Chapter 2
Cooperation and Conflict in Chennai’s Visual Culture:
Financiers, Artists and their Audiences

Multiple agendas of art, advertising and propaganda shaped the scale, design and content of banner and cutout objects.

Drawing on Howard Becker’s institutional theory of functional aesthetics the author analyzes the nexus of art and commerce that was essential to the production of banners and cutouts. Becker, a sociologist writing more than two decades ago, proposed that aesthetics should be studied as a dynamic set of social relationships and fluid economic processes, rather than as a group of static principles.

Comparing data from interviews conducted with three groups of people — artists (19 interviews), their clientele of film producers, distributors and exhibitors and the publicity secretaries of major political parties (12 interviews) and members of the public at nine major cinema theater complexes around Chennai city (100 interviews) — the author found conflicting perceptions and assumptions about taste and motivations.

Artists and their clients attributed their stylistic decisions to unverified assumptions about audience preference. A majority of viewers, while admittedly deriving pleasure from the display of artistic prowess in the vibrantly hued, mural-scaled portraits of their favorite celebrities, imputed propagandistic motives for the dominating presence of these advertisements on city streets.

In theorizing the stylistic qualities of banner and cutout objects the author concludes that, in this instance, aesthetics — true to the etymology of the word — is a matter of perception rather than a static set of values inherent to an object.

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