The National Arts Council betrays the purpose of Art

The National Arts Council has proven its irrelevance to the development of the Singapore arts scene. By revoking the publication grant it had extended to Epigram Books to publish Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan due to the graphic novel’s ‘sensitive content’, the NAC has shown that it is a bureaucracy, and bureaucrats are the antithesis of art.

Art vs bureaucracies

I approach art as the celebration, ennoblement and marriage of human technical and imaginative skills. It is the alchemisation of truth, beauty and human ingenuity. It points to greater and wider truths beyond a limited individual frame of perception, illustrating the door to that truth through the artist’s craft, and trusting the audience to exercise their intellect and find the key to walk through the open door and see what the artist saw. From this perspective, the artist’s first duty is to the truth: the truth of the world, the truth that stretches across time and space, the truth of his inner vision. From this duty comes the obligation, and hopefully the skill, to create beauty, a means of touching a wider audience through their shared humanity and communicating what the artist saw. The method can take on many forms: a combination of colour and lines, creation of depth and perspective through chipping away raw material, exquisite arrangement of words and phrases.  To do this, the artist must not give a care about pre-established norms and traditions; if anything, it is the prerogative of the artist to create new norms, to ignore the trends of the day, to understand his vision and to communicate it regardless of what others think is right and proper.

Bureaucracies, on the other hand, are interested in maintaining and expanding their levels of influence. Bureaucracies exist to execute policies of their government, and in doing so they lay down and enforce what the government believes to be acceptable norms. If it is the policy of the government to uphold its power by quashing anything that appears to be a threat to its legitimacy, as the current government seems wont to do, the bureaucrats will follow suit. To justify their budgets and positions, they will steadily expand their influence over society, becoming unelected lawmakers and invisible judges, such as the Media Development Authority and its attempts to prevent homosexual content from airing in Singapore. Consequently, a bureaucracy and an artist will always clash as long as the government’s policies towards art encompasses everything but the unhindered development of the arts.

‘Sensitive content’?

In its papers and guidelines, the National Arts Council has clearly stated where it stands along the bureaucracy/artist divide. Quoting from its Production Grant Guidelines:

While we celebrate diversity of expression and open, balanced dialogue in the arts, as a statutory body
disbursing public funds in line with Government policies, NAC has to prioritise funding to proposals which
do not:
•Advocate or lobby for lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public;
•Denigrate or debase a person, group or class of individuals on the basis of race or religion, or serve
to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society;
•Undermine the authority or legitimacy of the government and public institutions, or threaten the
nation’s security or stability.

Left unwritten is its newfound ability to withdraw grants after funding projects, but that is the nature of bureaucracies. They will only reveal their power when it comes time to exercise it, backed by the authority of the state. In the case of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, today’s Straits Times describes the ‘sensitive content’ as:

In the first chapter, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong face off in cartoon form. Later in the book, the 1987 Operation Spectrum, in which 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government, is turned into a plot to replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of American singer Richard Marx.

The NAC’s senior director of its literary arts sector, Khor Kok Wah, claims, “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines.”

The graphic novel tells Singapore’s 60-odd years of history through satirical comics. It is plain to see that Khor does not comprehend the shape or purpose of satire. It is equally plain to see that the NAC’s screening process is incapable of identifying works that would allegedly undermine the authority of the government. But where art is concerned, this is the nature of bureaucracies: indecisive, incapable of comprehending nuance, and if pressed will favour the government.

Also, like bureaucracies, the NAC cannot comprehend that all publicity is good publicity: by withdrawing the grant, the NAC has given Epigram Books and Liew a ringing endorsement. All copies (as of time of writing) of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye have been sold out, barely a week after printing, and there is no sign that demand is slowing. Through the withdrawal of monies, the NAC has done more to spread allegedly subversive messages than Epigram or Liew could have on their own. But that, again, is bureaucracy for you: as blunt instruments to uphold state policy, bureaucracies are incapable of understanding and exercising subtlety.

Implications for Singaporean artists

Art is incompatible with conformity. Truth is not truth if held down or muzzled by the chains of the state. For Singaporean artists whose works even dance towards the edge of controversy, it is safe to assume that the NAC will, at best, refuse to support the art. I am almost certain that the NAC will not support my next work.

In the world of the Covenanters, the major conceit is the existence of two special elements with magical properties; one is an industrial material par excellence; the other can be used to summon supernatural beings. The Greeks were the first culture to study them, and consequently they dominated much the world the way Rome did in ours. This had major repercussions on global history and the way conflicts are fought. When the story begins, Western civilisation is split into secular native societies and immigrant communities composed of highly religious Arabs. The Singapore of that world is, like this one, a major financial hub, and consequently is highly attractive to one of the main antagonist factions. The organisation uses its power and influence to build a base in Singapore and avoid criminal prosecution, forcing the protagonist to engage in illegal operations to root out and destroy a threat to humanity.

This series follows terrorists and spies, who live lifestyles seen as objectionable by the general public. Many characters in the series seek to create conflict and misunderstanding in multireligious multiethnic societies on the basis of race and religion. The Singapore arc would be seen as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy and authority of the government and public institutions, and threaten the nation’s stability and security.  It is safe to say that the NAC will not stand for this, and neither would the Media Development Authority.

Artists at the cutting edge must find new ways and means to develop and propagate their art, independent of gatekeepers and authority figures. They will need to be fluent with new trends and technologies. In the case of writers, self- and indie publishing allows me to produce my stories without having to worry about censorship or red tape. For people who need money to see their projects through, crowdfunding campaigns and social media may prove a viable alternative to fickle bureaucrats.

The NAC and related organisations are bureaucracies, and as bureaucracies their mandate is to uphold the interests of the government. They cannot be counted on to represent the interests of artists to the state, especially if the proposed art is not in line with the ideological or policy positions of the government. For artists at the cutting edge, they must break free of the gatekeepers and blaze their own path. If the state will not support art, then the artists need not support the state.

The National Arts Council betrays the purpose of Art
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