The fear of freedom

August 15, 2021

In most cases, it is not the state, society or conventions that bar a creative person, but his/ her own success

The fear of freedom

“May tomorrow be more than just another name for today.”

— Eduardo Galeano

Yesterday was also more than just every other colourless, nameless and memory-less 24-hours. The nation celebrated the Independence Day on August 14: freedom from the British Raj: freedom to rule one’s own country, freedom to practice one’s religion, profession, politics without any fear, freedom to express one’s opinions, even if these clash with the ideas favoured by a government and some powerful institutions.

One is not sure about all these freedoms, real or imagined, but a big demonstration of freedom is witnessed every year when hundreds of young men ride on their motorbikes without silencers (mainly around Lahore’s Liberty market). The loud sound keeps reminding us that we are free, to do whatever we fancy. No authority, police or law can interfere or stop our blaring jubilation.

We do celebrate, but we must also think about being free. Politically speaking, we are free (to vote); but there are other spheres of social life in which a citizen encounters restrictions, limits and prohibitions. It would be tiresome to remember our circumcised and cautious mode while commenting on some sanctified sections of the society. In many other, seemingly non-political areas too, freedom is a mere illusion or a dream revisited every year on the dawn of August14.

Notwithstanding the reasons (security, medical), when a citizen of the republic moves in a public space, he/ she hardly tastes freedom: stopped at every police/ army check post, searched on entering high-level offices, deprived of entertainment that other countries allow, confined at home for long periods and speculating when the government or courts are going to ban TikTok.

In a sense, we are free, but not completely. We can go and pray but only in mosques that belong our sects; we cannot support an athlete from a neighbouring (read enemy) country if they are competing in an event in which a Pakistani is also participating. We cannot praise (publicly) the policies of another neighbouring country (read another enemy) during a war or a crisis in the region.

Freedom that requires being careful and considerate is a contentious concept. It is always described, redefined, revised. In Islamic philosophy, the question of jabr and qadr (pre-destination and agency) has been a significant debate: if everything has already been decided by the Divinity, then how is a man free to make any choices? Is he responsible and can he be justifiably penalized for his actions? Hazart Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) is reported to have pointed out that a man was free to lift one foot whenever he liked, but generally not both feet at the same time.

One realizes then that in every aspect of our lives, we are faced with options and limits. There is sometimes confusion as people misperceiving/ accept limits and options. This is most plainly visible in the world of creative practice where risk frequently replaces restraint and one comes across cycles of repeat performances, sometimes with cosmetic changes. Once artists, authors, singers, performers, directors attain a level of success, some of them end up chained to that style. There are a number of TV actors, who have never emerged out of their popular characters/ lines. There are also writers who continue producing the same matter with different titles after producing an early best seller; artists who paint variations of their prized art pieces; singers who recycle tunes of their previous mega hits.

In most cases, it is not the state, society or convention that bars a creative person, but their own success and reading of the market. The market expects, demands and controls the production of pieces that can satiate consumers. We have seen many artists, who despite their great and promising beginning, succumbed to commercial pressures. One of them lives in Karachi; he can manufacture a canvas with any number of horses, in any colour, of any dimensions, depending on the client’s demand. While he is an honest ‘worker’ (handyman), there are other, more smart operators. They have acquired styles, techniques and imagery that with minimum and subtle manipulation can be recreated ad infinitum and appear avant-garde.

Their style, no matter how celebrated, loved and collected, has long become the emblem of their identity as well as their shackles. Today, when we go to an exhibition by a renowned artist we expect to find the same visuals, materials and strategies we have been admiring for decades. Hardly ever are we disappointed, because, there is this blurred line between old and new. You see paintings converted into installations, sculptures translated as performances, miniatures modified into prints, but it is the same imagery repacked, rehashed and recycled for the sake of a fresh group of collectors.

Perhaps the greatest gesture of freedom came from Marcel Duchamp in refusing to make art, after his enormous success. In an interview with Pierre Cabanne, Duchamp declared, “I like breathing better than working.” There are a few who enjoy this freedom, of parting with their identity/ prestige of a certain style and venturing into something unexpected. Philip Guston startled everyone when he abandoned his comfortable dexterity in painting complex abstract canvases for some sort of caricaturist imagery daubed in simplified and basic tints, tones and temperaments. The turn shocked many, and disappointed some, till the eighties, when with the surge of New Painting Guston was recognised as its prophet.

In our midst, too, there are artists who have surprised viewers and themselves with their works. One of them, Mansur Salim, was not bound by one style, or even one position in art. He responded to whatever he felt was art, no matter how diverse and contradictory it was. In the same lieu, Iqbal Geoffrey has overwhelmed audience with his perpetually inventive mind. For him art is not a stylistic sophistication, but a battlefield of contesting ideas about aesthetics, society and life.

There are a few more, well known, respected and collected for their recognizable imagery, who had the courage to leave it for something different, uncertain and uncanny. Ijazul Hassan created printed collages in 1990, superimposed pictorial pages of his book Contemporary Painting in Pakistan, a possibility he discovered at the printing press and utilized; and in 2019 picked something drastically different. His blurred, bland and blending visuals of politicians and analysts, from popular media talk shows, became diffused surfaces, patterns that denote our confused reality. Those flax prints by Hassan, certify the freedom we have, but scarcely exercise or are hardly mindful of while waving national flags on our rooftops or weaving together familiar imagery, technique and tactics in our studios, year after year.

The writer is an art   critic based in Lahore.

The fear of freedom