Silence, like cancer, grows

Silence, like cancer, grows

Can art and literature really be apolitical?

Representative Image. Credit: iStock Photo

Recently in one of my WhatsApp groups, a friend had posted a newspaper article that was critical of the government. Another friend quickly endorsed some of its views, while lamenting the shrinking public space for free speech.

Within a few minutes, there was a flurry of activities. A professor in the group said it would be better to stay off ‘politics and controversial' issues as he preferred to operate in a ‘safe zone’. Another professor, in tune with the former’s views, expressed his worst apprehensions. "Don’t forget, we are being watched… let’s discuss only art and literature, nothing more."

My head started to reel, literally. As a teacher myself, I couldn’t fathom what was going on. This is a forum that has highly educated academics as members, teaching in some of the prestigious institutions in India. For one thing, the expression ‘safe zone’ (as if there’s any) baffled me.

Secondly, the novel idea that art and literature could be discussed keeping politics at a distance was a new revelation. A barrage of questions hit me hard. How are literary and political theory courses taught? Surely George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm are still a part of many literature courses in India. In addition, plenty of dystopian fiction is taught these days in many colleges and universities.

Are Derrida, Marx, and Foucault still discussed in literature classes? Is postcolonialism taught keeping politics out of its purview? Can students grasp Jeremy Bentham’s idea of panopticon without grasping what is happening around them? How are students to make sense of Simone de Beauvoir or Arundhati Roy sans the politics behind their works? Was Toni Morrison wrong when she eloquently said “the best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time”? Can art and literature really be apolitical?

I was haunted by these questions all through the day. I began to reflect on the role of academics particularly of those in the arts and humanities stream. If in a private forum, teachers are fearful of freely expressing their views, how genuine will the classroom interaction be? Not connecting art and literature to the social realities of life, in my view, would be a big disservice to the profession and to the discipline itself.

Sadly, the chasm between theory and praxis seems to be widening as a result of the latent fear within. Isn’t it ironic that academics who wax eloquence in class over Tagore’s Where the mind is without fear prefer to observe stoic silence outside? I think the time has come to recognize and appreciate the import and relevance of Elaine Showalter’s prophetic words “our role and subject are not cleanly detached from the world but messily entangled with it.” 

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox