Samira, one of the few female Iranian artists who has had the opportunity to exhibit her work in the public sphere, in a recent interview says “When you can barely present your work and aren’t allowed to have audiences then you are being censored.” She is described as ‘brave’ for how she fights censorship by means of her art, continuing to create despite all odds. This statement given by the young woman to the website interviewing her goes to show how, contrary to popular belief, censorship is not always visible or being actively carried out by a certain authority but rather an insidious yet tangible manipulation of the masses. It aims at keeping the existing realities silent and pushing them into the realm of the unconscious.
Suppression of content by the government is an open secret known to artists and consumers alike, arising out of its need to control public opinion and dominant discourse. The biggest threat to power is being rendered laughable and therefore its structures have, over the course of several hundred years, taken the measures they deemed ‘necessary’ to prevent the same. Today, more than ever, The Artist is more scared of his own actions than he is of Theirs. Self-censoring for self-preservation is common where conflicts are repressed and labeled as unimportant. This is easily recognizable as one of the biggest obstacles to one’s creative flow. It makes humanity myopic and conservative and spells death to the originality of the individual, his truest nature systematically being thrown in jeopardy.
It is known from cave paintings having prehistoric origins that art, in any form, remains one of the earliest and most innate expressions of the self and how it perceives its surroundings. It is this intrinsic, almost spiritual, compulsion of mankind that is under attack. The Pardhan Gonds, a tribal subgroup from central India, are famous for their paintings on the ceilings, walls and floors of their village huts. When approached by publisher S. Anand to illustrate for the graphic novel Bhimayana based on Ambedkar’s caste struggles, the group found itself anxiety ridden. They felt drawing on pages was too restrictive and the panels of comics would box their ‘khula’ art. Like sundry others, this instance sharply indicates the openness unconditioned art craves for and thrives upon, finding any curtailing of it unjust, claustrophobic and fatal to the art itself.
Content creativity primarily aims at the creation of something novel and its outcome can, in the context at hand, broadly take two forms- finding one’s own voice to refute preexisting beliefs or some addition to knowledge that serves to strengthen the idea’s validity further. Both these processes require and are inspired by constantly learning several truths, especially those being voiced from the margins. Censorship discourages engagement with certain subjects that, as per its convenience, are labeled inappropriate, thereby killing for the individual a possibility to assess all the content at his disposal and create his own truth based on that personal assessment. It also goes on to numb the spirit in which art is created by upholding hierarchies that regard certain subjects as worthy of being discussed while others remain expendable.
An outdated concept that bafflingly continues to persist, censorship has been called a monopoly of knowledge in Milton’s Areopagitica. The intellectual in his speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing touches upon how it is the manner of Providence and that of Nature for human beings to keep creating due to the passions implanted within them. Licensing acts as a dam on the infinite sea of unexplored thought, stagnating it into a muddy pool of conformity where this inactivity is symbolic of death. It blunts declarations of solidarity and does away with the catharsis provided by the public performance of present yet previously unarticulated occupations of the entire collective.
Shakespeare’s 16th century England where narratives by The Bard himself were molded and relocated was no exception. The tragedy of the ambitious Macbeth set in Scotland differs immensely from Holinshed’s original account that it draws from. Fearing censorship, the play takes form of a retelling of history readjusted to satisfy its political purpose without overtly inviting censure. A powerful example of this would be the changes made to the character of Banquo who, as per popular belief, was considered to be the predecessor of King James, the reigning monarch of the time for whose eyes the play was intended. A co-conspirator in Duncan’s murder in the original text, Shakespeare’s Banquo is a rather ideal man, absolved of all guilt. This conscious shift from history, though fairly common in fiction, probably wouldn’t have manifested itself like it did had The Bard no considerations of being censored, but provides an interesting insight into how creativity fights to emerge.
Some of the greatest producers of content have, all throughout history, used slant methods to undercut the emptiness of the politics being used to censor them. Characteristic to its nature, the very creativity that is being targeted, has found new methods to make itself known without compromising on a larger political investment. Multiple literary techniques that subject hegemonies to jest have been developed wherein assumed statures are diminished, punctured and countered. Born and appreciated as they are only out of the existence of their opposing force, these methods are strategically used to create content that destabilizes and challenges the existing status quo.
M.H. Abrahams describes satire as ‘the literary art of diminishing or derogating a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, scorn, or indignation.’ Laughter is used as a weapon where the writer wielding his pen as a sword is in a metaphorical battle with those in power. A parodying wherein something, on the face of it rather frivolous, is used as a tool to deride the original by establishing an unmistakable resemblance between the two can be seen in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The Rape of the Lock as a mock epic reveals a self-reflexivity in this style that is inherently subversive and can be used as a compelling instrument to critique accepted ideas and their limitations.
Censorship has inadvertently been the cause of creation of some of the greatest texts- after the dystopian 1984 that laid the groundwork by outlining the hyper surveillance of governments and how it manipulated free thought and consciousness, was published Animal Farm. It is ironically poetic how out of this handicap emerged Orwell’s voice, a powerful blow at Stalin’s Russia, that through its allegorical nature evaded direct association yet was clear enough in its creative parallels to make the novel a sensational marker of its time. In his essay ‘Why I Write’ he discusses how art is never completely free of political bias. This theory can be an entry point into better understanding the anxieties of consolidated institutions to control the outflow of any and all art.
Censorship is always political, fearing that that it is prohibiting might become the same and prohibiting it for that very reason. In today’s atmosphere of hostility, speeches are discarded as seditious and books banned as blasphemous- testimonies of the fundamental assault being waged against artistic freedom. If the authorities be as sure as the image they propagate, why not lay it bare for open discussion, for positive criticism? Broad ranging, vague and forceful legislations on hate speech or social media guidelines banning people, for example, have the opposite effect of what they intend to achieve. The law must be used to deal with absolute limits; let censorship be made a matter of culture.
A blunt hammer which impedes innovation and healthy creativity, censorship leaves a society feeling vulnerable in the absence of social debate and evolution of values. Devoid of content creativity, the community will ossify and turn fragile from the unresolved social tensions. Hence it is of paramount importance to deal with each instance in a social, cultural milieu based on values everyone broadly agrees upon.
For Immanuel Kant the role of art was to embody the most important ethical ideas and prove a natural extension of philosophy. This philosophizing helps in keeping one’s wayward parts in check and leads to individual and collective progress. To come up with alternatives such as categorization according to age rather than completely shutting down controversial content can result in a much freer and peaceful social space. Trigger warnings may be provided for possible conflicts that may arise as reactions to vents of traumatic experiences.
Introduced in India pre-independence so no uprisings or anti-state feelings materialized among their subjects, the colonial government left us with shackles in the form of censorship that we still seek to break free from. The modern age and its principles allow no warranted breathing space for the redundant concept. Creative minds mustn’t be made synonyms to caged parrots, in constant anticipation and foreboding. To learn to laugh at oneself and one’s fallibility, by means of content which is philosophical in its irreverence to that which is considered divine, holds the key to liberation.
“If they touch my art and throw it in a box
I will paint their box
before I will break their box.”

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