Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Some thoughts on sanity, truth, violence and protest

I was interviewed recently by Saumya Kalia for Outlook magazine. One of the questions she put to me was taking off on something I said after my book Prelude to a Riot won the Tata Litlive Award for fiction. I had directed my comments towards the sponsors of literature festivals and book prizes, and the question and answer that follow build upon some of my thoughts at the time: 

"On winning the Tata Live book prize, you wrote about sponsored literary festivals and the motivation of the rich and powerful to get speakers to participate. For any society to remain sane, a little truth must survive, was your hypothesis. Can you explain what you mean by that?"

Me:  The question of who sponsors art, and what art achieves in any society, has been troubling me for a long time. The vision of artists and their sponsors is often at variance. How does this relationship work, then? Artists are dependent on others, not just for their income, but also for spaces (physical, digital, metaphorical) wherein they engage with their audience. Picasso can make Guernica, but where will it hang? Will it survive if the powerful decide to get rid of it? Some of the greatest Renaissance art in Italy was commissioned by patrons like the Medici family, bankers and businessmen. Why did they bother? We have had stories told down the ages about kings and queens, their infidelities, filicides and parricides. Books, plays, oral storytelling arts were supported by the nobility or very wealthy merchants for most of our history. Why did they not insist on censoring all stories so that the nobility was only cast in benevolent light?

This might be for multiple reasons. One, truth itself is powerful. Those who wish to remain powerful must retain an acquaintance with the truth. They may serve disinformation to the rest of the country, but they themselves must have access to correct information. They may not invest in mass access to the arts, but they themselves must have access to the vision, the beauty and even terrifying clarity that artists bring. Two, lack of truth is associated with breakdowns of all kinds. What do we recognize as a loss of sanity? It is a state in which you can no longer tell what is real and what isn’t, what is harmless and what isn’t. Individuals who lose touch with the truth react in unpredictable ways. A society cut off from the truth, and from truthful art, starts to lose itself in similar ways. It becomes unpredictable and does not necessarily act in self-interest, much less underwrites someone else’s profit. Alternately, the truth goes underground, leaving the powerful in the dark and, this is worse for them. Look at any society where truth and art have been suppressed, and you will see that it is a sick/sickening society or a nation at war. I don’t think this state of affairs suits too many people, not for too long anyway.

The full interview is available here: 


1 comment:

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