Last week, Toyin Lawani’s outfit caused a stir within the Christian community. Her “nun dress” subjected her to a storm of angry comments from religious Nigerians. Many stated that she had desecrated the holy symbol of the cross and made a mockery of Christianity in the name of creativity. Some of her previous supporters claimed disappointment, saying that some things are off-limit. This has led me to ponder, are there limitations to creativity or should there be limitations to artistic enquiries?
Reality is fodder for all art forms, even fantastical ones. Artists and creatives take inspiration from their lives and society to produce art that’s relatable. Even the most enigmatic/experimental works have a foot in reality. Creatives of all kinds—art, music, fashion, film etc—are also always trying to do new things with their art and as long as it is all within the human experience, it should be explored in art. Life isn’t a walk in the park and art shouldn’t be expected to portray only the digestible bits.
Of great importance to this discourse, is the fact that most art is subjective. That is, the creator’s perspective is almost always what is presented. Art and creativity is a means of expression and in most cases, self-expression is prioritised. Therefore, this often translates into personal feelings about the subject matter, positive or negative. This is also where freedom of expression comes into play. Since freedom of expression is a basic human right, shouldn’t the artist or a creative, whose role in society is undeniably important, be encouraged to create art without being boxed in? Of course, this is not an excuse to create blatantly hateful art. It should rather be seen as a tool in truth finding. Society is improved by questioning things and placing limits on what can or cannot be expressed is death to society’s evolution.
Artists and creatives ought to have the space to talk about anything in their works, especially when such work is critiquing an aspect of human living. However there is also such a thing as political correctness. Few artists and creatives, these days, would risk stepping outside of politically correct rhetorics. Should this be so? While respecting social and cultural diversity, should the artist refrain from touching on certain subjects?
This calls up the matter of sensitivity. While art shouldn’t cause harm/damage (a matter which some argue about), like with Toyin Lawani’s case, people are sensitive about certain subjects such as: religion, sexuality, gender, race and so on. Therefore, the way subjects like these are portrayed in artistic mediums, has the potential to offend. The dynamics may however change, depending on whether the artist is a member of the group which their art examines, or not.
Furthermore, it should be understood that just as art is subjective, so is being offended by same art. The fact that a group of people find an art piece offensive does not make it bad art or even morally wrong at that. Individual or group sensitivity usually cannot prevail, especially when the law is observed in the creation of the art. Therefore, in most circumstances, art can only be censored by legislation if it causes harm to people, or threatens state peace and security.
Here is where artistic responsibility comes in. When putting out controversial work, artists may be inclined to include trigger warnings. This way, the audience is made aware of what they’ll be consuming. There is also no place for ignorance. An artist cannot claim ignorance about the subject matter of their art. Even before undertaking the task of creating, research should be carried out, so as to have proper understanding of the chosen subject.
To conclude this, we would all also do well to understand that we (humans) are the ones who decide what is socially acceptable based on majority rule.