Art for Society’s Sake: Is art independent of societal constraints?

Art for Society’s Sake: Is art independent of societal constraints?

When a genuine piece of art emerges from the very being of the artist, its tide is unabated by box office fate or balance-sheet boundaries, free of the arithmetic of commerce. However, content that is created with the overarching principle of profit maximisation needs to be seen in its own context.

Padmavaat, Deepika Padukone, Padmaavat Jauhar
The infamous Jauhar scene from the film Padmavaat. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s box office hit ran into controversy in recent times.

It’s a privilege that we humans have the gift of expression. And, when this expression emerges in a nuanced rhythm with form and meaning, it is art and we can’t help but stand in awe. Along with this gift of self-expression comes the desire to make this creation resonate with others. Herein lies the conundrum. For, at times, this expansion of expression also becomes the breeding ground for obfuscation and contention, one where art meanders into the vortex of controversy.

I share an old intimate relationship with thoughts words and ideas. Art and creativity is what I stand by and always will. Additionally, over the past few months, a newer perspective has begun to unfold. One that asked of me as a creative person to not just exercise my artistic license and brush aside the mundane materiality but intricately understand the overt and the subliminal aspects of expression.

I believe that the freedom to create and express is linked to the very grain of human existence. To simply take this for granted, without delving deep or being open to nuance is injustice to the warp and weft of life, especially in a culture like ours where expression’s overt oeuvre is manifest in every fragment of our lives. Whether it is in the soaring heights of imagination or the depths of thought and philosophy, the new and varied have always been embraced in uncountable examples of unfettered thought. Today, this freedom for some seems to have gathered an aggressive tenor which belies more than artistic integrity. Societal requests to explore whether an expression willingly or unwillingly impacts the society negatively, meets with a more than vociferous contention of freedom of expression. And equally vociferously, the same freedom to express a reaction is claimed by a section of the society.

Why do we see art and societal structures looking at each other with scepticism? Because there’s a trust deficit. Artists, to begin with, do not create to harm anyone. They express what they feel. The receivers of this art, too, do not think there is any other agenda or vested interests at play, for, in an intrinsically connected society there is little mistrust. It’s when the relationship gets strained, that suspicion creeps in. In these circumstances, thoughts don’t remain just an exploration, art not mere expression. A chasm appears for there is a cloud of confusion over the basics.


Perhaps, some exploration is due here. Societies were products of collective choice. To organise ourselves as a society and become “civilised” was a “universal” agreement among races. We arrived at a certain code of conduct which, though at times in conflict with our innate instinct, is still willy-nilly adhered to, because, if our natural instincts are given carte blanche, formal structures of civil society may have little or no room. The understanding is that individual freedom will exist within a co-created civilisational code.

Civilisation is a construct but a collective choice; Sure, the role of art is to push boundaries, break templates, introduce fresher thought, and, in this process, some feathers are bound to be ruffled. But, overall, the freedom of individual expression comes bundled with a quid pro quo — an obligation of concern and sensitivity for the whole.

Another film which ran into controversy is S Durga.


So is art for society then, or, society for art? The question to contend with is straightforward — should an art that is made ostensibly for society at large be sensitive to the society or not? This question becomes more pertinent when we talk of a particular art form, say commercial art or cinema, that demands a lot from the recipient — time, attention and money. In this context, should raising an expectation or concern be deemed akin to smothering the freedom of individual expression?

When a genuine piece of art emerges from the very being of the artist, its tide is unabated by box office fate or balance-sheet boundaries, free of the arithmetic of commerce. However, content that is created with the overarching principle of profit maximisation needs to be seen in its own context. It does not imply that commercial art is a lesser form, simply that the raison de etre is different and the two should be seen as distinct.

Artistic licence should not be up for sale. If this clarity is lost, there’s a trade-off of the larger good for financial greed and power play and the fault lines appear to corrode the fabric of society. Some of our artistic brethren often refer to Western societies, choosing with subtle ingenuity examples which juxtapose Indian society as lacking in comparison. It’s put forth volubly that the West’s openness in all spheres of life and art be emulated. Perhaps, a vital aspect is being missed. A genuine artist knows, that like true art, an authentic society is unique in thought and form. It has its own collective consciousness, one in which aeons of human experiences have cast their impression. Without a pregnant past you can’t have an effervescent present. After all, the present is not a singular suspended moment, it’s a shoot that bursts forth from the womb of a continuum. To plaster one society’s consciousness on to a uniquely different one is not constructive.

Conversely, when our creative work , art or cinema is unacclaimed critically or commercially, on the world stage, the refrain often is that it caters to the sensibilities of our country/ society and the stamp of western approval is not required. Is that a naked dichotomy or an inconvenient truth? Whichever way one looks at it, every society carries with itself its identity and dynamics. Elements that need to be weeded out and the ones that need nurturing have to be in context — of the indigenous and the universal, the individual and the collective.

Unfortunately, every such person who urges others to pay heed to the collective viewpoint, apart from that of the individual, is deemed as an enemy of freedom of expression. Why does it become wrong to think about those not as empowered and privileged, about vulnerable children, respecting each other’s faith and beliefs, being compassionate? Freedom is not a blank cheque — it comes with a fair barter of responsibility. Eventually, life trumps art and every true artist recognises that and is sensitive to not just oneself but to the faintest murmurs in society. He or she knows that they are not more important than humanity. Inks would dry, brushes would stiffen in the face of one genuine teardrop, a mute cry of pain.

A still from Lipstick Under My Burkha.

There seems to be a broad stroke of understanding of the consumption format of the creative world. The granularity and uniqueness of various consumption formats need to be understood better. For example, there is a huge difference between the manner in which the content is consumed on the internet v/s a film collectively viewed in a theatre. A person’s personal viewing and a crowd’s collective viewing are two different scenarios with distinct ramifications. Internet is essentially for private viewing. Cinema in a theatre is viewed publicly. A crowd’s collective mentality and reactions differ from an individual’s and need to be paid heed to.

The Internet of Things is a space where both the beneficial and detrimental exist. Shouldn’t the latter be more finely scrutinised, especially when it comes to children, for content that may not be age appropriate? Sure, all is available on the internet but should our all be available for the internet? We should not lose sight of the way ahead not even in the din of those who are called “fringe groups”. Why are these voices of the “fringe groups” emerging? Fingers are often pointed at the politics of power. There is merit in the contention, but this is not the sole reason. There is more to think about here. And I say this, despite the fact that one has been at the receiving end — targeted and threatened.

Infuriated and saddened as I was, it’s dishonest to not to see the complete picture. The entire world is going through a period of change — the manner in which we are linked to technology today is unprecedented. There are multiple platforms available for different voices. Those who see this as a problem are essentially the ones who believed that these platforms were exclusive, and so, kept these tools and platforms under control, mastering their codes and lexicon, and forgetting, that there are others in the society, whose point of view may be a different one. Denying the existence of an alternate point of view, the moniker of fringe or lumpen elements is often applied to contrarian voices. Let me be categorical here, the context here is of voicing one’s concerns, not that of resorting to violence in any form. But to consider oneself as extraordinary just because one practises an art form and others as deficient in both sense and sensibility, and to assert one’s own voice as civilised and decry every other as uncivilised, is condescension.

The truth is that a society that is concerned for the larger good has a connect with each stakeholder; there is mutual faith and the fundamental belief that our joys and sorrows are linked, as are our lives. This trust between an artist and society should never derail.

My intention is to share a perspective and evoke thought, and, through a process of introspection and internal churn understand the change around us in terms of both the personal and the collective. Let there be constant shaping, reshaping, augmenting, and pruning. After all, art, society, systems, freedom are all contextual, are all work in progress, like ourselves.


Prasoon Joshi is a poet, writer, and, chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification.