MF Husain, one of the most celebrated proponents of modern Indian art, died in June this year in London. His art, which had been praised in India for decades, also came to be reviled there. ‘India’s Picasso’ will be remembered by some as an artist who pushed the boundaries of artistic freedom, but by others as an offensive heretic. A point on which both sides can agree is that Husain’s death has again brought the question of extent of freedom of artistic expression in to the fore.
Bans, protests and exile have plagued a number of controversial film-makers, writers and artists over recent years. Award winning author Rohinton Mistry saw his book, Such a Long Journey, dropped from the University of Mumbai’s literature curriculum after complaints from the nationalist Shiv Sena party about the ‘derogatory portrayal’ of some of its members. The much-anticipated film Aarakshan, directed by filmmaker Prakash Jha, inspired protest and violence even before its release. Similarly, while Delhi Belly, directed and produced by Aamir Khan, has been a huge commercial success, screenings of the comedy in June 2011 attracted protests and attacks from groups who have found the content to be profane and an attack on Indian values.
Such controversies are by no means confined to India. Ai Weiwei, one of China’s most prominent artists and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, was recently arrested and detained, making him a global sensation and exciting protests and criticism the world over. In the UK, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) refused to classify the horror film The Human Centipede II earlier this year, on the grounds that it was likely to ‘deprave and corrupt’ some of those who saw it. The issue of free speech and the arts takes slightly different forms in different countries, but the principles of the debate remain the same. One side proclaims that free expression is an absolute right, which cannot be compromised. The other argues that the damage caused by allowing certain types of expression outweighs the positive benefits of society’s commitment to free speech. Does art offer society something unique that is worth defending no matter how shocking? Where does criticism end and censorship begin? And should artists be able to express anything they like, or should there be some limits?
The debate in context: Book bans and their implications
The 1989 banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which was also the subject of a fatwa issued by Muslim cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, remains one of the landmark controversies of recent times. Other books, though less infamous, have suffered a similar treatment. Earlier this year Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Mahatma Gandhi was banned in the state of Gujarat for implying that India’s most venerated icon was both bisexual and racist. Although the Centre decided to resist a ban, law minister Veerappa Moilly remarked that “the government has taken a serious note of the book that has made disgraceful statement on the national leader. It is demeaning for the nation”. R.V.Bhasin’s book A Concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims, written in 2003 is still banned today, for perpetuating hate against Muslims; many others have been banned for similar reasons. But while many denounce the impulse to ban on the grounds that it underestimates readers and denies them the opportunity to judge thought and words for themselves, others suggest that communities must be protected from insult and offence. Some books, including R.V. Bhasin’s, say critics, are written deliberately to inflame communal hatred, but might also trigger the ‘senseless destruction of lives and property’.
But who decides?
Across history, artistic activity has caused controversy and disruption. The reasons for censure have varied, in cluding fear of communal violence, disapproval of new ideas, and concerns about the offence that might be caused to religious groups. But while we might be familiar with works censored (and defended) because they challenge or insult religious groups and cultural sensitivities, artistic expression can be controversial for other reasons too. In 2005 the government of India banned smoking in films on the grounds that it encouraged and glamorised smoking. The ban was overturned in 2009by the Delhi High Court, on the grounds that it was a violation of free expression, but the ban enjoyed wide public support. In 2011 a group of Indian artists decided to boycott an upcoming show in Tel Aviv - billed as the first major Indian art exhibition in Israel - in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. While some have hailed the boycott as progressive and necessary, others such as art critic Girish Shahane argue that “Associating art institutions… so closely with state policy is a silly mistake in my opinion, and tokenism of the worst kind as well”. Indeed, when Booker prize winning author Margaret Atwood was called upon to boycott a literary prize awarded by an Israeli foundation, she commented that such boycotts set a dangerous precedent and constitute a form of censorship. Artists the world over have found themselves subject to bans and courts cases in recent years, but is this just a question of taste or do people and communities need to be protected from blazen offensiveness? How do we make decisions about what is challenging and what is offensive? And who should decide? Some argue that as public tastes, beliefs and opinions vary, it should be public bodies that decide. Others stress that artists need to take greater responsibility for their work and the reaction it might incite.
Many are reluctant to see artistic value defined by the police or state bodies, even amongst those who regard art as shocking or offensive. What is needed, say some, is for artists and art institutions to exercise greater moral judgment. An example of this can be seen in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MOCA) decision to whitewash anti-war graffiti they had commissioned on the grounds that it would upset military veterans and their families, since a war memorial and hospital were located nearby. But others argue that self-censorship can be more pernicious than its imposed form, because a culture of restraint develops in which the giving of offence is morally unacceptable. Neither is the public granted the chance to discuss or debate challenging ideas or opinions. This is the legacy of the Rushdie affair, says British writer and academic Kenan Malik. But Stanley Fish, Professor of Humanities at Florida International University, disagrees, arguing that moral criticism is not the same as censorship, and that making aesthetic judgment over what to include or exclude is integral to creating and understanding great art. Speaking in the context of the decision by publishers Random House to withdraw a book by writer Sherry Jones about the prophet Muhammad’s child bride, Fish wrote that this was an example of the company exercising judgment, something that individuals and businesses have to do every day when we adjust our behaviour to the imperatives of different situations. To deem such decisions as censorious is to raise them to a level of philosophical concern that they do not warrant. In a different context academic Matthew Kieran reflects on a ‘puerile tendency in some contemporary art where being shocking for its own sake is thought of as quite valuable.” It is against this tendency that some artists need to take greater moral responsibility for their work.
For art’s sake?
Recent controversies around artistic freedom and the death of MF Husain have prompted some to question the function of art in contemporary society. Many defend artistic freedom because artworks contextualize and allow us to reflect on ideas and actions that might be offensive, or illegal in real life. Critic Vikram Kapur argues that “pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable or even palatable in the society of its times is one of the goals to which all serious art aspires”. But others wonder whether art should aspire to something higher, transcendental or moral. The philosopher Roger Scruton argues that the real problem is that art’s moral role as a universal civilising influence is no longer taken seriously, and the traditional Western goal of disinterested aesthetic judgement is being replaced by personalised and emotive responses. Some argue that art might even gain from censorship, since it is forced to respond creatively. Does art have a specific moral purpose, or should it be defended for its own aesthetic sake, our judgement being limited to whether it is good or bad art?
What They Said: M.F Husain’s Death Wall Street Journal 11 June 2011
Defending the right to offend Reason.com Jan 6 2011
http://reason.com/archives/2011/01/06/defending-the-right-to-offend Is there still a need for the Censor board? Indian Express Jun 16 2011
In defence of books The Hindu June 5 2011
http://www.hindu.com/lr/2011/06/05/stories/2011060550210500.htm Freedom is not that Free The Views Paper 9 July 2011
http://www.livemint.com/2010/08/12203124/Ram-Rahman--Political-ink.html Censorship as a Political instrument LastManDreaming Blogspot 16 October 2010
http://lastmandreaming.blogspot.com/2010/10/censorship-as-political-instrument.html How Much is Too Much The Hindu 27 November 2010
http://www.thehindu.com/arts/magazine/article917396.ece For: A disgusting act of censorship Brendan O’Neill Reason Magazine 24 June 2011
http://reason.com/archives/2011/06/24/a-disgusting-act-of-censorship When society failed the artist Vikram Kapur The Hindu 19 June 2011 http://www.hindu.com/mag/2011/06/19/stories/2011061950070200.htm What price freedom of expression now Nick Cohen Guardian 12 June 2011