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We, The Liberal Artists

By Aarti

02 September, 2012

Art For The Sake Of Art bases itself on the notion that art needs no justification, that it need serves no political or social interest, that the art work just is .

There is no such thing as apolitical art. Every piece of art has a story to it: the story of the artist, where they come from, their place in the y, there is the art work itself: what is it made out of, where it is made, how it is made, why that particular theme, what is the relationship between the theme and the artist…the list goes on.

While there is no such thing as apolitical art, making art work that has direct, strong links with another person's suffering is as much a problem as ‘apolitical art' is. What is the responsibility of the artist towards the issue s/he is basing the work on? Is it enough to just make the work and receive applauses for it? What kind of space is the work being shown in, and who are the people who will view it?

Keeping this in mind, let us look at the White Cube, which is usually a room with white walls, where the floor is either wooden or expensive marble/tile, and there is a counter behind which regularly sits the curator or one the gallery monitors. With time, the White Cube has gone beyond its physical description, and has come to encompass and symbolise whole world by itself - a world that is never monetarily deficit and whose participants are invariably the upper and middle classes. Where most of the work showcased cannot be understood by non-participants, but is never the less revered.

While it is important to accept that the White Cube is a very exclusive space and is largely cut off from the general public, it is equally important to acknowledge that its limited audience cannot be written off. Typically from middle and upper classes, they play an important part in collective societal consciousness – they play a big part in shaping public opinion. Writers, critics, artists, English-speaking theater people are the accessible intellects of society that a large chunk of the population looks up to. The liberal intellects, through our work decide what to question, what not to, how to interpret and act like guides almost, for the lesser confidant, ‘more ignorant', ‘the unthinking' amongst us. Because of this, a responsibility is placed on the shoulders of liberal intellects, based on our place and role in present day society and it cannot be ignored.

While this responsibility does lie on the everyday ‘thinkers' of society, the people in question must also realize this: Liberalism lays its foundations on guilt and passivity/inaction.

Steve Biko writes:

…(liberalism) makes people believe that something is being done when in reality the artificially integrated circles are…salving the consciences of the guilt-sticken white (1)

While it is very wrong to simply assume that us Liberals, as a community, are ingenuine, we must collectively understand that individual kindness, or being generous to the many people who serve us, mixing and superficially integrating with ‘the masses' and the structurally deceived, or striving to become a global citizen, or making art that is politically (actually) removed from ‘us', is not what we should be working towards. Infact it is no solution to our collective guilt at all, it merely cushions our heavy conscience. The present structure that benefits us, strives on superiority-inferiority complexes and monopoly of intelligence and moral judgment (2) . Therefore, along with ‘helping the unfortunate' receive their deserved justice, and being nice, the role of the Liberal must, must also be to articulate how their own position and role in society ensures structural inequality. And acknowledge that liberalism as an ideology thrives on these very caste/class, superior/inferior structures.

Art work that reflects the problems of the structurally disadvantaged therefore does spread awareness at a limited level and is important, but what is of pressing need is scathingly honest work that is critical of liberal society. The aim must be to look inward, and realize that the problems don't lie elsewhere, but in our everyday interactions, our homes, the books we read, the movies we watch and the art that we make.

Take for instance The Hindu. It isn't a secret that The Hindu, Chennai's leading English newspaper, is a nationalist, Brahmin oriented daily that has very, very wide circulation across the country. Not only that, it is also looked upon as a newspaper for liberals, progressives – the intellectuals paper. The Hindu's understanding of Art and Culture is that practiced by the ruling classes/castes, from their coverage of discourses on the Mahabharatha and the Ramayana, to Carnatic music, to Bharathnatyam dance recitals, to English theater, a newspaper like this repeatedly strives to maintain the ruling caste's/class's point of view as the moderate, balanced and intelligent way of looking at issues. The newspaper shapes public opinion by legitimizing the present caste/class structures of society and refuses to question the structurally ‘superior's voice, all the while deepening the caste/class divide.

A classic example of this can be seen in a concert by T.M Krishna in Jaffna , Sri Lanka that took place in October 2011. The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka and the Indian Cultural Centre in Colombo , came together to construct a platform where the Carnatic musician would perform (in Tamil), in ‘post-war' Sri Lanka . At this time:

Krishna clarified that this concert should be looked at from an apolitical standpoint. “This is about the people, and preserving their cultural moorings. People everywhere should support this.” (3)

With the background of Sri Lanka 's Genocidal history, it is but impossible to tear way the politics of such a concert and place it in a ‘…lets purely appreciate the beauty of art' point of view. Looking at the concert in an apolitical perspective only serves the intention of the Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka – which is of reconciliation.

The GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) post 2009, has been involved in a number or culturally rich activities in a bid to refresh its image and move away from accusations of serious war crimes and large-scale slaughter. The GoSL has created and allowed for the IIFA ( International Indian Film Academy – read Hindi Cinema sponsored award ceremony), the Colombo Art Biennale and the Galle Literary Festival to take place in a post war scenario. The T.M Krishna concert too, unfortunately, falls into this category.

R.M Karthick writes,

Before philistines point out that promotion of such performances proves the liberalism of the Lankan state and that there is no threat to Tamil culture, let it be stated that that Lanka allows these performances precisely because they pose no threat to the state.

And this is precisely what the governments of India and Sri Lanka would want – a Tamil art form without a spine to stand as a reflection of the social life of the people, instead an impotent abstraction that is tolerated by the Lankan regime as such an art is powerless to accomplish anything substantial in the political sphere. (4)

But I would beg to differ that such art IS extremely powerful. It is powerful and dangerous because it projects certain views to the middle and the upper classes. The view of an accepted reconciliation, that a nation that has faced a genocide, has infact, agreed to look beyond the genocide. And this is exactly how The Hindu chose to perceive this concert. Looking beyond the Eelam Tamil diaspora, it is important to understand that as much as the Eelam Tamils in the North and East want to live a ‘peaceful' life, it is equally important to acknowledge that reconciliation doesn't play a part in that.

Consider the other platforms:

The IIFA that took place with a big bang, saw all the big names in Hindi cinema enter Southern Sri Lanka , applaud the present Rajapaksa regime for country's exquisite beauty (5) , and leave with smiles and awards. By participating in such a blatantly pro-regime programme, the Bollywood community told us what their stand on the Eelam issue is. They have refused to acknowledge that a genocide took place barely a year earlier, and has fully endorsed the regime that orchestrated it. Though this came as no surprise, protesters in Tamil Nadu were angered by Bollywood for hurting the Tamils of the North and East. The Sri Lanka 's Deputy Minister for Economic Development Lakshman Yapa Abeywardana told Reuters,

“IIFA is an opportunity for us..... We have no problems in our country now and are ready to welcome everyone who comes here…” (6)

This in the name of art.

A year later, the Colombo Art Biennale (CAB) was launched in 2011 under the theme of ‘Imagining Peace'. How can peace even be imagined in the face of a colossal humanitarian catastrophe, which has persisted after the war officially ended? And what does it mean to construct a white-box like gallery situation, to use vivid symbols of the war to make art work, and take it far away from the people who are in the war zone? What does it mean if a Colombo Biennale makes big, colourful splashes across Southern Sri Lanka in the name of reconciliation when the GOSL does not acknowledge that a genocide, a systematic ethnic cleansing, has taken place in the North and the East of the country? What good will the same Biennale do if it doesn't address issues still faced by the Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka , but insists on fast forwarding to a shallow, meaningless reconciliation?

To be fair the CAB in 2011 did bring in the politics of war into its folds. As Jagath Weeresinghe wrote in its manifesto,

The theme ‘Imagining Peace', while giving a nudge to the audience to think beyond the victory euphoria and the enthusiastic rhetoric of ‘peace', touched on the complexity of ‘peace' as an idea and its relativity and susceptibility to interpretation. It liberated the process of ‘imagining' from the preconceived certainty and the absoluteness. (7)

Unfortunately, his effort was much too diluted and open ended. And the 2012 CAB edition, titled ‘Becoming', was even more open-ended. Jagath Weeresinghe wrote again:

‘Becoming' denotes the idea of potentiality of transformation or movement, a transformation that is initiated and in progress. While Becoming translates into an idea of a transitional space, meaning ‘possibility of being in a moment between two decisive ends', it plays on the uncertainty of certainty, up-rootedness, giving it a sense of akathesia (state of restlessness), criticality and open-endedness eluding logical conclusions or undoubted convictions. Therefore, Becoming remains distanced from what it was before, and it is the last space left for pondering before concretizing the trajectory's end. It's a space for envisions, doubts, self- reflections, mirroring and intensity of thought.

In terms of the Sri Lankan socio-political trajectory, the idea of Becoming foregrounds post war anxieties stemming from self-reflective questions… ‘what was lost and what was gained? Who lost and who gained? Who are we now? Is there unity, consensus and are we in peace? (7)

It is a well known secret that nothing in post-war Sri Lanka takes place without Government consent. Yes, if platforms such as these have been put up, they would have to toe the Government line, which they have. In which case, what good do shows like this do? They tell us that ‘look, there are always casualties during war, and we need to emotionally understand them. And we will make work that reflects the gore and death of war.' But it also says that ‘we will not get to the crux of the matter, which is the State's structural policy on ethnic minorities, we will not question what really needs to be questioned.' Unfortunately these cultural events only serve to boost the State's image and desperate need for reconciliation.

Therefore it remains a wonder why alternative artist platforms such as Theertha and ShantiOne are a part of this, spearheading it. Their participation legitimizes what the GOSL needs – bridging communities without addressing the real questions. In such a situation, a more acceptable stand to take is to boycott a government-based art and cultural programme, rather than be a part of it and cause much harm.

The Galle Literary Festival in 2011, again an open ended forum where a look at the programme schedule (8) shows us what the inaugural session of the festival was: Forgiveness, Reconciliation and Responsibility in Literature . Again, an international space dedicated to reconciliation in genocidal Sri Lanka . The festival saw many, many well known authors in attendance such as Sir Tom Stoppard, Professor Richard Dawkins, DBC Pierre, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Pankaj Mishra and Ranjit Hoskote.

Responding to a call for boycotting the festival by noted writers such as Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy, V.V. Ganeshananthan says:

But it is not true that the Galle Literary Festival is “a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country.” Yes, in the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. But the room itself—the room itself is very important. Talking about writing, art and ideas can be quite a serious business, one that is all the more necessary as freedom of speech is threatened, as writers censor themselves or disappear. (9)

Yes, talking and writing about art is important. But the space where the discussions happen is equally important, and so is the outward projection of these very spaces. In a time when the Colombo Government is desperately promoting Sri Lanka as beautiful tourist destination, a festival like this only serves that end. A look at their official website (10) and there are a whole set of quotes all pertaining to how beautiful Galle is and how intellectually stimulating the fest was, and how they'd all love to be there again.

As part of this year's festival, Shyam Selvadurai had also started a program to bring in Tamil students from the north, who shared accommodation and meals with Sinhala students from the south. These students then attended sessions dealing with multiculturalism and civil conflict...

“Your presence at the festival,” Shyam had written in his email to all this year's participants, “will contribute to this broadening of young minds.”…small groups of shy Tamil students would approach me or Shamini to introduce themselves, to ask questions, or, really, just to sit and smile at us. I recognized these moments for what they were, having not so long ago sought them out myself: that recognition, that glow of, Oh, you're just like me, and you're a writer. So it can be done. (11)

Ofcourse the Jaffna students loved it - so many new things, so many things that they cannot access! What Shyam Selvathurai did seems to resonate as some the Colombo Government would have done, except with less publicity. If Jaffna students are the concern, why not take a session up north? Maybe then the nature of the conversations/sessions will move towards something Colombo wouldn't humour, like say for instance, issues regarding a particular library in Jaffna . So it's easier to bring the students down south, into the land associated with the genocide, to meet acclaimed Tamil writers and talk about writing.

Let us take another example, a blatantly in-your-face example of how liberal ideology can be blind and extremely uncaring of history, the politics of history and affirming of mainstream ignorance.
Performance artist Sahej Rahal's piece called Bhramana was performed in Mumbai on the 15 th of July in 2012. I did not have to opportunity to watch the performance, but after looking at images, I was very impressed with the stunning visuals. My only concern was the title. What did the title have to do with the work? And what was the artist meaning through a title such as this? In the newspapers, the artist used words such as Shamanism and warrior-fakir . Sahej says in an interview:

To approach a public space with a heavy handed social message would make these performances didactic and that is something I am uncomfortable with.

The characters that inhabit these performances bare indices to different cultures, mythologies and pop culture. It's almost as if I stumble upon these characters in bits and pieces that then arrange themselves into these patchwork beasts. (12)

That Sahej Rahal could even consider using shaman or warrior-fakir in association with a word such as brahmana , and say that he is uncomfortable with being political, baffles me. After a long, heated online conversation, the artist ended by saying:

…all I am saying is (that) the narratives of oppression can be written in any language (,) it is not the language that is the oppressor in the end (,) it is the oppressor himself.

Though a stance like this is quiet common, it is a very convenient one to take, leading to the pointless argument of ‘human nature is the problem, nothing else'. It essentially absolves anyone from taking any responsibility for anything, let alone systematic, structural, well thought-out discrimination. While Sahej may only be a victim of liberal thought, it is time he and the rest of us wake up to the fact that we can even dream of suggesting an argument like this only because of our place in society.

More importantly, why hasn't anyone in his audience questioned Sahej? Because liberal ideology doesn't tell us to question our own roles in society, it wants us to only understand what the ‘oppressed' are going through, how inefficient/corrupt the politicians are, and how mindless the middle class is. So when Sahej receives kudos for his work, and he travels across the world making some more of the same work receiving more kudos, he is essentially being violent. He is, without realizing it, physically putting himself bang in the center of the caste/class struggle.

Usurpers of the mind and the intellect are a little different from those who use force to subjugate a people. While the latter is undeniably visible, causing immediate (or prolonged) anger, the former is invisible. Brainwashing a community into subjugation cannot be easily undone, or even, in many cases detected (forget articulated) easily. More often than not, it merely leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Today it isn't about brainwashing any longer. It is simply about maintaining status quo. The Brahmin's work got done a long time ago. The community has to now only sit back to relax, enjoying education, language, land and job privileges. The people who now maintain the caste system are unfortunately, many of those from the other forward castes, or the middle castes, or even the lower castes. This isn't to say that the Brahmins are the only elite. The elite comprises of those many, many people for whom it is advantageous to place the Supreme Caste on a pedestal. The ones who grievously lose out are the country's untouchables, the Shudras according to the Varnasramam, the Dalits.

Though it is a bit late in the day, we, the Liberal Artists, have a lot to answer for, and a lot of thinking to do. We need to articulate which side of the coin we are on, and what our way of thought does to those on the other side. There can no more be a middle path.

Aarti is a Chennai based artist


1 I Write What I Like, Author: Steve Biko. Page 64.-65.

2.  I Write What I Like, Author: Steve Biko. Page 63.-64.

3. T.M. Krishna leaves Jaffna audience spellbound, R.K Radhakrishnan, The Hindu. Last seen on August 13th, 2012 : http://www.thehindu.com/arts/music/article2515621.ece

4.  R.M Karthick's blog: http://wavesunceasing.wordpress.com/?s=t+m+krishna Last seen on August 13, 2012

5. Official website for the IIFA: http://www.iifa.com/web07/showcase/2010.htm Last seen on July 29 th , 2012

6. Sri Lanka taps Bollywood glitz to boost post-war image, Shilpa Jamkhandikar: http://in.reuters.com/article/2010/06/04/idINIndia-49044520100604 Last seen on August 13, 2012

7. Official site for the Colombo Art Biennale: http://colomboartbiennale.com/manifesto/# Last seen on July 29 th , 2012

8.  From The Galle Literary Festival's official page: http://www.galleliteraryfestival.com/files/galle/programme__1_.pdf . . Last seen on July 31 st , 2012

9.  In the Room: Against a Cultural Boycott of the Galle Literary Festival, by V.V. Ganeshanathan: http://www.themillions.com/2011/a02/in-the-room-against-a-cultural-boycott-of-the-galle-literary-festival.html Last seen on July 31 st , 2012

10.  From The Galle Literary Festival's official page http://www.galleliteraryfestival.com . Last seen on July 31 st , 2012

11  Four Days in Galle by Preeta Samarasan: http://fictionwritersreview.com/essays/four-days-in-galle Last seen on July 31 st , 2012

12  ‘Bhramana II' – A Live Performance by Sahej Rahal, Anika Havaldar. Last seen on August 13, 2012 http://blog.saffronart.com/2012/08/07/bhramana-ii-a-live-performance-by-sahej-rahal/





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