Mickey Patel's conflicts with design: IDC as a metaphor for an artist-designer interface:
by Ajanta Sen Poovaiah
• The artist-designer interface -- some fall outs:
The question then is what happens when such an artist extraordinaire arrives at a design institution ? Which is what Mickey Patel did in the fall of 1989 at the IDC where he stayed on through the spring and summer of 1990 . It is not often enough that the paths of the artist and the designer meet. While the designer relates himself to changing the immediate lives of people through his design interventions, the artist works in abstraction without necessarily having to relate to any immediate cause or concern. Therefore, regardless of common world views their methods of achievements could very well differ from each other's. Under the circumstances, the interface provided by a design institution for the artist already contains a potentially explosive situation but not so unique in its scope as to be potentially hazardous. There are examples of artists from the performing and the reproductional arts represented respectively by classical dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, musicians Ravi Shankar and L. Subramanium, and film maker Satyajit Ray among a few others, who are known to have accepted certain bottomline conditions as visiting faculty members for prestigious Ivy League institutions such as the Brown University at Providence,R.I., on Eastcoast USA, or at the Univ of California, Berkeley, or at New York University. In situations such as these, artists have had to find their own sense of equilibrium with having to 'teach' their art, or as a step ahead, to have had to find skilful, useful areas of applications of their individual artistic domains in order to (i) extend their personal sense of creativity beyond the immediate boundaries of the solitary act of creation, in order to keep it alive and burning; (ii) allow more and more people to participate in the dialectics of these glorious moments of creation by interacting with these learners while the language of these creations continued to retain their fire; and (iii)to help the non-artist to "penetrate through the veil of mere appearances and reveal the truth". Under the circumstances the strength of the kind of institutional support extended for such purposes by a set up such as the IIT-IDC may not be underrated. Mickey's conflict might well have arisen out of a common sense of consternation faced by artists viz., the absence and the consequent need to construct universals which might help define how an artist interfaces his creative skills with the objectives and the needs of an institution.
• Strains from the Bauhaus:
In our bid to understand the artist - designer interface that is potentially situated in a design school, one is inadvertently, therefore, drawn towards parallels from this post - War One design school. The Bauhaus in Germany, in its decade and a half span of existence (1919 - 1933) had managed to set the standards of present-day industrial design. In a distant but a tangible sort of a way, Mickey might have been expected to be something in the mould of painter Johanness Itten given his perplexing mixture of the 'saint and charlatan'. However, while Mickey matched the above description of Itten's, he entirely lacked the Bauhaus form-master's conviction for art education. Especially considering the fact that prior to his arrival at the Bauhaus, Itten had already been engaged in teaching, an unconventional form of art based on techniques espoused by Pestalozzi, Montessori and Franz Cizek. Moving on to find a closer match for Mickey one conjures up the example of the second form-master Lionel Feininger, who was also the second of the three original faculty appointments made by its principal Walter Gropius into the Bauhaus (the third form-master being the sculptor Gerhard Marckes). Feininger was a highly successful cartoonist known for his contributions to American newspapers and German magazines; also a serious painter, he was at the Bauhaus 'to create atmosphere' which Mickey himself managed to create at the IDC through his sour and wild humour and which more or less also signatured his own works. Between the two now, one might try and understand the nature of the influence of Mickey's presence at the IDC. Mickey's engaging role as a kind of crusader made him denounce in no uncertain terms the modus operandi of student evaluation which at the IDC appeared to him to be rather stringently analytical and problem -solving with no room that could allow one to breath one's impulses for subjectivity. This crusading had had the definite effect of eroding a slice of the then existing student morale. The general consensus at the school was that Mickey's brand of iconoclasm minus his talent would take a student nowhere. But another school of thought in assessment of Mickey's approach that emerged soon after Mickey left and which was initially dismissed as being a lot of pro-establishment tirade was exactly what many of the Bauhaus creative-teaching members(painters, sculptors, etc in their own right) have themselves had to endure- viz., that these individuals remained not much more than 'rootless painters' who were 'reluctant to show their work to the students'. And showing one's work obviously meant transcending the mere activity of discussing one's repertoire to more concrete propositions in terms of certain suggested means of achieving a style, locating its relationship within the broader matrix/canvas of other styles --- both prevailing and past, and upfronting critical evaluation (formalistic, functional, technical) of one's style in order to arrive at a decided point of a creative scale that attempts to "dissect" these styles by contemporary and past aesthetic values. If a teacher failed to establish these principles of pedagogy, it meant that he had not been able to connect up with his students in a very fundamental way --- his brilliance or range of work notwithstanding. While it was Wassily Kandinsky who had provided some relief to this tenor by his views that legitimized scientific principles as being intrinsic to the advancement of the knowledge of art, many of the other Bauhaus teachers fell back upon the precept (as Mickey did) that art cannot be taught. In so many ways, Mickey also stood apart from the Bauhaus comparative categories. The example that comes to mind is Bauhaus' Paul Klee, whose work was described by his colleague Shelemmer as inspiring a lot of shaking of heads. Mickey's work never even grazed past these areas of social applaud. Mickey, on the other hand, always managed a much more direct and grounded response from his people. The above section by no means attempts to cover the entire spectrum of creative and teaching viewpoints at the Bauhaus. The section merely seeks to serve as a pointer to the way artists of calibre have functioned in a design school located far away in space and time and which yet manages to provide a certain perspective and points of convergences or divergences for our own reference.
On Mickey's part, IIT's staid, white-collar, scientific -technological firmament threw him back and quite ironically into his days at the Lintas in the early sixties. Both seemed to have depicted for him the taste of an "aerosol can of corporate antiseptic for spraying any and every threat of freedom, movement, liberation, change" as well as a place that (even) provided for him the recipe for "grinding creativity out of a crucible". In his eight months at the IDC-IIT where he tried to figure out what institutionalised design could do to its pedagogues and practitioners. Mickey might have relentlessly applied his already existing views on the ways of the private enterprise (derived from his experiences with advertising) to the IDC albeit some modifications. Essentially this meant that like Lintas, an institutionalised set up such as the IDC had had the potentials to "curdle to ash every posture of creative bureaucracy". Mickey found it hard to accept that there could be any of the Buckminster Fuller 'critical path' understanding towards the arts, and quite definitely not towards his own brand of 'specialisation', viz., cartooning. However, as a useful counterpoint drawn from a similar set of coordinates of an artist working within a design school one is tempted to quote Bauhaus' 'non-object ' artist Wassily Kandinsky's views on how to teach one's own art. In his 1926 work 'Point, Line to Plane' (republished by Dover, NY, 1979), Kandinsky asserts that "aside from its scientific value, which depends upon an exact examination of the individual art elements, the analysis of the art elements forms a bridge to the inner pulsation of a work of art " And, therefore, for him there was nothing foolhardy about "dissecting" art just because many others ,and to a large extent even Mickey believed, that such dissection could only yield its death. It is not so far fetched an idea to allude to the Bauhaus, because IDC itself was fashioned after it, but more closely in time to the Hoschule fur Gestaltung at Ulm in Germany, an ex-graduate of which school was invited by the Govt. of India in 1969 to set up (with help from a team), India's first post- graduate school of design.
Within the specific context of the IDC-IIT, Mickey was probably over-reacting to the role of clear thinking. And a perfect example that may be advanced in favour of the positive fall outs of such creativity-logical interfacing (and something quite likely even endorsed by Mickey deep down somewhere) is the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome. Even a single visit to the MIT(Cambridge, Mass) will confirm for anybody the splendour wrought by the combination of logical thinking with artistry, and which finds such elegant display on the lawns of an institution that works in the best tradition of drawing inputs from economists, linguists, philosophers, mathematicians as well as the best of scientists from around the world.
And now without much hesitation one begins to see another parallel universe reflected in Mickey's conflicts with art education and with IDC. This refers to IDC's own conflicts with IIT itself; where IIT works with a positivistic, scientised, systems-attitude in its endeavour to transfer scientific ideas on to the plane of technological applications. Under this frame of reference, IIT obviously has had the occasional difficulty in comprehending for itself a course of studies that is the M.Des (Master of Design) and which entails what could be viewed as the occasional subjective (read 'artistic') tilt towards problem-solving. By the same token, one also likes to credit IIT for having relented within its broader scientised attitude, a certain leeway to IDC's functioning. And not without its rewards -- for IDC has brought to IIT awards, corporate funding, state funding and eventually a certain external humane sensibility to her otherwise staid firmament. And yet, Mickey found IDC's intellectual grounding too straitjacketed to be able to come to terms with it.
• Issues emerging from this interface:
Most importantly, however, Mickey's conflict with the IIT-IDC could well serve as an extended allegory for foregrounding two broad and interrelated areas of inquiry that have emerged as relatively recent concerns in modern societies especially since Margaret Thatcher's Britain over the past one decade to our own since our post-liberalisation nineties. These questions address the basic issue of the responsibility of a funded institution towards its taxpayers, the responsibility of the artist in helping these institutions uphold some of those basic values that help to expand the soul of learning, and finally, the responsibility of the tax payer towards the artist itself and who must be seen as a seer who walks with his head high. These questions that had been nudged into recognition by Mickey's presence at the IDC are at the same time also bound by the unified theme of the pedagogue - practitioner divide . The enquires relate to:
1) The relationship between the teacher and the practitioner or the thinker and the doer.
2) The implications of public or state-funding in education and research and their relationship to 'output' in terms of the quantum of their effective applications. While the first question upholds the validity of the holy spaces created as separate entities by specialisations and yet in today's world, these modes have begun to combine themselves under pressures of logistics and sometimes even under creative challenges (multimedia applications representing an example of the latter group of challenges). To that extent, the first question ties up directly with the second where the public has a right to know about what goes on with the taxpayer's money. Increasingly public and social sector spending have found to come under larger scrutiny amidst the altered politico-economic dynamics of global recession, spiralling Third World debt and debt-servicing, resources squeeze in terms of aid from affluent nations and THE final question related to the algorithms of accountability. The waylaying of Hegel and Marx's political doctrines and the fairly clean sweep by market forces in a post-cold war unipolar world led by an oligarchy of multinationals today, makes it imperative for us to 'deliver'. The pressures are beginning to let out at the seams of the existing educational funding systems. Witness for instance the fate of the British journal 'Design' which wound up so unfortunately for the design community worldwide, in the month of May, 1995. While the Design Council in the U.K had had to withdraw funding on account of a lack of finances, its young editor Gaynor Williams, in her closing editorial, expressed hopes for her journal to see the light of day someday, under less demanding times. One might wish to reconsider the eternal ivory tower-versus-the-playing fields debate , in the contexts of these conflicts and closures. The synergy that dissipates on account of these unresolved areas of debate is a question that is increasingly gaining recognition in the context of the modern operatives of globalization, market place and dwindling state funding for learning . And at the end, these comparative categories have merely been used to broaden the scope of what might otherwise mistakenly appear as being the condemnation of an artist and a design school, rather than what it really is, viz., the critical assessment of a certain interactive situation. And a condition thrown up not entirely for the first time. While Bauhaus and its participating members (students and faculty) were making history in the Germany of the twenties under fairly adverse political and economic circumstances, the IDC at IIT makes no such claims and quite correctly so. Except that one uses the occasion to admit to one's own sets of adversities at the IDC and expects that ahead of its twenty-five years of design pedagogy and practice, this collective experience will help her open up her eyes and ears wider in order to be able to net in people who see and hear in symbiosis. And needless to say an attribute that could be considered intrinsic to 'teaching' itself.
For those at the IDC who have had an opportunity to work or interact closely with Mickey, what remains among other things, is the artist's conception of his own art. Add to this a dash of funk and chic and one has a Mickey Patel. His search in IIT for a certain kind of freedom of expression and space mirrored a similar search for a similar freedom in his own existence. Until the end he never shortchanged this route in order to hasten the process of what he wanted to achieve, adversities of health and public opinion notwithstanding --- a rare brand of dedication that made cartooning not entirely empty of honour, but in fact quite to the contrary.