Last Friday, I went to listen to Salman Rushdie present the “Leiden Freedom Lecture.”
Freedom, he argued is the essence of life and the essence of creativity. So many Baha’is have told me that to be a Bahai and an artist means that you need to be ‘moderate’. Some, artists themselves, have presented all sorts of theories about art being at the service of something else, ranging from the idea of self-censorship in order not to offend to art as a framework for the lowest common denominator: the ubiquitous portrait paintings of ‘Abdul-Baha.
Not all pages include as many portraits as this page happens to, but this is a good representation of much of what is labeled as art in a Baha’i context. I am not criticizing any of this art nor this forum. Mark Granfar, has created an open forum for artworks to be placed and artists could place other forms of art if they wished. My point is that this forum reflects what you see in the Baha’i community in general.
I’m not knocking portrait painting nor those who choose to paint these types of images of ‘Abdul-Baha, but am asking where is the diversity, a tell-tale sign of freedom. Celebrations of ‘oneness’ wear a little thin, when that’s the only story on offer by a community.
When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail — that is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefs — development and growth are inevitable.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 197)
(E)ach elemental atom of the universe has the opportunity of expressing an infinite variety of those individual virtues. No atom is bereft or deprived of this opportunity or right of expression.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 285)
When I was fresh out of art school, I happily made artworks on themes of peace, diversity, portrait-like pieces, and so on, and felt completely free to do so. It was encouraging that various Baha’is in my community appreciated what I was doing and some even bought my work.
I was aware of work such as Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture projects and liked it, but it wasn’t my world. If a Baha’i had been making such work, I wouldn’t have thought this was ‘immoderate’, but because of the way I was living or perhaps because my Baha’i community was so open, whether art was ‘moderate’ or not, wasn’t a question I had.
That was a few decades ago and in the years I’ve been making art, I’ve never felt I needed to censor what I make. In fact I don’t think I could, and because I don’t show my art in Baha’i contexts I don’t have to think about this either. All good and fine.
However the ‘stale air’ is what I often encounter as art made, shown or discussed in Baha’i contexts. Perhaps this is the only possibility, that religious contexts cannot allow for too much artistic diversity? I’ve been told this and it sounds reasonable, however, how can art function if is not free? Other Baha’is have stated that the time for Baha’i art has not started yet, and I think to myself, ‘oh so we sit around and wait, and like magic, something called Baha’i art will appear out of nothing?’
My view is that it started the second the Baha’i Revelation started and art was free.
In this new century the attainment of science, arts and belles lettres, whether divine or worldly, material or spiritual, is a matter which is acceptable before God and a duty which is incumbent upon us all to accomplish…
(my own emphasis added – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 448)
When I look at what is written about the arts and creativity, it seems to me that Baha’i art is not about having the same material form, but about diversity, about difference and freedom of expression. Many artists do as I do, operate outside of Baha’i contexts, partly because there is space outside of the Baha’i community to develop, and there’s nothing wrong with this, and partly because there’s no space for art in the Baha’i community. It is not censored (at least in my case), but it is not made welcome. How can art touch a religious context if it is never shown in one. As much as I love classical music, my heart sinks when I hear it as ‘the music’ at a feast, because there’s no diversity.
In 2006, I called a workshop I gave at an Irish Baha’i summer school, “shocking art” where individuals could bring up the art that shocks them as a starting point for discussion. As it turned out, the individuals were all touched by contemporary art in some way and because of this had already developed their own dialogue. There was no need for me to show that ‘shocking art’ has a place in the world, and so in that context of freedom, I moved the workshop to exercises in expressing the new instead. We had clean air and so didn’t need to protest.
Rushdie’s metaphor got me thinking about how often Baha’is tell me off (usually online) for expressing what in their view is whining, when in my view it is critique. From their perspective I’m polluting their clean air (of no dissent) while for me the air is stuffy because my critique is seen as not being acceptable for a Baha’i to make. I promise, I really would complain less if there was more dialogue.Â Seriously though, when individuals have differences of opinion and it is assumed that each party is sincere, then the differing opinions can be worked on. If one or another writes something like “well you can leave”, what that person is really saying is, your viewpoint does not belong here and mine does.
The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 87)
I also think that if we don’t have the freedom to express things that bother us, we can’t process them, learn from them, learn from the differing ideas. I think the fact that one of the Baha’i months is called ‘questions’ indicates that this is part of human nature, part of the development of the spirit and something that is an ongoing aspect of Baha’i community life.
For me making a work of art is more about asking questions, wrestling with some experience, than presenting answers – although art is wonderfully slippery and so is about both and neither.
I do think any artist should have complete freedom of expression. As Rushdie stated, you have to make the effort to open a book to read it, have to walk into a bookshop or a library. No one is forced to encounter art. Likewise with art in a gallery. There’s a lot of art I dislike, but some of it has inspired me to make art in response, and some of it I forget about. I’d be a poorer person if I hadn’t experienced it and yet this is not the same as someone who willingly places themselves or another into a life-threatening situation.
In 2004, at a talk I gave for the Baha’is, I was asked how I would treat Mapplethorpe’s photography in the context of Baha’i art. My answer was that it shouldn’t be censored and that it was focused on the material, and art focused on materiality can be as effective as art focused on spirituality. From another perspective, a detailed realistic painting is as much about materiality as a work by Mapplethorpe.
On the topic of censorship, Salman Rushdie told the story of a Pakistani film (“International Gorillay” (International Guerillas) in which Rushdie, depicted as a Rambo-like figure, is portrayed as plotting to cause the downfall of Pakistan by opening a chain of casinos and discos, tortures with audio recordings of his book, and was finally killed by a bolt of lighting sent from God!
The British Board of Film Classification refused to give it a certificate, meaning it would be banned in the U.K., because they feared they might be sued for the 25 or more instances of libel in the film. Rushdie said he didn’t want to be part to something being censored and so wrote a statement to the board saying he would not sue for libel if the film was released. And so they then released it. A large theater was hired for its first showing in Muslim-dominated Bradford — and no one turned up. However if the movie had been banned, the fact of censorship would have made it popular. As it was, the work was judged according to its quality: a badly made movie not worth the cost of entry.
I’d argue that even if the unbanned film had become popular in the U.K., it would have served as a form of discourse. Having the freedom to express also means having the freedom to judge the work, and learn from it or its mistakes or misrepresentations. If a community doesn’t have freedom, it doesn’t have the mechanisms for diversity.
How do we know if a community has freedom: we look at the diversity of its artforms. There are two responses to this in relation to the Baha’i community. Lots of Baha’is are doing diverse highly creative work and Baha’is are part of the world. Second: if Baha’i communities wish to take advantage of this air of liberty, they have to create a opportunities for it.
A starting point would be to remove ‘review’, so there’s no idea of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of expression. Of course I’m grateful to Baquia for allowing a freedom of expression on this blog. If Baquia hadn’t, I wouldn’t have made the effort to write this to start with.
This is what I mean by creating opportunities. If artists know that their art is welcome -however materialistic or issue-based- then they will start making an artwork in relation to the Baha’i community and when they do, we’ll have the diversity needed for discourse to develop. As it stands at the moment, artists who are Baha’is such as myself, certainly make art inspired by the Baha’i writings and teachings, but what is missing is art and art discourse in relation to the Baha’i community. Perhaps this is a freedom only possible as a form of diaspora -from the point of view of an outsider. At least at the moment with the dominance of the Ruhi culture, this seems to be the case.