Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Addendum to the Blog on “Artistic Freedom –Is it Absolute?”

When I wrote my previous Blog titled Artistic Freedom- Is it Absolute? ‘http://confused-ambadi.blogspot.com/2011/06/artistic-freedom-is-it-absolute.html, I did confess that I am rather confused on various dimensions of the subject. I believe that like most of the other social issues, there is no black and white answer to this issue as well. I knew various perspectives being advanced on the subject are right in their own context, yet very much wrong when seen from some other angle. In the context of artistic freedom, my heart hated any restrictions while brain demanded certain controls on the expressions in the interest of larger issues of social harmony and peace.

Therefore, I tried to find a middle path wherein the parties are encouraged to exercise self restraint while exercising their right to freedom of expression so as to avoid hurting any genuine sentiments of others. It is only a fact that there are thousands and thousands of artistic expressions in all forms of art that do not hurt any sentiments yet manage to be great works. There are also certain artistic works that by their very nature and subject might cause some hurt to some people, not because of the work as such but because these people are unduly possessive or sentimental about the subject itself. I was addressing the third group of works where an artist causes hurting of sentiments of a large group of normal population, whether deliberately or otherwise. By normal population, I mean any population of rational beings excluding the fundamentalist or extremist elements.

I am thankful to all the readers who conveyed their opinions on the subject, either through comments section of the Blog or through Tweets/ emails to me. To take these deliberations further, I would like to discuss in detail some of the comments that are more vocal on different aspects of the issue. I would also use this opportunity to invite more comments from the readers so that something positive comes out of this interaction.

Lets us start with two extreme views:

Charakan said in his comments...

“I do not have much confusion about artistic freedom for expression and freedom for an individual to hold an opinion and express it.

Artists should have complete freedom for expressing themselves in the artistic way they want to and should be subjected only to self-censorship in an atmosphere free of fear of violence.

If someone get offended by it he/she should have the freedom to not to see/read/hear the artistic work.

Thus if someone finds a story in a text book offensive he/she should have the freedom not to study it. But he/she do not have the freedom to stop others studying it.

If a person or group of people is of the opinion that an artist is deliberately maligning their religion or culture they have the freedom to protest in a peaceful manner. At the same time the Government has the duty to protect the artists freedom and the freedom of others to protest peacefully. But the Government or the Courts should never stop an artist from expressing himself as the aggrieved parties always have the choice not to see/read/listen to the work.”

While he agreed with me on subjecting the artistic works to “self- censorship in an atmosphere free of fear of violence”, he holds a very clear view on the absoluteness of the artistic freedom. The only concession to the offended is their right not to study/ read/ see/ listen to the work in question. I have no quarrel with the ideas itself but I do not agree with the practicality of the suggestions.

If a university chooses offensive portions to be included in its syllabus, would it be possible to tell the students that if they are offended by the work they don’t have to study it? Taking the artistic freedom little further, is it fine for an artist to deliberately carry out character assassination of a person by including a distorted version of the family history of that person in some artistic work? Wouldn’t affected person have a right to sue the artist for defamation and would it be improper for the State/Courts to punish the artist, if it is proved that the work amounted to defamation as per the laws of the land? Or, should the Court merely tell that person to restrain from reading the artistic work containing defamatory matter?

I am of the firm view that violence is not limited to physical form alone; even psychological and emotional violence is equally deplorable. No matter what the mode of expression, every form of violence is to be condemned and stopped. That includes a violent artistic work as well.

Further, this comment pre-supposes a superior right to artists to express themselves, in whatever form and fashion they choose, while imposing a burden on all others to be apologetic about their sentiments and to be choosy about what they read, listen, view etc. In the real world, this kind of a classification of rights may not be feasible.

On the other hand, Aaquib Naved said...

“I feel there is a thin line between freedom and hurting someone's feelings. Your freedom of expression cannot intrude my sentiments. Be it a cartoonist, a blogger/writer. If you've objections/issues/views on any particular religion/sect you are most welcome to point them out but at the same time be ready for a healthy feedback. I reiterate it being healthy and non-violent. Moreover, If I portray you in a way which may be hurting and indecent to you and quote freedom of expression (as an excuse) it is somewhat arbitrary and forceful.

In contrast to the previous comment, this one portrays the views of the ‘offended’. Aaquib says “Your freedom of expression cannot intrude my sentiments”. But then, who decides where the thin line that separates freedom and hurt is? Sentiments differ from person to person. Can an artist realistically determine what the line is where he can be sure of not hurting anybody’s feelings?

Let us turn the argument on its head. As much as there could be an artist who is deliberately out to destroy social harmony, isn’t there a possibility of some motivated individuals holding that an artistic work hurts their sentiments (real or imaginary) and instigating a large groups of people to indulge in violence? In fact, it is the so called ‘offended people’ who often resort to violence without even trying to find out the truth behind the allegations about offending their sentiments! Most of the violence that occurred in the past against artistic works was precisely due to misguided reactions, at the behest of trouble makers and without actual reading, viewing or listening as the case may be.

Between the two extreme views above, we have to find a line which has balance of convenience, even if not the ideal, so that we can ensure maximum social harmony with minimum interference in artistic freedom. It is towards this end that I suggested self-restraint as the method, wherein the artist himself acts as any prudent artist would act in the given situation. I am sure there are thousands of ways to express one’s creativity and ideas without hurting other normal people’s sentiments.

I am glad to note that my view on self –restraint is not completely off the mark and there are takers who support the view.

I quote The Addict who said...

“As you've rightly shown, the path between artistic creativity and greater social harmony lies within self-restraint.

I would add that this philosophy is applicable not only to the artist, but even to the so-called audience.

It has been a sad precedent that the most radical reactions to offensive art (or art *supposed* to be offensive) are from people who have never seen/heard/read the art in question.

In other cases, the solution is simple: avoid what you personally dislike. Like we all do, every day, with so many things.

Above everything, let us foster a social culture where we understand that "strength needs to be tempered with wisdom"...”

And manjujoglekar...

"I like the point you have made about self-restraint being the best form of censorship.

Self-discipline or 'Swatantrata' has been advocated in Indian culture from ancient times.

‘Swa‘ means self. ‘Tantra‘ means method, discipline, or rules. So Swatantrata means acting according to our own methods or rules, which is the ideal type of 'freedom'.”

Both the comments above remarkably add substance to the theory of self-restraint. They do not limit it to artists alone but extends it further to encompass all of us. “Strength tempered with wisdom” is something that we all have to aspire for, as a qualification to remain social animals. If any of us try to enforce our unrestrained will on others, through art or violence or any other mode, then the fragile bond of society will only disintegrate.

I agree each one of us have absolute right to hold a view, opinion or belief, howsoever extreme it may be. But we do not have such a right to manifest that in public, without considering its impact on other members of the society. That restraint is the little cost that we have to pay for enjoying the membership and associated benefits of a society.

I do not believe the last word has been said on this topic. I look forward to more comments that may throw further perspectives on this issue, which I still believe to be complex.


  1. Beautifully written
    Well researched
    Dr Anand

  2. Ambadi, thank you for discussing my comment in detail here.
    About University question..
    A University will not choose an 'offensive' portion. What is happening is some Communal Organisation finds it 'offensive' so as to increase their influence in the Community. Then the University can prescribe another Text/portion as an alternative so that the student can choose which to study. Then they should be ready with 2 sets of question papers too. If there is a strong will to fight Communal forces there is a way around all this. Easier but shameful way of succumbing to communal/casteist pressure will harm the Nation.
    You asked..
    'is it fine for an artist to deliberately carry out character assassination of a person by including a distorted version of the family history of that person in some artistic work?'
    Artistic works are fictious in nature. Biographies/History books etc. are not work of art and do not contain any self-expression and should have no freedom for expression but only freedom for interpretation of facts. If a novel has some characters resembling actual persons that could be coincidental and the Court has no role in it.
    Do artists have Superior right to express themselves?
    No, they have only EQUAL rights as any other citizen. Each one of us can be an artist and express themselves. Actually the importance here is not to the artist but the artistic work.
    Communalists express themselves freely in their publications defaming other religions. Atheists also attack all Gods/religions/God men in their writings. If you walk into a Sanghi/Islamist/evangelist Conference, you can see countless 'violent ‘and hate-mongering posters and books in full view of thousands. I am only asking that the freedom that we are giving to artists in the pay-roll of Communalists be given to other artists too.

    I am for self-restrain or self-censorship in an atmosphere free of violence and in a State which have guts to stand up to Communalists

  3. Beautifully analysed and Yes complex it is. I quote the words of The Addict >> "In other cases, the solution is simple: avoid what you personally dislike. Like we all do, every day, with so many things!" and Yours >> " I agree each one of us have absolute right to hold a view, opinion or belief, howsoever extreme it may be. But we do not have such a right to manifest that in public, without considering its impact on other members of the

    I consider myself fortunate on being part of such enlightened discussion. Forums like this help decipher 'difficult' issues in a positive way. Thanks again :)

  4. Greetings!

    I got here from the main article. Like you put it, this is a complex matter at hand and howsoever hard we try we cannot lay down definitive rules/solutions. Like Charakan says the artists must have so much freedom to express themselves authentically.

    The moment the society, or the artists themselves, draw the line they will not be making art anymore because one main purpose of art being transcendence to attain which certain norms will be questioned (and it is attained more unconsciously than consciously and it may be that the artists have less control over their works than it is commonly believed).

    The society which bans a work of art now would most likely lift the ban, say, a decade or two down the line. We as a society change, change being the only permanence. We as a nation change much slowly than other nations but we change just the same.

    On the other hand, artists have all the right to be socially conscious simultaneously being artistically free.