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Art Attacks: Violence and Offence

Nominated | Book Awards 2020 | English Non-fiction

Art Attacks: Violence and Offence

Since the end of the 1980s in India, self-styled representatives of a variety of ascriptive groups—religious, caste, regional, and linguistic

Full Title: Art Attacks: Violence and Offence-Taking in India

Author: Malvika Maheshwari
Publisher: Oxford University Press

Award Category: English Non-fiction
About the Book: 

Since the end of the 1980s in India, self-styled representatives of a variety of ascriptive groups—religious, caste, regional, and linguistic—have been routinely damaging artworks, disrupting their exhibition, and threatening and assaulting artists and their supporters. Often, these acts are claimed to be a protest against allegedly ‘hurtful’ or ‘offensive’ artworks, wherein its regularity and brazenness has led to an intensifying sense of fear, frustration, and anger within the art world.

Art Attacks tells the story of this phenomenon and maps the concrete political transformations that have informed the dynamic unfolding of violent attacks on artists. Based on extensive interactions with offence-takers, assailants, and artists, the author argues that these attacks are not simply ‘anti-democratic’ but are dependent in perverse ways on the very logics of democracy’s functioning in India. At the same time, they have been contained, at least until now, by this very democratic system, which has prevented the spiralling of attacks into an outright condition of art plunder.

About the Author: 

Malvika Maheshwari teaches political science at Ashoka University, Haryana, India.


Malvika Maheshwari’s careful study is an important contribution to our understanding of the complex dynamics of India’s liberal democratic culture. It explores how liberal democratic laws affect the sphere of artistic culture in paradoxical ways: it examines the legal arrangements that seek to protect artistic freedom, but also demonstrates how a liberal sensibility about communal dignity generates inflamed and exaggerated conceptions of injury which try to force the state to legislate restrictions, and often uses direct violence against artistic expression. This is a highly instructive study of the intersection of art, liberal law, and democratic politics.
— Sudipta Kaviraj , professor of Indian politics and intellectual history, Columbia University, New York, USA

This is a well-conceived and strongly argued book on an extremely urgent and topical theme. It is based on a conceptual engagement with the conflictual nature of Indian democracy, and with the politics of liberalism, secularism, religious fundamentalism, and multiple other forms of dissensions that have motivated the attacks on the freedom and licenses of art.
— Tapati Guha-Thakurta , director and professor of history, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, India

In this original and compelling study, Malvika Maheshwari situates the increasing attacks on artists and vandalizing of their work in India in the context of changes in India’s democracy and public life. Liberal freedoms of speech and expression have since the 1980s been severely challenged by violent campaigns against artists whose works of art are said to cause offence to certain communities and collective sentiments. Through a careful analysis of such campaigns, and the people behind them, Maheshwari argues persuasively that the performance of anger and offence, accompanied by demands for bans and punishment of individuals and communities, have become central features of Indian politics, and central to the making of political reputations. Although Maheshwari shows that the Hindu majoritarian right today has captured this ‘politics of offence’, the most pertinent achievement of this study is to demonstrate how the very intensity of India’s democracy also allowed public violence and starkly illiberal sentiments to become acceptable and routinized elements of the country’s public life.
— Thomas Blom Hansen , professor of anthropology and South Asian studies, Stanford University; director, Centre for South Asia, Stanford University, California, USA

This is an extremely valuable work on a much-neglected topic. Malvika Maheshwari carefully exposes the dark side of India’s democracy—its proclivity for violence. By meticulously wading through violent attacks on artists, the vandalization of their work, and the cynical, instrumental politics of offence-taking, she proposes that violence must no longer be seen as external to Indian democracy but as its constitutive element. By nurturing violence as a norm, democracy has severely tested our constitution’s liberal vision. An excellent book showing how ‘liberal’ and ‘democracy’ in India are continually moving apart, pulling Indian society in opposite directions. Disturbing but highly recommended.
— Rajeev Bhargava , professor at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS); director, Institute of Indian Thought, CSDS, New Delhi, India

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