Sunday, June 19, 2011

Artistic Freedom- Is it Absolute?

“I believe in absolute freedom of expression. Everyone has a right to offend and be offended. So I supported Husain. In India, I see a division; some support Husain, others support Rushdie. Why can’t they support everybody’s freedom of expression? If they can’t support Rushdie, (Danish cartoonist Kurt) Westergaard, MF Husain, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Asiya Bibi and me equally, then they don’t believe in the freedom of expression.” These were the word of Ms Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer who had to leave her country, in the face of attacks from religious groups, in her interview published in the Times of India, dated 19 June 2011.

These words again brought up to the fore, certain confusions in my mind- relating to the sad situation in which India’s one of the most commercially successful artists, MF Husain, had to accept citizenship of another country and had to die outside his country of birth (when I say commercially successful, I am not qualifying the success of Husain as an artist. I use the term only for the simple reason that art and paintings are not my forte and therefore I do not want to pass judgments thereon).

Who is right and who is wrong? Are all parties wrong or right? My heart says artists must have the full freedom to express their creativity, thoughts and ideas. I would not feel offended merely because someone has used his/her artistic freedom in some or other work. But my mind says that no freedom can be absolute; one’s freedom must stop just before the nose of another and should not include the freedom to touch the nose itself! Absolute freedom amounts to anarchy and therefore it is not advisable for any society that believes in rule of law and aspires for harmony.

I wouldn’t go into details of the situation involving MF Husain for three reasons: (i) my concerns here are more conceptual in nature, (ii) I have not been able to make up my mind about culpability of Husain in drawing nude paintings of certain figures that are worshipped by groups of people, and (ii) I am already biased against the extreme rightwing elements among Hindus, who caused the whole episode.

I have had the fortune to study Indian Constitution and therefore I know, constitutionally, in India, no freedom is absolute. The Constitution itself makes fundamental rights enshrined therein, including right to life, subject to reasonable restrictions. Therefore, when Ms Nasreen talks about the “absolute freedom of expression”, that has no sanction under Indian Constitution.

However, that does not solve my confusion. What amounts to reasonable restriction is something very subjective. At the most, it will help if a matter reaches a court and the court has to decide upon it. But these issues are not decided in courts, but often on the streets. Just like artists, there are elements in the society who think they too have the freedom of expression; only that their mode of expression is violence and not arts.

When Ms Nasreen says ‘everyone has right to offend’, isn’t she, inadvertently but ironically supporting the so called right to freedom of expression of her tormentors as well? When she was being harassed by these fanatics, weren’t they expressing their freedom of expression in a manner known to them?

Similarly, what if an artist or writer deliberately offends a group or community with the intention of either creating social tensions or merely to gain publicity for his/her works? What if a radical group wanting to create riots, use one of the artists to publish some matter that can inflame any of the groups? Can we allow such things to happen?

When I raised these issues through Twitter, @taslimanasreen did not respond. However, another friend @charakan raised certain pertinent issues by way of counter questions. I will quote his tweets (verbatim but edited to expand so as to make it clear to readers):

“Misuse of freedom to create social tension is done not by artists but by communalists. They will do it even if artists keep mum”

“Who decides what is offensive and made to market? By Communalists or Journalists who have never evaluated a work of art, or by Art Critics?

I agree these are not black and white issues. One cannot give clear answers to all these questions. Any of these questions cannot be answered by another question. That is why I advocate a middle ground.

While respecting the artistic freedom of expression, the artist himself or herself have to ensure that the freedom is not misused in a way that it results in creating social tensions. At the same time if a third party, whether it is moral police, Government authorities, censorship bodies or even art critics are given the power to censor the art works that can stifle the genuine freedom of the artist.

Artists cannot compare themselves with militant groups that are fuelled by religious or other retrograde agendas. They must value their freedom and show a sense of responsibility in exercising it. Every artist must ensure that he or she is exercising self imposed reasonable restrictions on his/her freedom of expression, so that the social harmony is not disturbed by their works. They can use the test of reasonableness, wherein they decide not to do something that a reasonable man would find offensive in a given situation. I am sure there are enough ways to create a work of art, without using offensive language or symbols.

The first step towards this objective is for artists to realise and admit that no one has absolute freedom of expression and that the right is subject to reasonable restrictions and social responsibility. They must understand that they have more responsibility towards society than hooligans and violent groups.

Finally, artists have to be aware that for a State, maintaining social harmony is more important than allowing individual creative freedom. Therefore, given the choice a State is likely to stifle freedom than allow anarchy by allowing every group to exercise their respective ‘absolute freedoms’. The concept of society and nation-states are based on giving up certain individual freedoms for the common good.

Self restraint is the best form of censorship, as it gives the artist sufficient opportunity to express his ideas or art in a way that the essence of the work is not compromised.

P.S: Please read the addendum post that analyses the comments to this post


  1. 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'. :)

  2. 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"...

  3. Thank you Ambady for quoting my tweets.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 some one 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.

  4. A feel, there is a thin line between freedom and hurting someone's . 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 an way which may be hurting and indecent to me and quote freedom of expression is somewhat arbitrary and forceful.