How free should ‘artistic freedom’ really be?

In the wake of pulling down of a video work titled Uglier and Uglier by artist Song Ta at gallery OCAT Shanghai, the art world discusses the very idea of artistic freedom.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Jul 22, 2021

A couple of days back I read a news brief on CNN about an art work being pulled down by a gallery in China. I may not have paid much attention to it, except ‘in China’ was intriguing. Given the politically restrained environment it is known to have, I wondered if the work in question was going against the administration. As per the report, “In the controversial video, titled Uglier and Uglier, artist Song Ta filmed and ranked college students at his alma mater based on their appearance”.

Uglier and Uglier | Song Ta | Artistic Freedom | STIRworld
Uglier and Uglier by Song Ta (video screen grab) Image: Song Ta, Courtesy of OCAT Shanghai

It further explained, “Originally produced in 2012, the work's Chinese title literally translates as ‘school flower’, a term used to describe beautiful female university students”. The non-profit art gallery OCAT Shanghai apologised for hurting any sentiments by presenting this seven-hour long film that was created with footage of passing women and the artist ranking them in order of beauty, from prettiest to the ugliest. The faces were pixelated and “in the exhibition program, the artist recommended that visitors arrive early at the gallery, due to the fact his video begins with those he deemed most attractive”, as per the news report.

Hidden Identity | Andreas Poupoutsis | Artistic Freedom| STIRworld
Hidden Identity Image: Courtesy of Andreas Poupoutsis

The question I grappled with was about the very notion of artistic freedom. Is it meant to be complete, allowing for full liberty without boundaries? Or should it exist within a framework, with restrictions, possibly applicable codes-of-conduct of some sort? I picked up my phone and spoke to an artist friend. She was aghast when I explained what the work was about and suggested that we take the discussion to Clubhouse, the newest voice-based social network. We collectively convinced artist Waswo X. Waswo to use the topic for his upcoming edition of ‘Evil O Art Club’, a room that he moderates on Clubhouse. A panel was put together with members from the art ecosystem. The discussion, as was expected, was fiery and lasted close to two hours!

Black Lives Matter protest | Artistic Freedom | STIRworld
Black Lives Matter protest Image: Courtesy of Open Book Publisher

Here are my takeaways from this session:

1. Some felt that there are issues at multiple levels with the video work in question. While it is not known for a fact, it is almost certain that permission was not taken from the 200 women that formed the film. Song used help of his ‘female’ assistant to make the entire shooting process ‘less creepy’, and although the faces were blurred in the final work, legal issues about infringing on rights and personal space of the ‘subjects’ was pointed out. I am far from being a legal expert, but the matter seems more complicated than that. No street photography or photo-journalism would exist if explicit permission was required before clicking an image of random people in public spaces.

2. One of my fellow panellists was outraged by objectification of women in the work. On my asking if the work included men, would it make the whole thing acceptable, the general response was that it will not fly, still. The question then arises – almost any work of art uses motifs, objects, and ‘stereotyped’ (objectified) people as placeholders for characterisation, to weave a story. You want to show Japan, put a lady in kimono, right? Dark skin, large eyes, and small curly hair on head immediately conveys of an African origin. Accents in movies, names in literary works – they all are needed to lay the ‘plot’. So where to draw a line of this ‘embodiment’ in any creative work?

L: The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. R: Andy Warhol in his ‘factory’ | Artistic Freedom | STIRworld
L: The Fountain by Marcel Duchamp. R: Andy Warhol in his ‘factory’ Image: L: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. R: Courtesy of Pinterest

3. Eyebrows were also raised on the very idea of defining beauty. How could someone lay the rules of what is beautiful and what is deemed ugly? But then again, if the work is bringing forward such a discussion, isn’t it a successful work? One that provokes, one that questions? Even Marcel Duchamp mocked the concept of art with his work titled Fountain and decades later American artist, Andy Warhol, questioned consumerism and the mass-produced, not only through his work but by also naming his studio ‘Factory’.

4. There was also a brief discussion on the aspect of State vs audience-imposed censorship. Administration being critical of a creative expression seemed a far greater concern. Historically there are dozens of instances of vandalism and destruction of art displayed in public spaces. Sentiments being hurt does not carry much weight in my opinion. Any opinion can (rather will) hurt someone’s sentiment. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter, after all.

‘The State of Artistic Freedom 2021’ report by Freemuse differentiates between Irresponsible speech, Hate speech, and Free speech |Artistic freedom | STIRworld
‘The State of Artistic Freedom 2021’ report by Freemuse differentiates between Irresponsible speech, Hate speech, and Free speech Image: Courtesy of STIR

Freemuse is an independent international non-governmental organisation advocating for freedom of artistic expression and cultural diversity. Its latest ‘The State of Artistic Freedom 2021’ report carefully differentiates between Irresponsible speech, Hate speech, and Free speech. The report quotes 928 acts of violations of artistic freedom across 89 countries and as high as 24 per cent increase in acts of artistic suppression in 2020.

Now, protest by way of vandalism, defacing or destroying works is unethical and illegal. There are innumerable examples of these, a prominent one was in 2010 in London, with Anish Kapoor’s work titled Dirty Corner. Portrayal of children on subjects of violence or explicitly sexual themes is unethical and illegal in most countries. And an act of beheading a teacher for making a caricature of the prophet is illegal, to put it ‘matter-of-factly’ and mildly (2020 incident of Conflans Saint-Honorine near Paris, France

Dirty Corner by Anish Kapoor | Artistic Freedom | STIRworld
Dirty Corner by Anish Kapoor Image: Anish Kapoor

In conclusion and in my humble opinion, freedom has to be absolute, with the only lines drawn to contain it be that of the law. Subjectivity in imposed censorship is meaningless. That said, when a practitioner has the freedom to create, to express, critics and audience have the same liberty to criticise the work. The video work of Song could be called in bad taste, lacking any meaningful conceptual engagement, it could be mercilessly rejected by the viewers and critics alike. But it has the right to exist. As someone said in the Clubhouse discussion, “Art cannot go too far, so far as criticism is not taken as going too far”. Therefore, right to express comes with a right to offend, and that in turn comes with the right to get offended.

I am sure with all my arguments and counterpoints above, I have already offended many.

'Evil O Art Club' panel on Clubhouse titled 'When does art go too far?' was held on July 12, 2021. Panellists included Waswo X. Waswo, Rahul Kumar, Satyajit Dave, Priyanshi Saxena, Bhavna Kakar. Opinion in this article is inference and interpretation of the author, and does not directly attribute it to any individual on this panel.

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