June 15, 2011
Evaluating M.F. Hussain’s naked Hindu Goddess paintings
I have considerable interest in art, although limitations of time have meant that I've not paid as much attention to this subject as I would have liked. Indeed, as a school student, my life's ambition was to become a painter, with the goal of attending the JJ School of Art. My second preference was to become a brain surgeon. But discussions within the family persuaded me against these two choices and I switched to something quite different – the idea of becoming a boring IAS officer.
My favourite painters are those in the classical tradition (e.g. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Indians like Shobha Singh and Mali – I forget Mali's first name), but I'm also fine with some modern art including radical modern art like Picasso's (after I saw a major exhibition of Picasso's works, I do believe he had considerable talent). Most modern art, however, still puts me off.
Let me say – although this is not pertinent to the issue under consideration – that I'm not a great fan of M.F. Hussain (although his 'horses' series was interesting, since horses are one of my favourite topics for painting). Given the many controversies that have grown up around him, I have browsed through his nude depictions of a range of Hindu goddesses (some of them in compromising positions). And I do not like them. Not one bit. And so I will never buy them.
And that should normally be all that there is to say about an artist. You either like the artist's work or you don't. You buy it or you don't.
But Hussain's paintings have caused great outrage. Why? Why are so many people worked up about Hussain's representation of nude Hindu goddesses?
I'm not a Hindu; only a simple human – a statement of biological fact that some people sometimes find hard to digest. (I am happy, though, to investigate Indian and other philosophy, including Hindu thought.) However, I do know most stories of the Hindu tradition and I can see clearly why the crass depiction of highly respected characters from Hindu mythology by Hussain has annoyed so many people. I can see why people like Sandeep can get worked up about these paintings to the level of hysteria, even drivel; even as people like Bhagwad Jal try to gloss over this issue. (Note: I don't subscribe to Sandeep's blog, but chanced a reference to his blog post in an Atanu Dey tweet).
Let me point out that I found Sandeep's language to be in poor taste - almost as bad as Hussain's paintings that he was ranting against. It seems that Hussain and he are made for each other. However, as a defender of liberty I believe that even of the rabble should be free to express themselves, no matter how crude their ability. So I'll let Sandeep's language pass, although I won't go actively searching for his blog posts.
But let me assess his views (and those of Bhagwad) on the merit of their contents, not their form.
Bhagwad Jal comes from an extreme libertarian position. He projects a position apparently of freedom – but doesn't accept any restraint – either of personal responsibility, or of accountability to others (justice). He wants a free-for-all. In his view, should you so wish to (even if you are emotionally disturbed when this thought occurs to you), you are most welcome to commit suicide. Indeed, I presume he'd want the government to actively support your choice to kill yourself, such as by issuing licenses to suicide-houses where private suppliers can charge to kill you in the manner you choose. Such unmitigated total freedom is his starting position in any discussion.
He therefore believes that Hussain was not only free to do whatever he wished, but that we have no choice but to lump it. Basically he is saying that Hussain was exempt from any obligation to act responsibly, and was not accountable for anything. [Bhagwad has since responded with a more nuanced position here]
But note the following Shekhar Gupta interview with M.F. Hussain:
Are you a devout person in your personal life?
Hussain: I am a believer and not a non-believer.
Do you follow a way of prayer, do you go to a temple or a mosque?
Hussain: I was born in Pandarpur and my mother was a Maharashtrian, and instead of saying “khudai kasam” she used to say “devasheesh shapath”…I was brought up in that atmosphere.
The question that people would like to throw at you is — if you can paint Hindu gods and godesses like this, why don’t you paint the Prophet?
Hussain: I don’t want to say anything.And this has not affected your creativity in any way?
Hussain: No. I am doing my work well…
Note that by not responding to the question which most Hindus have of him (i.e. why he did not paint the Prophet), Hussain has effectively relinquished his right to paint others's gods. Because the classical liberal believes that liberty is a two-way street.
Kant's categorical imperative makes this clear: "Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law". Or even the Golden Rule: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you".
Reciprocal obligation is crucial in order for a society to function coherently. Freedom is not a one-way street. What Bhagwad (and other libertarians) are preaching is not liberty but license. I DO NOT agree that liberty is license.
On the other hand, Sandeep goes to the other extreme. He wants his worldview to be imposed on everyone else. He is not only apparently an expert in art (and I agree that expertise means little in this subjective area) but he throws a tantrum and lumps all kinds of unrelated issues in a ferocious personal attack on Hussain. This kind of tantrum has, however, only hurt Sandeep's own credibility.
While Bhagwad's writings are mostly idle chatter, of no consequence to anyone, Sandeep's rant is potentially dangerous. Sandeep's way of thinking reminds us why we need a government – to defend freedom of speech even of fools like Hussain. (Sandeep's rant will also scare away the horses and turn away people like me even more from this modern, aggressive form of "Hinduism". I'm happy to read and understand the thoughts of sensible Hindu philosophers, but shallow fanatics like Sandeep are a total turn-off.)
* * *
But enough about these two bloggers. Let me now provide my own evaluation of Hussain's work. Doing that is easy. My article published in Freedom First in August 2010 is self-explanatory. (I have written more about this issue in DOF which is currently work in progress).
Artistic ‘license’It has become fashionable these days for artists and writers, claiming artistic ‘license’, to brazenly insult Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and other religions. But they are wrong in doing so. They have no such license. While an analytic critique of a religion is fine, vilification and abuse of a religion is not.Artists must stop being stupid. They must exercise self-restraint. In no way are they special, or exempt from the laws of the land. Everyone’s liberty is subject to the same standard of accountability.But what about those artists who refuse to exercise self-restraint? What can be done about them? Should we ban their work or kill them? Clearly not! Three things must happen in the free society, as outlined below.First, we must develop a thick skin. As they say, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’. We must tolerate others’ opinions, no matter how tasteless.Second, an offensive piece of art can constitute a civil offence. The plaintiff in such a case will need to prove that he tossed and turned in bed for, say, five hours because of the offensive art. The court would compensate the plaintiff for the value of this lost sleep. Class-action suits could also be lodged against the offending artist.But third, no matter what happens, there can never be any cause for violence being used against the artist. The government must put behind bars anyone who browbeats an artist. Even stupid artists deserve to be protected.
Let me summarise the classical liberal position:
In summary, let it be noted that while I'm not a fan of Hussain's art (his horses – and possibly his Ganesha – series excepted) – that is not relevant to the current discussion.
The relevant issues are the following:
- I deplore the irresponsibility displayed by M.F. Hussain. He should have acted with decorum and coherently explained why he was painting Hindu characters in such reckless manner even as he refused to comment on why he did not paint the Muslim prophet. I condemn his depiction of Hindu goddesses the way he did.
- I also note that Hussain did NOT commit any crime under the law, in doing what he did. Poor and offensive taste is not a crime. Freedom of speech is effectively a "right to offend" and no matter how offensive the speech, it must be protected by the state.
- The appropriate way for sensible, mature people to respond to the crass stupidity displayed by Hussain is to (a) ignore him, and (b) to not buy such of his work that doesn't please them. Let's exercise judgement in each individual case. His horses series might still be OK to buy, but his other work should be ignored.
- On the other hand, should anyone have suffered directly (e.g. have lost sleep that caused direct economic detriment) as a result of his paintings, he/she could have lodged a civil suit for compensation (now it is too late for that since Hussain is dead).
- It is important to point out that none of Hussain's actions, no matter how stupid, give cause to anyone in India to physically harm him or destroy his work.
- This points to the fact that it was at all times the responsibility of the Indian government to ensure Hussain's security and defend him from lumpen elements that wanted to harm him.
Even stupid artists (like Hussain) deserve to be protected by the free society. That is the price we pay for liberty.
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