Poet, Predator?: The Moral Obligation Of Not Separating The Art From The Artist

To be very clear, I write this in the context of the child sexual abuse allegation against the departed Hindi poet, Nagarjun. I will not go into the ‘debate’ of whether the allegation is true or not because the people who are denying them are the ones shamelessly blaming the survivor—a brave woman who finally gathered the courage to do what she did. 

The fundamental question I mean to raise here is: “Can we look at someone’s art as if it were a thing existing outside or independent of the artist?” Rather, is it fair for us to see the art in isolation of the life and ways of the artist? To even scratch upon the surface of the answer to these questions, we need to ask another question: “Does art have a moral responsibility towards the society, and can art exist outside of this responsibility?”

Pablo Neruda, a Nobel laureate, admitted to rape in his own memoirs.

To suggest that we separate the ‘great’ art of misogynists like Pablo Neruda or Picasso from their personalities connotes that you do not engage with the art piece. For you, art remains just leisure, a pastime, something that pleases you for the time being—until you go about with the rest of your day, looking down on security guards, being casually sexist, using ‘bhangi’ (a Hindu scavenger who belongs to one of the ‘untouchable’ castes) as an insult, etc. If you suggest that the revolutionary works of Jaun Eliya be excused from ruthless criticism of the man’s damnation of Zahida Hina, your ‘revolution’ is toothless.

When we read poetry or see a painting or a sculpture, we think about what the artist thought when they made the particular piece. At that time, a closer look into the art should also involve thinking about what the artist didn’t know they were thinking—dealing with the artist’s subconscious, making the artist human, viewing them as material beings of the same society as us. When we think of the art this way, we see the art in line with the artist’s nature.

To see art devoid of its social character and responsibility is a neoliberal consumerist notion that stops us from engaging with ideas. It is a part of the bourgeois state ideology which eulogizes revolutionaries but rigs them of their ideas, Che Guevara t-shirts being sold on bodegas of Brooklyn, for example.

To live in a time of revolution is to relentlessly take the side of the revolution at every step, in all aspects of it. If the people defending the ‘jankavis’ of yesterday fail to acknowledge the gender, caste and sexuality discourses of today, then the revolution of our time has to stand against this hypocrisy as well.

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