It was rightly said by Cesar A. Cruz that “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This statement is more than just wordplay, it says something that is relevant to the present day and even history. Cruz defined what role does art play in society according to him, however, it gets more nuanced when the subject of artistic freedom is brought up. Before diving into whether there should be any limitations on artistic freedom, it is important to understand the concept of artistic freedom itself. The word ‘artistic freedom’ gives birth to the question – “freedom from what/whom?” The answer to this could be the audience, governments, cultures, etc. Debating on the extents of artistic freedom means that we are confirming that a particular institution, group, or individual holds authority over it. But does art really fall into the jurisdiction of any state or institution?
To ponder the question “should there be limitations on artistic freedom?” let us imagine a scenario where there are limitations on it. And when there are restrictions on art, two questions arise – To what extent? And who decides? The first possible answer to both the questions could be the audience, since they are the primary consumers of any product of art. But is there uniformity of any kind among them? No, there is not. The only thing that remains uniform among the people consuming a piece of art is the artwork itself. Since the audience comes from a different financial background, belong to different religions and genders, share a different set of ideas, conform to different political ideologies, share different set of experiences and traumas, it is impossible to create something that would not offend or hurt the sentiments of anyone from the audience. From the artists’ perspective, this would just be murderous to their creativity and imagination.
The second figure of authority after audience would be the state or the political ideology it abides by. Almost every government in any form of governance, be it democracy or dictatorship adopts a different ideology, which in turn influences their vision and the policies they come up with. Talking of democracy, the very nature of it is change. Theoretically, the power lies in the hands of the people in a democratic country. Therefore, the governments change according to the collective opinions of the people. Even if a particular artist shares the same beliefs as the ruling government and creates art accordingly, the career of that artist is temporary in this scenario since the government will change. And there are going to be multiple artists who share different ideologies, and if the state has jurisdiction over the extent of artistic freedom the artists would be limited. After all, is it even true art if it has to go through the filters set by the authority? Another major point in this discussion is how art has always been and always will be used for expression. From India’s struggle to seek independence from the British to the Zimbabwean immigrants in the United Kingdom, art has been used as a medium for dissent. It has been used to give voice to the people who have been unheard by the state or institutions and taking it away by restricting artistic freedom would be equivalent to ripping off their rights.
The third body of dominance in any state could be the majority religion or culture. Since the world is a spectrum of religions and cultures, I am going to narrow it down to one country – India. India has been known as the home to different religions, traditions, and cultures throughout history. It takes pride in coexisting in harmony and peace. Since there are multiple religions, there are bound to be multiple beliefs. However, the most important factor for our discussion is the magnitude of those beliefs. The spectrum of any religion includes people who are firm believers of it and abide by the teachings of their religion and the other side of the spectrum who do belong to a particular religion but are indifferent to its traditions and beliefs. And each person across this spectrum has different trigger points. An accurate example to illustrate this difference is people’s reactions to comedians making jokes about their Gods or traditions. Some people are part of the audience who laugh and cheer the audience, and more importantly, understand that there is no malice in the intention of that comedian. Then there are some people who may or may not understand the context of the joke or the intentions of the artist but take offense by those jokes. This creates a divide among the people who may or may not be from the same religions but are a part of the same society. Catering to either of the sides would be a disservice to the other. This raises the question as to where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is offensive?
The way I see it, in the battle between two sides of people where the opinions of a party conflict with the other, the focus then diverts from the main subject matter – Art. The people who usually demand that there should be limitations to art believe that it could be divisive or hurtful. What they do not realize is that it is not art, which is either of those things, it is the people. Coming back to the quote from Cesar, “Art should disturb the comfortable”. This does not mean that art could be inherently hurtful, it means that art open to interpretations. If it has the potential to comfort people, it is guaranteed that it will disturb other people. This is not because of the diverse nature of art; it is because of the diverse and mostly conflicting nature of human beings.
This brings me to my conclusion that artistic freedom is a right that any artist is born with and putting restrictions on that based on a particular set of beliefs or ideologies would be criminal for them. Any form of art calls for both appreciation and criticism, but what it absolutely does not deserve is restriction. It has every right to exist.