"If we say to religion, 'You are untouchable,' we're f--kers."
This view, boldly expressed by the editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, summarizes the liberal side of the ongoing debate about the attack on the magazine. The printing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon sparked large-scale controversy, creating a state of anarchy because of how it poked fun at social norms and taboos as well as challenged beliefs, which were at the core of the existence of millions of people across the globe. This anarchy is the very reason for the existence of the other side of the debate, raising the question about whether artists should be transgressive or not.
Salman Rushdie, the author of the controversial book "The Satanic Verses," is a prime example of an artist who will consider it his right to produce work that transgresses social norms. It should be viewed as the opinion of the artist, and hence, they should have complete freedom to express it in any way they please because, in return, they will expect responses with viewpoints that differ from their own. Some believe that transgressive art should be encouraged rather than simply being allowed and that it is the duty of artists to offend society by challenging the strongest beliefs that they hold. They also believe that transgressive art shakes society, allowing people to see things through a newer lens, which would yield nothing short of positive social change. The debates that could potentially sprout from a controversial art piece would encourage people to respect differing opinions, be introspective about their own, and be confident enough to express them. For this dynamic to exist, the general environment will need to be conducive for complete freedom of expression and speech.
According to some, the artist must be equivocal in order to transgress to their full potential, a skill undesirable in government officers or in those who must wholly represent and support one line of thinking. This is because equivocation requires one’s audience to read between the lines in order to understand the true meaning more in depth, reducing transparency and straightforwardness and leaving a lot of room for interpretation.
On the other side of things, there exist many who disagree with the opinions mentioned above. For example, Leon Trotsky was of the opinion that art had limitations and had to be aligned with its epoch, so as to not create a state of anarchy. In fact, he believed that the role of the artist was to assist the government with its political agenda, in order to allow easy governance by gathering the society’s support through propagandist art. This completely clashes with the other viewpoints because by adopting the role that Trotsky believes is correct for them, the artist will never be able to create controversy. Instead of encouraging an “explosion,” the artist will be the person who “dismantles the bomb” before it can even begin to create any disarray. In this way, the artist is not being an independent thinker and therefore is not inciting free thinking inside the minds of their audience. Rather, the artist is playing a role that includes brainwashing society to stop trying to read between the lines and take in information as it is presented. This role strips them of their right to be equivocal and hence disallows them from keeping powerful institutions in check, and forces them to aid the same institutions in gaining more undeserved power.
In today's world, where the world is more informed and aware than ever before, artists should offend, question and challenge the most hard-set beliefs so as to constantly counter the norm. They should be the creators of a transgressive force through which people become introspective and critical but also grow to become more tolerant of each other. The view that artists should have any form of restriction seems to defy the whole purpose of making art. It is important to think about whether one believes that it is safe for an institution to have unchallenged, totalitarian power in order to form an opinion on this topic. However, the dangers of such a situation are more than explicit.