing the loss of the historical perspective in Art History

Richard Meyer is an engaging and impassioned speaker. While presenting, he regularly stops to regale the audience with one of his many endlessly entertaining stories based on astute observation. Meyer has been recently touring the lecture circuit giving his well-rehearsed lecture on “What was Contemporary Art?” His lecture is about many things — it is about the history of Contemporary Art, a lament against increasing ahistoricism in Art History, and how ahistoricism helps commercial expropriation of Contemporary Art by the culture industry.

Meyer’s historical argument, which is just based on three ‘events’: Alfred Barr’s art course in Wellesley College in the early 20th century, a Harvard dissertation by Roselyn Krause on David Smith in 1969, and the 2001 (pre 9/11) advertisement campaign for Museum of Contemporary Art in LA led by Chiat Dey – also ironically provides an unwitting expose’ of the rich but particularistic accounts that pass off as history in Art History. Meyer, arguing for historicism in art history, is quite oblivious to ethical norms for practicing history. Art historians look at history as a way they look at art – they look at it to interpret and find hidden tapestries. By doing this, they can always convey a point – though never a historically accurate one.

Perspectives from the End

Contemporary art is obsessed with making ‘clever clever’ comments, says Donald Kuspit in The End of Art. He argues that it is the loss of aesthetics, and Contemporary Art’s singular obsession with sham intellectualism, that is behind the decay. Art, according to Kuspit, should be like a religion. It should brook no dissent. It shouldn’t be a cultural tome over which the philistine poseurs negotiate their cultural identity and status.

Art’s Hubris and Art’s End

Only ethical practices can escape being subsumed from the oncoming onslaught of commercialism. Art History and criticism, which pride themselves in providing subjectivist approaches open to all distortions and all arguments, are fighting a losing battle. Artists have tried to fight by burrowing themselves in the anti-commercial ethic, but they have found repeatedly to their chagrin that commercialism and culture industries have made them cultural items. It is a losing battle because artists rely on the same cultural industries that they fight against. It doesn’t mean that ‘good’ art has nothing to say – it just means it will never have an impact beyond dinner table conversations.

Solutions Solutions
There are two ways to fight it — make Art a religion by bringing back focus on non-negotiable aesthetics (Kuspit), or spend time creating a normative framework for art, art history, and criticism.

The Political Dollar

29 Apr

BBC reports, that according to UN over 100,000 people have benefited from a $1.5 million solar loan project that provides $300-500 for setting up solar lights. If the math is right, $1.5 million would have yielded, assuming perfect distribution, about 3100 such lamps (with the average cost of $400). In other words, each of these 3100 lamps benefits 30 people each.

Cross the $1.5 million figure with the $125 billion, which the US has spent post hurricane Katrina to “help” about 5 times as many people. [Washington Post, 2000 US Census put New Orleans population at 484,000] In other words the US government has spent an estimated $200,000 per person.

In many respects, the above comparison is a false one. It compares money needed to emerge out of a disaster, which requires rebuilding houses and infrastructure, with providing loans for buying solar systems that provide electricity for a few appliances. It does, however, provide one with a barometer of how much the world spends and on whom.

Social Science and the Theory of All

22 Apr

Social phenomenon, unlike natural phenomenon, is bound and morphed not only by nature (evolution, etc.) but also history, institutions (religious, governance, etc.), and technology, among others. Before I go any further, I would like to issue a caveat: the categories that I mention above are not orthogonal and in fact, do trespass into each other regularly. We can study particular social phenomena in aggregate through disciplines like political science, which study everything from study of psychology to institutions to history, or study them by focusing on one particular aspect – psychology or genetics – and investigating how each effect multiple social phenomena like politics, communication, etc.

Given the disparate range of fields that try to understand the social phenomenon, often the field is straddled with multiple competing paradigms and multiple theories within or across those paradigms with little or no objective criteria on which the theories can be judged. This is not to say that theories are always mutually irreconcilable for often they are not (though they may be seen as such – which is an artifact of how they are sold), or that favoring one theory automatically implies rejecting others. The success of a theory, hence, often depend on how well it is sold and the historical proclivities of the age.

Proclivities of an age; theories of an age

Popular paradigms emerge over time and then are discarded for entirely new ones. It is not that the old don’t hold but just that the new ones hold the imagination of the age. Take for example variables that people have chosen to describe culture over the ages – Weber argued religion was culture, Marx argued that political economy was culture, Freud proposed a psycho-analytical take on culture (puritan, liberated, etc.), Carey proposed communication as culture, political theorists have argued institutions as culture, bio-evolutionists argue that cognition and bio-rootedness are primary determinants of culture, Tech. evangelists have argued technology is culture, while others have argued that infrastructure dictates culture.

It is useful to acknowledge that the popularity of the paradigms that were used to define culture had something to do with the most important forces shaping culture at that particular time. For example, it is quite reasonable to imagine that Marx’s paradigm was a useful one for explaining the industrial society (in fact it continues to be useful), while Carey’s paradigm was useful to explain the results of rapid multiplication (and accessibility) of communication (mass-) media. I would like to reissue this caveat that adopting new paradigms doesn’t automatically imply rejecting the prior ones. In fact intersection of old and new paradigms provide fecund breeding grounds for interesting arguments and theories – for example political economy of mass media and its impact. Let me illuminate the point with another example from Political Science which a decade or so ago saw a resurgence of cultural theory at the back of Huntington’s theory of ‘Clash of civilizations’. Huntington’s theory didn’t mean an end to traditional paradigms like economic competition; it just postulated that there was another significant variable that needed to be factored in the discourse.

The structure of scientific revolutions

Drawing extensively from historical evidence from the natural sciences, Thomas Kuhn, a Harvard physicist, argued in his seminal book, The Structure of scientific revolutions, that science progressed through “paradigm shifts.” While natural sciences paid scant attention to the book, the book provoked an existentialist crisis within the social sciences. To arrive at that crisis point, social scientists made a number of significant leaps (not empirically based) from what Kuhn said – they argued that growth of social science was anarchic, its judgments historically situated and never objective, and hence the social sciences were pointless – or more correctly had a point but were misguided. This self-flagellation is typical in social sciences that have always been more introspective about their role and value in society as compared to the natural sciences, which have always proceeded with the implicit assumption that ‘progress’ cannot be checked and eventually what they produce are merely tools in service of humanity. Of course, that is quite bunk and has been exposed as such without making even the slightest dent in the research in science and technology. Criticizing natural sciences, especially the majority of it that is in service of ‘value-free’ economics, doesn’t take away from the questions that Kuhn posed for the social sciences. Social scientists, in my estimation, put disproportionate emphasis on Kuhn’s work. Social science is admittedly much behind in terms of coming up with generalizable theories, but they have been quite successful in identifying macro-variables and phenomena.

The most intractable problem that social scientists need to deal with is answering what is the purpose of their discipline. Is it to describe reality or to critique it or engineer alternative realities? If indeed it is all of above, and I believe it is, then social science must think about melding its often disparate traditions – theory and practice.

Rorty and the structure of philosophical revolutions

Richard Rorty in his book, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, launches a devastating attack on philosophy – especially its claims to any foundational insights. Rorty traces the history of philosophy and finds that the discipline is embedded, much more deeply than social science, in the milieu of paradigm shifts – philosophers from different ages not only offer different “foundational” insights but often deal with different problems altogether.

Battling at the margins

Those who argue that the singular purpose of social science should be to normatively critique it and offer alternative paradigms are delusional. Understanding how a society works (or how institutions work, people work) is important to craft interventions – be it drug policy or engineering new governance systems. Normative debates often times are nothing but frivolous debates at the margins. The broad overarching problems of today don’t need normative theorists devoted to analysis – though I don’t dispute their contribution – they are evident and abundantly clear. When we take out the vast middle of what needs to be decided, normative theory becomes a battle at the margins.

Post-positivist theorizing; and the sociology of research

The most significant challenges for social science as discipline lie within the realm of how the discipline aggregates research and moves forward and how that process is muzzled by a variety of factors.
Imre Lakatos sees “history of science in terms of a continuous competition between alternative research programs rather than of successive conjectures and refutations on the one hand, or of total paradigm-switches on the other.” Lakatos argues that any research program possess a kernel of theoretical principles which are taken as fixed and hence create a ‘negative heuristic’ that forbids release of anomalous results, and instead scientists are directed to create a “protective belt” of auxiliary assumptions intended to secure correctness of theoretical principles at the core. Finally, ‘positive heuristic’ is at work to “Defend and extend!” (Little, 1981)

Post-positivist scientific philosophy, like the ones forwarded by Kuhn and Lakatos, raise larger questions about the nature (and viability) of the scientific enterprise. While we may have a firmer grasp of what we mean by a good scientific theory, we are still floundering when it comes to creating an ecosystem that foments good social science and creates a rational and progressive research agenda. (Little, 1981) We must analyze the sociology, and political economy of journal publication as the whole venture is increasingly institutionalized and as careerism, etc. become more pronounced.

Remember Alberto Gonzales? Afraid so.

20 Apr

Public officials in real life can be their SNL caricatures. Listening to Gonzales testify, can certainly leave one with that impression. To say that “Mr. Gonzales came across as a dull-witted apparatchik incapable of running one of the most important departments in the executive branch,” (NY Times), would be being generous.

Both Republicans and Democrats picked Gonzales apart till he had nowhere to hide, except in the memory sinkhole. Gonzales used the phrase, “I don’t recall” a record 74 times (Nation pegs it at 64 plus numerous instances of “do-not-remember” and “can’t-quite-recollect” variations). It is no wonder I suppose then that he can’t recall Habeas Corpus or the Constitution. The phrase is set to become a “classic”, along with greats like Nixon’s, “I am not a crook” and Clinton’s, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Exasperated senators repeatedly expressed disbelief at Gonzales’ problems with remembering details of important events that happened less than six months ago. “He had no trouble remembering complaints from his bosses and Republican lawmakers about federal prosecutors who were not playing ball with the Republican Party’s efforts to drum up election fraud charges against Democratic politicians and Democratic voters. But he had no idea whether any of the 93 United States attorneys working for him — let alone the ones he fired — were doing a good job prosecuting real crimes.” (NY Times)

Senators, smelling blood, jabbed him repeatedly with pointed remarks. Sen. Specter (R-PA), thoroughly annoyed with Gonzales’ smart aleck response to the question about whether he was prepared for the press conference in which he stated that he had a ‘limited’ role in the firings, quipped, “I don’t think you’re going to win a debate about your preparation, frankly. But let’s get — let’s get to the facts. I’d like you to win this debate.” The most pointed comment though came from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who said say, “I don’t believe that you’re involved in a conspiracy to fire somebody because they wouldn’t prosecute a particular enemy of a politician or a friend of a politician. But at the end of the day, you said something that struck me: that sometimes it just came down to these were not the right people at the right time. If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?”

The Ken Lay defense
“Well, again, as — I accept responsibility for everything that happens here within this department. But when you have 110,000 people working in the department obviously there are going to be decisions that I’m not aware of in real time. Many decisions are delegated. We have people who were confirmed by the Senate who, by statute, have been delegated authority to make decisions.”
DOJ transcript

Memory Hole Defense
“Specter: Were you involved in the decision on the removal of Arkansas US Attorney Bud Cummings as Kyle Sampson testified?
Gonzales: Senator, I have no recollection about that, but I presume that is true.”

I don’t recall but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right decision
Answering to Sen. Brownback’s question about why he fired Bogden, Gonzales said, “I do not recall what I knew about Mr. Bogden on December 7th. That’s not to say that I wasn’t given a reason; I just don’t recall the reason.”

In the end, Gonzales explained, even though he did not know why he fired Bogden, “I believe it was still the right decision.””

The non-strategy
Gonzales’ strategy was that of equivocation and evasion. As was apparent during the grilling, the strategy didn’t go well. It is a bit surprising why the administration went with this strategy rather than use the partisan card to stifle the debate. The fact is that incompetence looks much worse on television than partisanship. The incompetence strategy left Gonzales exposed on one other key front – it precluded support from even the reliable party hacks like Corbyn and Graham. Gonzales has battled Senate successfully on multiple issues – Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib come to mind – by repeatedly taking out the partisan card. Had the issue been dealt with by Republicans in a way in which they could show that it was assertive defiant partisanship that led to the firings, they would have withstood the assault better.

Related Links:

An American Tragedy

16 Apr

After every tragedy like today’s shooting at Virginia Tech. which left 32 (BBC says 33) people dead, calls are made to put curbs on violent media. Almost always the penny-a-dozen talk talk show hosts greatly exaggerate the prevalence and magnitude of these incidents. And then we have politicians in full thrall of panic button policy making. After all full 33 people were killed by a loner psychopath, so it reasons to call for ban on violent media, introduce mandatory psychological testing for foreign students, increase policing and do “whatever is neccessary” to prevent a recurrence of something like this. In effect we now have a policy making model in place where one-time rare events that can’t possibly be avoided are given every whit of attention and spun into events that were long time coming due to the “moral depravity” and associated explanations.

The magnitude of tragedy
Vice Provost of Stanford, Dr. Boardman, sent out a university wide email expressing this thoughts about the “terrible tragedy that occurred on the campus of Virginia Tech yesterday.” Adding, “Such violence is beyond comprehension.” I wonder how much beyond comprehension Iraq, with its 650,000 dead, would be for the meager intellect of Mr. Boardman. It is the insidious hyperbole that creates conditions ripe to sell all and every policy choice. What is indeed the magnitude of this tragedy? Pitifully small, if you ask me. It is small compared to virtually everything a government should possibly deal with and focus its energies on.

‘Werther Effect’ -relation between violent media and crime

Two hundred years after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which triggered the craze for yellow pants, sociologist David Phillips coined the term “the Werther effect” to describe imitative suicidal behavior transmitted via the mass media in his landmark 1974 paper which linked news stories about suicides to adult suicides. (Other causal models have been posited including increase in sadness on seeing a suicide etc. though mimesis remains the psychological causal model of choice) Research since then has provided ample evidence towards the claim that watching violent features, let alone effect of active interaction in video games, has a tangible increased propensity towards violent behavior. Given that today an average adult today watches about thirty hours of television each week, and given that the content is increasingly violent, one would expect the size to be robust in size except the statistics on violent crime when taken in conjunction with survey of perpetrators of violent crimes point the other way.

What do Cheney and Bush Watch

If indeed these violent behavior is explained by the prevalence of violent media, I do want to know what ours slave owning, genocidal ancestors were watching. It is a facetious argument and I realize it as much; it is merely meant to draw attention to the poorly thought out “solutions” that are in vogue.

Spectacle and healing
Every tragedy not only brings its army of cable pundits but also a stylized healing process. This country heals through candle light vigils and spectacle. Tragedy is carefully touched up and modeled to sell. The sham displays of kids paintings covering walls, empty gestures of flowers, and candles abound. This country heals or pretends to heal through spectacle. (Baudrillard – who more pointedly claimed that all reality is understood through spectacle). There are no real tragedies so the healing must also be appropriately fake.

The cherished childhood

It is jarring to see the media frenzy that school shoot outs generate. Children and young white adults have become the cherished innocents of this country and the only ones that can be reliably summoned to generate moral outrage against the “other”. Young children are cherished everywhere for they are the “future” and the workers who will pay for the retirement benefits for the old, but in US it approaches fetishistic proportions. America at once festishizes its young teenagers as virginal innocents and as hypersexual creatures. It is American puritanism that in its quest to dominate that creates such absurdities. And America deals with it by pricing the child beyond measure – someone mentioned “holocaust” on the radio station by the way – and hence all policy making becomes absurdist for it loses the anchoring of pragmatic pricing.

The shah and Shaha of Iraq War

13 Apr

Paul Wolfowitz, head of World Bank and one of chief architects of US war on Iraq, is struggling to stay afloat amidst revelations that he “personally dictated” a gargantuan pay packet for this domestic partner, Shaha Ali Riza.

It appears now that the Riza angle goes much further back with Daily Mirror alluding to the relationship in March 2005. (Washington Post had a similar report). The Daily Mirror goes on to say that Riza was key in shaping Paul’s (and hence US administration’s) decision to invade Iraq. It is hard to substantiate this claim but there is little doubt in my mind that Riza had a key role in shaping attitudes of Paul Wolfowitz and the administration towards Iraq.

Women like Shaha Riza Ali belong to the select group of Arab women, Ayan Hirsi Ali and Azhar Nafisi are two others that come to my mind, who have risen to the top primarily due to their vocal (and much feted) articulation of female subjugation under Muslim cultures. These women have successfully transformed their personal suffering, both real and imagined, into vendetta against the entire culture through influencing public policy led by racist western hacks (primarily men) only too ready to act on whatever exaggerated personal hateful claims that they dare to make. This sad tradition of public policy making is by no means limited to policy on the Middle East – It in fact is part of a broader pool of policy making directed by racists from minority communities like Michelle Malkin (who has been called a “pathological racist”), Clarence Thomas, Dinesh D’Souza etc. Racist ethnic minorities provide other racist hacks in power to articulate their innermost prejudices without fearing the backlash. This happens equally on television shows and in the realm of policy making, which works through the media.

The worth of a military man

13 Apr

Marx Weber in 1946 gave a lecture on “Politics as Vocation” in which he described three preeminent qualities of a good politician—passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion. It is the missing last one—the sense of proportion—that I declaim in this column.

NY Times carried an article today about the V-22 Osprey helicopter whose debut “on the battlefield end(ed) a remarkable 25-year struggle for the Marines to build a craft they could call their own.” The specificity of technology being built primarily for the military is mind-boggling. Equally mind-boggling is the amount the military is willing to spend. “The Pentagon has spent $20 billion so far and has budgeted $54.6 billion for it…Each V-22 costs about three times the price of a modern helicopter and nearly the same as a fighter jet. The Marines will get 360 Ospreys, Air Force Special Forces will get 50 and there will be 48 for the Navy.”

The gung-ho patriots may be OK with figures except the program is blighted by safety questions. “On April 8, 2000, 19 marines were killed in a training exercise when a V-22 descended too fast and crashed near Tucson. It was the third V-22 to crash — seven people were killed in two previous crashes…In December 2000, four more marines, including the program’s most experienced pilot, were killed in a crash caused by a burst hydraulic line and software problems.” The hilarious part is how Colonel Mulhern, the V-22 program manager, defends it: “The first marine it saves makes it worth what we paid for it. And I have real confidence that the V-22 will do it.” Yup, it won’t take 20 marines—one more than those killed in testing this white elephant—but just one marine to make it all worth it. And just for the record, a marine’s life is about $54.6 billion. (The “value of a statistical life” is about $7 million or just about 1/8k of a marine’s life. So we would be willing to sacrifice 8k Americans for 1 American Marine.)

All Politics is Identity Politics (Or Soon Will Be)

13 Apr

Identity politics is a phrase that is traditionally reserved for studying politics of third world nations with deep ethnic cleavages like India and Fiji. It is rarely used in the context of American politics yet identity politics is rife in America.

More boldly, I would like to say that in fact, all politics is identity politics and the relative success of parties can be solely judged on how successful they have been in peddling robust identities. I use the word “robust” because it is important that identities be “essential”, and fundamental to how one sees himself and hence immune to pressure (or logic) unless of course your identity is based on being data-driven. I make this claim because there is a vast literature in political science that lays bare the abysmally low levels of information in general population and it reasons hence that people must make decisions based on identity affiliation, an assertion that largely bears out in the data.

There are two caveats to the claim that I am making – one is that very few political identities are infinitely tensile – they eventually brook to contrary evidence. Identities can be resilient and make people delusional but often times they have limits. Secondly, political identity for many is a shifting idea determined by what is sexy (a reference to meaningless radical positions held by students), and by what is appropriate or comfortable or stokes one’s prejudices the right way (for example – people don’t ever explicitly call themselves racist. they just feel that all black people are lazy and deal in drugs. and that is true isn’t it – Bill O’Reilly certainly thinks so)

A measure of success would involve the percentage of partisan media one consumes. Identity politics involves a reshaping of the kind of media one consumes, the kind of messages one gets from it, and how s/he chooses to interpret them and “update” (in a Bayesian way) their thinking.

The law of stable yields

Identity politics is the only system that is capable of yielding stable yields and creating a strong unwavering kernel. It is no surprise hence the party in power in the US is the one that has had considerably more success in engaging in identity politics.

The Economy of Everyday Conversation

11 Apr

Communication comes from the Latin word communicare, which means “to make common.” We communicate not only to transfer information, but also to establish and reaffirm identities, mores, and meanings. The two major localities of communication are the consumption of mass media and everyday conversation. While both inform how we view the world, and what is considered important, scant attention has been paid to understanding the nature and shape of everyday communication and charting its impact.

In the entire realm of human communication, arguably the most important part is the everyday conversation — the repeated mundane conversation. Everyday conversation isn’t the most important because it occupies the most time, for admittedly consuming mass media does that, but because the everyday conversation is still the primary site where people seek approval. While the motivations for entering into a conversation have remained largely the same, the nature of everyday conversation has changed dramatically over the last century.

Firstly, today the conversation is carried out between socially competitive peers rather than empathetic family members, and secondly the things that provide value, or things that people seek approval on, have changed from “being a good son or daughter or some other social relation” to fickle, competitive identity markets based on consumption of commercial products (or related training like cooking shows, home improvement shows, travel shows) and entertainment. In other words, with increasing atomization and resulting heightened anxieties about identity, for we no longer get most of our identity from family or some other archaic system, but through consuming the right kind of entertainment and consuming appropriate products, everyday conversations have effectively become negotiations of cultural identity among social or (generally “and”) economic equals.

The negotiation of commercialized cultural identities is done via issues like sports, movies, and other cultural products while contentious topics like politics, religion, and race with little or no commercial value are frowned upon as conversation topics. The key ideal in conversation is politeness (and conformity) and it is just not polite to bring in contentious topics except to mention harmonious approval, cues for which may have been exchanged before.

Given that the motivation for everyday conversation is garnering social approval, attention is paid to storytelling, artful handling of anecdotes, sarcasm etc. and not on “accurate” objective reasons. Additionally, the exchange of product preferences is liable to be subjective, and hence not eligible for closer scrutiny, and anchored to some accepted commercial shtick or parameters of “coolness” or “hipness.” This ineligibility for closer scrutiny is there for a reason for it is in the protection of that kernel of ‘irrationality’ and some vague notion of ‘individuality’ can one sell absolutely anything. The fact is that trillions of dollars in this economy rides on the fact that tomorrow millions of people will wake up and make a suboptimal decision, or perhaps more accurately, be convinced about their economically sub-optimal decisions.

The other important facet of everyday conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is that it now happens primarily between economic and social equals. Conversation between classes has altogether dried up. This drying up can be seen as a result of drying up of places where these interactions used to take place. Cross-class interaction or conversations always took place when the person from a lower class offered a service to the person from the higher class. The fora for these exchanges of anecdotes and stories between economic classes have almost dried up under the current economic regime. For example, the mom and pop stores manned by neighborhood people have been replaced by chain stores that hire salaried employees with high turnover and whose only focus is to provide an efficient economic transaction and offer an empty courtesy. These routine commercial interpersonal transactions not only keep us from learning the difficulties across classes and hence possibly build empathy, but also have a profound impact on our everyday interaction with other people- even of similar social status. Let me weave in another anecdote here to illustrate the point. When I first came into this country, I was often asked some variation of “how I was doing?” at the beginning of each conversation. I frequently responded by providing full descriptions of how I was doing. It was only after many months and after receiving numerous impatient glances that it dawned on me that people expected nothing but empty curtsies.

The normative point is that our everyday conversation affects the nature and extent of our knowledge and style of argumentation. For example, it affects whether one is interested in politics or not, and the political proclivities one may have. The site of “everyday conversation” needs to be reclaimed to build a healthy body politic. Specifically for politics, we may need a revival of public conversational spaces what Habermas writes about and what Tocqueville observed.

Selected Ethnography of Marketing in India

7 Apr

Biscuits (cookies) in India are marketed for their glucose shakti (power), bathing soaps for their ability to get rid of germs, hair oil for its efficaciousness in keeping the lice away, and a “fair and lovely” cream for its eponymous abilities (fair=lovely). We have popular biscuits made by Britannia, a popular red tooth-powder that leaves chalky marks on your teeth and turns your spittle red, neem (mainly known for anti-bacterial properties) soaps and toothpastes, a farmer (kissan) brand ketchup, Brooke Bond tea (after English tea retailer), clinic shampoo, kwality ice-cream, and prickly heat powders. We have multiple competing mosquito repellents including the popular “tortoise” mosquito coil and ‘good knight.’ We have ads showing joint families cheerfully celebrate and lighting fire-crackers and earthen lanterns after getting their houses painted with Asian paints, or buying a Maruti car, or for that matter a Chetak (after the horse of Rana Pratap Singh) or a Hero-Honda. Our movie studios often have introductory banners that are full of religious signage.

India is a poor country. It is a post-colonial country. We are as nostalgic about British era quality as we are about the merits of herbal remedies; though popular herbal concoctions like Chyavanprash contain mainly sugar.

India came of age, the IT age that is, celebrating its kissans (farmers) and jawans (soldiers). India entered the age of economic liberalization with its own baggage of history – colonialism, and its familial structures, religion, and government propaganda. The specificity of ads, the perversities of the pitches, all are merely scavenging over the body of this skewed, troubled body politic.

I grew up in this strange India. I grew up drawing my houses with slanted tiled roofs even though I lived in Delhi which only had flat-roofed houses. I drew spare free-standing houses, in the middle of nowhere, with a long winding walkway and green brushes even though I had never seen such houses while growing up. I drew colonial beauty — the mimesis of colonial aesthetics in India is deep and resonant. I grew up in a household where both of my parents were government “servants.”

Commercial advertisement traditions in the country are still cognizant of India’s deep poverty – they focus on the practical and not merely the aspirational though that is rapidly changing. I suppose as the economy grows the ratio of practical pitches to aspirational pitches increases. It is an artificial line – the line between practical and aspirational- and a line that blurs often, but a line nonetheless. The fact remains (for now) that most Indians haven’t reached a level of material comfort where each additional major or minor purchase isn’t looked on as something that materially and significantly improves comfort.

India in some sense is a prime market for marketers, except of course for its soul-sapping poverty. Indians, ever aware of the social position and with brains hardwired to equate price with quality, are almost always willing to buy something costlier that shows better taste or portends better quality. Of course, their instincts are roped in by positive social perception about buying something for a “good value”. There is little doubt in my mind that the most successful advertisements will make both pitches. Similarly, the most successful advertisements would also pitch to both its modern commercial aspirational soul, and its traditional religious soul.