Boycotts and bans are not enough, we must problematise the work of artists who disturb us

The creation of an experiential object is art. That object may or may not have a tactile form. In dance, it is space, movement and stillness; in music, it is a vanishing aural resonance. The dancer’s physicality creates a temporal connection with the creator, which at times also impedes aesthetic immersion. The musician, on the other hand, offers the emotional experience through the intangible. Yet, self-indulgence on the part of the musician can make music, aural trickery. The plastic arts and cinema work differently since the artist is not physically present during the art experience. In other words, the art object seems to be independent of its creator at the point when it is received. When we are deeply involved watching the film Dead Man Walking or seated in the presence of a Salvador Dali painting, we are unconscious of the artist; it is only later, after the experience, that our conscious mind analyses and judges the work of art as a creation of a person.

We receive art and the artist in folded layers and it is impossible to dissect the two into independent entities. Is there and should there be a line that separates the creation from the artist? This philosophical question of where the artist resides is mysterious because our mind floats within each and in-between the two. We fumble when faced with the question of where, when and why the immersion occurs. There can be no doubt that the artist’s artistry creates the art object and that the relationship between the art work and the artist is umbilical. Yet, at some point, art detaches itself and becomes a limitless unfettered being. In fact, it is when this is realised that the art object unfolds to the sensitive receiver. When it remains within the artist's firm grip, it is an object of enchantment.

Therefore we should wonder whether the profundity of an art object must find home within the artist? And if there is a discord between the two, do we then discard the art work?

When the #Metoo campaign erupted, these questions emerged once again in my mind. Should we boycott the films of those named? Does their art become immaterial? I have wondered whether I should stop watching Roman Polanski’s films because he has been accused of sexually assaulting a minor. And if I do watch his film/s, is it an ethical violation? The ghastliness of the crime conflates with the poetry in his movies.

Ignoring realities and boycotting art are escapisms. By taking either stand we are refusing to deal with the muddiness of the issue, remaining untouched by its obvious disturbance. If I were to allow the ugliness of the artist to stain his work of art, what happens? I am immediately forced to contemplate the dichotomies and disconnects, its beauty and ugliness, what is ignored, its power and vulnerability, violence, truth, narcissism, arrogance, the sensitive and the insensitive. All these play out on the screen — beyond and within my own being. The aesthetic experience of art becomes meaningful by sullying the waters of the art experience. I must emphasise that this is not a process of cleansing or sanitising reality — it in fact makes reality that much more stark, allowing ourselves to emerge with a deeper understanding of existence.

Is there and should there be a line that separates the creation from the artist? From L-R: Roman Polanski; Tyagaraja; Richard Wagner. Images courtesy Creative Commons

Is there and should there be a line that separates the creation from the artist? From L-R: Roman Polanski; Tyagaraja; Richard Wagner. Images courtesy Creative Commons

Daniel Barenboim did the unthinkable when he had the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra play Richard Wagner in Jerusalem. What he did was so deeply political, and at the same time, intensely aesthetic. For those who may not know, Wagner was not only Adolf Hitler's favourite composer, but also said to be anti-Semitic himself. The sound of his music is symbolic of the Holocaust. Barenboim did not just play Wagner. He engaged with the audience in a conversation and then played Wagner. He said:

"I respect those for whom these associations are oppressive. It will be democratic to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it. I am turning to you now and asking whether I can play Wagner?”

This stunning act problematised Wagner and his music; at the same time, it did not shy away from history. Wagner evoked death for many — and to some others, gorgeous music. The profound was created by allowing these two disparate receivables to contest one another. Beautiful music came out of the off-key note!

The release of the art work from the individual is a question of control disappearing, and that happens the moment the artist’s inner mire becomes a source of aesthetic discomfort. Instead of rejecting that feeling and in the process handing back control to the artist, we embrace it and strip the art object of assumed purity.

I have myself struggled with this within Carnatic music. There are compositions of composers like Tyagaraja that I find disturbing on social and ethical terms. I am not being anachronistic and expecting Tyagaraja to fit into my idea of an enlightened liberal. However, considering that his words are even today sacrosanct — unquestionable pearls of wisdom that no one within the Carnatic universe would dare challenge — I am forced to debate his opinions.

Do I avoid rendering those compositions ?

I hold the view that lyrics in Carnatic music are abstract entities of sound. Language itself is a creative sonic body. In other words, the meaning of the lyrics does not matter as much as the sound of every syllable, accent, enunciation, extension and aspiration. When I suggested this idea to a bunch of high school students, one girl stood up and asked me a pertinent question. “If the lyrics of a song promote violence would you still render it and claim that it is just sound that matters?" I did not have a coherent answer. I realised that my own music — Carnatic music — could be violent to others.

Further thought led me to believe that if I am to move people towards the abstract in language, I have to first make the semantic experience broader. In other words, I have to help a listener find divinity in songs about physical hardships, environment, sexuality and the intricacies of contemporary life. If this happens, then we will be able to at least partially flatten the hierarchy that exists between all these subjects. This is the first step towards syllabic abstraction.

But this still does not answer my question of whether I should continue rendering compositions of the great composers which are socially insensitive. Maybe by remaining acutely conscious of Tyagaraja’s unacceptable thoughts while rendering his compositions will be an act of subversion. The only problem with this approach is that the audience may remain oblivious to this unless I verbally articulate the issue. Instead, if I were to follow or precede such a composition with a voice from beyond Carnatic music’s social circle that debunks and attacks the narrow social perspectives of my revered composers, then something more can happen. The audience (could) become participants in the discussion.

The economics of living cannot be ignored while discussing the ethics of a sensitive receiver. Every time I buy a ticket to watch a tainted actor/director's film, I add to his market value and consequently contribute to his impunity. Is there a way out? In today’s times, the internet is definitely an aid. I would openly suggest that we should download their films for free and watch them. Unlike cinema, listening to music or watching dance on a screen is not the same as the live performance and hence it becomes far more difficult to negotiate. But it is important that we keep in mind that this cannot be a purely aesthetic discussion, our actions do have economic and political repercussions. And therefore any attempt to engage with the work of problematic artists has to take into account these issues.

Is an artist then directly conveying anything to his audience? When art is real, it is only an exploration of emotion, thought and suggestion; there is no audience. This is exactly why the art experience is not owned by the artist — which is why, often the artist is very different from what his art communicates. The art escapes from the artist’s tight fists and blossoms. And momentarily, as the catalyst, the artist too transcends, but is quickly pulled back into the unpleasant within. When art moves away from the personal, all garbs are off, a state of the real, hence it frightens everyone including the artist. Yet we do keep hoping that the vulnerability found within the art experience will lead to an awakening. More often than not, that does not happen.

TM Krishna is a musician and commentator on the intersections of culture, society and politics


Updated Date: Aug 06, 2018 12:07 PM

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