Two paintings were removed from a public art gallery recently for causing ‘distress’. But, when art is controlled and restricted, will it limit society’s mental and creative horizons?
RECENTLY, the local arts community was abuzz with a controversial episode of censorship by the National Visual Arts Gallery (BSVN).
The gallery had removed two artworks by the finalists of the Young Contemporaries 2013 art competition before the awards ceremony was to take place.
One of the artworks was by Cheng Yen Pheng, which featured the words, ABU = ASHES spray-painted across her acrylic painting of blue, booby-like balloons, while the other was by Izat Arif Saiful Bahri who had silk-screened the Arabic alphabets of “Fa” and “Qof” on black t-shirts.
The official response by the gallery was that the artworks had caused “distress” to visitors and that they had the right to remove any artworks deemed “inappropriate”. But for me, I find it odd that a national art institution, originally established to promote and encourage the arts in the country, would behave in this way.
An art institution should first and foremost find value in a piece of work, regardless of whether it is confrontational, controversial or political. The art institution should first and foremost protect the artwork and the artist, as opposed to mollycoddling the gallery’s visitors.
A visitor can choose whether or not to view the artworks, or to take offence at it, but that is not for the gallery to decide. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it and move on. But for the artist, that is their work.
Cheng’s protest against the removal of her artwork also contributed to the controversy and sparked debates among other local artists. A video of the disgruntled artist standing in front of where her painting used to be, holding a photo of the painting while repeating, “This is my painting. Last few days still here but right now no more,” had gone viral.
Izat, however, remained unperturbed and even claimed that the action by BSVN was “expected”.
Izat has responded to the censorship using passivity – leaving it up to the public to decide whether BSVN’s action was right or not.
I’m not an expert, but I have enough appreciation for art to understand that it is not just about creating beautiful things (or ugly things, as some artists would intentionally do).
Neither is it about creating things that no one would understand and claim that “Well, that’s what art is about.”
The arts are expressions of the artists, either as a reaction to their external environments or creative manifestations of what’s internal (thoughts and feelings). Sometimes, these could be experimental; sometimes planned and calculated. But often, artists provide us with another way of seeing things.
Art, like other disciplines, evolves. From modernism’s avant-garde, art is becoming increasingly political as artists deal with their immediate surroundings.
The most interesting artworks are often based on social or political observations by the artists. Artworks do not stand alone, but play a larger role in society. They bid the audience to think, to argue, to be provoked.
What BSVN should have done, instead of removing the artworks, was perhaps to encourage discussions from the public. What was it about the artworks that made them distressed? Why were they distressed? What did they see, that others may not have seen?
The arts advocate Pang Khee Teik posted in his Facebook: “What about the desire of those who do want to see the work? If something distresses us, surely the solution is not to hide it, or silence it, for it will come back to bite our a***s.
“Surely, shutting down spaces for dialogue causes more distress. Surely, understanding why something distresses us, listening to other perspectives, finding the common hope behind the critiques is one way to become less distressed ... we could do with less distress in Malaysia.
“Unless, of course, the distress is being performed in order to reinforce the power of some over others. After all, some are given more right to be distressed than others.”
It is not an accident that the most progressive nations in the world are ones with vibrant arts industries which enjoy active public participation. In an article written by the poet Rahmat Haron, published in Reactions – New Critical Studies: Narratives in Malaysian Art Vol. 2, he quoted the writer/activist Hishamuddin Rais as saying that art resists all types of dictatorship – art liberates the space of democracy; it does not imprison it.
So, it is unbecoming of art institutions to “incarcerate” artworks by removing them from public display.
Indeed, only in a democratic space can art thrive. It cannot thrive in an environment of fear which stifles creativity. Artists cannot push boundaries if they are restricted.
Just take a look at the local film industry. Two of three local films produced in a month would be a ghost story, and the remaining one would either be a love story or a comedy. It is quite embarrassing when we compare our films to that of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
Our cinematic scene is so heavily censored and regulated that movies of substance seldom emerge on our movie theatres today, unless they are independently produced and marketed as “international screen” offerings (it’s rather ironic that local movies shot mainly in English or non-Malay languages are considered “international”).
But that is the inevitable result of censorship, which suppresses ideas and artistic impressions. This results in conformity and a lack of a diversity of ideas.
Views that are not representative of the status quo are silenced, so all you get are views that are “approved”. I should not have to spell out why this is a hindrance to the nation’s progress.
The artist’s job is to present their work– you may choose to enjoy it or not, you may choose to be moved by it or not, you may choose to take offence or not. But, whatever reaction the artwork may attract, it should not be penalised just because some people do not like it.
We, as the audience of the artwork, and the artists as the creators, should have the freedom to make those choices.
> Sharyn Shufiyan believes that cultures adorn a society, much like Tapestry on a piece of cloth. She puts on an anthropological hat to discuss Malaysia’s cultures, subcultures and society (ies). Write to her at email@example.com