An old piece on Blasphemy and Art published in The Shillong Times and Pyrta. Occasion was the ‘anonymous’ graffiti on the walls of Shillong and calls to prosecute the anonymous provocateur.
“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”
When the morning newspapers on Friday arrived, I expected to be bored with the usual cliché laden political babble. But I was assaulted by photographs of stencil art with subversive slogans that had mysteriously appeared on the walls of Shillong and to tell you the truth I was excited. Finally, the sledgehammer of public art had made its long awaited journey to the genteel walls of Shillong. Even if it was not Banksy, but at least the artists were putting their paint to the frustrating outrage that privately smoldered in us. But like all good things, it had to have a sting. I saw the ‘religious’ imagery and my initial excitement gave way to a sense of dismay. 9,26,36,105.80p suddenly lost its randomness and became what it really was, a number that Meghalaya Right to Information Movement had spent two years to uncover and I was irritated with the artists’ thoughtless juxtaposition of the number with the Christ crucified on the Cross.
I knew that this guerilla art action would be inevitably reduced to the familiar territory of ‘outraged religious sentiments’ and the very real issues ‘artist provocateurs’ wanted to stencil would be forgotten amidst the clamour of faux outrage. The condemnations flew faster than the graffiti would have taken to dry, the Church’s reaction was expected but with a few honourable exceptions most of the critical opinion makers of the society succumbed to opportunistic and cowardly pandering to power. And although irritated, I was forced to re-think the issues that these images have raised and to deconstruct the public responses to them.
Let me begin by making three confessions. One, I am a secular humanist and so the provocative images and the messages which appeared on the walls do not seem blasphemous to me. Two, I understand that there are some (many?) who are deeply offended with some of the images and I acknowledge their right to be offended and express their dissent. Three, I do not condemn or condone the guerilla images and the messages inscribed on the walls because like the religious groups, the artist provocateurs also have the right to publicly express dissent by transfiguring the walls of Shillong (ambushed already by advertising lies like ‘Cement companies for a greener world’) into spaces of public criticism. Even though the politics underlying the images are naive and simplistic and the form of image making a bit imitative.
In light of these confessions, in this essay I want to examine two aspects of this nocturnal ‘outrage’: one, locate the meanings intended by this public art and their political limitations; second, examine the vexed question of outraged religious responses and examine the relationship between free speech and blasphemy.
The Art of Graffiti is as old as civilization itself. Archeologists have found traces of these public commentaries everywhere they have dug. Historically, those in authority, both secular and religious have controlled the means of dissemination of ideas and values. But graffiti has been a way for the anonymous masses to be scurrilous about these dominant values and institutions. If one strand of this tradition has ended up being bawdy messages on the walls of public toilets, the other more politically subversive strand has tried to invade public spaces. These seemingly anonymous acts of reclaiming the public from the establishment have either been seen as mindless vandalism or an astute form of social commentary. For instance, Banksy (www.banxi.com) has used his anonymity to paint witty and subversive images of control and resistance from Gaza to Bristol. Jean Jacques Basquit’s graffitis became the toast of the art world. So, what happened on Thursday night was not a mindless and eccentric prank but appeared out of an artistic tradition, which in the words of Brecht, considers art not a mirror to reflect reality but as a tool to shape the reality itself.
But I am more interested in the politics of these images rather than their artistic pedigree. It is clear from the stencils that the ‘artist provocateurs’ are not into worshiping the powerful but are interested in challenging the powerful and their overpowering discourse or in other words artists want to be political. In some cases their strategy works, but sadly, in some cases the politics gets lost in the overall novelty of being provocative. How art is received and made sense of–its interpretation– determines its politics as well.
Take for example the juxtaposition of the number 9,26,36,105.80p and the image of crucifixion. What does that mean? What political understanding underpins that image? I am not sure. But listening to the reception of this image, it seems that people think that the artists are trying to draw some connection between the CGI sheet scam and christianity. If this is what is being received then the whole exercise of the RTI activists to uncover the corrupt dealings of the government and contractor has been undermined. This corruption has nothing to do with religion but with the impunity with which the rich and the powerful have gotten away with thievery. In this case, religion could have been a legitimate target of criticism, if the corrupt had used its spiritual façade to save their skin. Till now the swindlers of CGI Sheets haven’t publically done so, but who knows?
Now coming to the image of Pope Benedict and the artists’ desire to get him arrested. Arrest him for what? I am confused to the intention of that image. The image is so concrete, the text so ambiguous, the message itself borders on the realm of absurd. Maybe the artists are referencing the child abuse and rape scandals which plague the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict’s role in its cover up now and earlier in his old position as Chief of Congregation of doctrine of faith as Cardinal Ratzinger. If that is so, the text does not say so. And that is where the context becomes the text. In Shillong, if we leave sporadic appearance of news concerning this crime against children that the Catholic church has covered up for so long, then people have no idea of this shameful controversy. Maybe the defensive reaction which emanates from the church to this graffiti controversy is to preclude news of any such crime reaching the ears of the faithful by calling blasphemous any attempt which tries to criticize their religious world. Hopefully the special masses which will be held to condemn the blasphemy would at least acknowledge and examine the question of child abuse and child rape in the Church.
Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
Religion is something that human beings do. Like art, it is a phenomenon that has characterized every society. Religion tries to answer two important questions for humankind. One, how did we come about and two, how do we live our lives? On the first question religious answers are plainly wrong, we did not come into being by churning of the oceans or someone deciding in six days to create and populate this world. On the second question, religious diktats have been small minded and limited by their historical origins. Caste system and slavery is divinely ordained, Homosexuals have to be put to death or women are a spare rib of Man or robbers should have their hands chopped off or adulterers are to be stoned to death, take your pick, religion has mostly provided ‘aesthetically sickening, intellectually toxic, ethically squalid’ and immutable answers for us to live by. If the teachings and beliefs of religion are outmoded, hypocritical, or abusive of human rights, not expressing criticism of them would be criminally perverse. Shouldn’t we criticize female circumcision carried out in many Islamic societies, or should we not ridicule the totally unscientific and inhuman attitude of the church towards condoms, which criminally managed the AIDS murder of people in Africa. Thanks to enlightenment and its tradition of skepticism and freedom we can question religious truth and the philosophical and political implications of their claims to truth.
Just to outline the absurdity of all this ‘pynjah burom’ of Jesus as the over excited religious organization claim to be feeling, I would point them to the following verses from the Bible:
Matthew 26:63-66 But Jesus held his peace, And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God.
Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death.
Before the religious faithfuls ‘rent their clothes’, they may like to remember that the crime for which Jesus was crucified was Blasphemy. Blasphemy has always been an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense. Anyway blasphemy or going against the tyranny of popular consensus has been the cause of all the progress in the world. If there was no blasphemy by Galileo, the earth would still be flat, the Sun would still be going around the earth. If there was no Ambedkar (or Kabir or Periyar) caste would still have a legal sanction… More than religion, it has been blasphemy that has been beneficial for the world.
Maybe, we all realize the limitations of religion and we may all be privately blaspheming on a daily basis, but when it comes to publicly voicing our thoughts, we stumble on the threshold of polite toleration, and out of a desire to be polite and tolerant we pass no comment and criticism? Why should we hurt people and their beliefs? Why draw cartoons of the prophet or write Satanic Verses or reinterpret the Bible for a Liberation Theology?
But does toleration mean that one tolerates injustices and absurdity only because they are being perpetrated by religion? A society that has a more civil tone to its discourse is pleasant and welcome, but if some of the issues in society are unpleasant and difficult should we keep tolerantly quiet? Or, the tolerence means the tolerance of hearing things you don’t want to hear? Or reading things you don’t want to read? Or letting others watch films you may not want to watch. A free and civilized society is one where we question, we criticize and if necessary ridicule any ideas and ideals and institutions. And the holders of those ideals, which have been criticized also have an equal right to counter the criticism and argue their case. Unlike the closed world of religious obscurantism, the modern world of democracy is supposedly in the words of Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” If secular modernity confers the right to practice and propagate any religion so too it allows us the right to criticize the world of religion freely.
Although I am offended by much of the religious pronouncements about sex and morality or their patriarchal ideas about women or their disdain for other religions and lifestyle, I am confident enough to challenge them, call them to account rather than ask the law to shut them up. Anyway, it always surprises me about the devout who believe in the immutability and divinity of their truth asking for man made institutions to come to their aid, and ban the uncomfortable truths. If their truth is so divine why be so under confident? Your unchangeable truth will win anyway or the Karma of the blasphemer will lead to his/her uncomfortable stay in hell for eternity (me included).
What about untruths then, can we allow that to go under the rubric of ‘free speech’. Yes, as Milton said in Areopagitica, the publication even of untruths and errors enables the progress of truth by rebuttal; the statement of the truth combats falsehoods in open debate. Only those who fear debate and truth hide behind the comfort of censorship. In a free society only censorship which makes sense is the censorship of not listening and not seeing. If you don’t like something stop listening or stop seeing or better still write about your feeling, create a counter image. It is only the evildoers who prefer the darkness of ignorance to envelop every one.
So what do we do with the artist provocateurs ? Artists, filmmakers, writers, Political radicals, scientists or in other words creative people have always lurked at the edges of the un-sayable. They have extracted the awful beauty of the world for the people to contemplate and reject. They have challenged the darkness of silence by the light of the word. They have done so by being faithful to the truth of their desires to explore the workings and non workings of this world. They have been the prophets we have denied. So, rather than go on a inquisitorial frenzy and witch hunt for Blasphemers, we need to engage with their politics and desires. Remember images won’t stay banned or whitewashed from the walls. Words won’t remain silenced. Ideas won’t go to jail. It remains a cruel lesson of history that the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. If we disagree with the ideas on the walls we have to argue with them because the only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. Or like me, if you find the ideas naïve and simplistic, we will have to make those ideas more complex and radical, so that the artist provocateurs can transfer their politics from the wall to the streets, and the provocation transforms into a valid politics of liberation to finally achieve, as the Surrealists had declared, ‘all powers to imagination’.