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Salman Rushdie speaks on censorship

20 May 2012

On 6 May 2012 author Salman Rushdie gave a speech at the PEN World Voices Festival. A week later, it was published in The New Yorker.

“When censorship intrudes on art, it becomes the subject; the art becomes “censored art,” and that is how the world sees and understands it. The censor labels the work immoral, or blasphemous, or pornographic, or controversial, and those words are forever hung like albatrosses around the necks of those cursed mariners, the censored works. The attack on the work does more than define the work; in a sense, for the general public, it becomes the work,” said the British-Indian novelist and essayist who is currently writing his memoirs.

Salman Rushdie knows the subject uncomfortably well. Following the publication of his fourth novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, in 1988, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author on Radio Tehran, essentially calling for his execution due to alleged blasphemy against Islam – an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad.
In communities throughout the world, bookstores were firebombed and copies of the book burned. The book was banned in many countries with large Muslim communities, including India, Bangladesh, Sudan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Thailand, Tanzania, Indonesia, Singapore, Venezuela and Pakistan.

Salman Rushdie doesn’t mention this affair in the lecture he gave, “His lecture is, instead, a call to arms to artists worldwide, a reminder that singular, powerful, thought-provoking art should contain an element of rebellion and agitation,” wrote Matt Levine in an article about censorship of an Iranian film: “Rushdie warns us that censored art necessarily transforms the artist’s original vision—that the artwork is then inextricable from the “crimes” that it has allegedly committed. In other words, he says, “Censorship intrudes on art.””

In his speech at the PEN World Voices Festival, Salman Rushdie argued that art is stronger than the censor, but that the artists, however, are vulnerable:

“Sometimes great and brave artists defy the censors to create marvellous literature underground, as in the case of the samizdat literature of the Soviet Union, or to make subtle films that dodge the edge of the censor’s knife, as in the case of much contemporary Iranian and some Chinese cinema.

You will even find people who will give you the argument that censorship is good for artists because it challenges their imagination. This is like arguing that if you cut a man’s arms off you can praise him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth. Censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves.

The work of Ai Weiwei survives; the artist himself has an increasingly difficult life. The poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea by a displeased Augustus Caesar, and spent the rest of his life in a little hellhole called Tomis, but the poetry of Ovid has outlived the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam died in one of Stalin’s labor camps, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was murdered in Spain, by Generalissimo Franco’s goons, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived the fascistic Falange.

So perhaps we can argue that art is stronger than the censor, and perhaps it often is. Artists, however, are vulnerable.

In England last week, English PEN protested that the London Book Fair had invited only a bunch of “official,” State-approved writers from China while the voices of at least thirty-five writers jailed by the regime, including Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and the political dissident and poet Zhu Yufu, remained silent and ignored.

In the United States, every year, religious zealots try to ban writers as disparate as Kurt Vonnegut and J. K. Rowling, an obvious advocate of sorcery and the black arts; to say nothing of poor, God-bothered Charles Darwin, against whom the advocates of intelligent design continue to march. (…)
Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.

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