23 September 2016

Balled Over by the Empire

In our "Rise of the anti-intellectual, illiberal left" category, the question is:
Which of the following did not happen this week?

A. Social Justice Warriors waging war on pie. Empire Pie. I miss fafblog and its pie jokes.
B. Social Justice Warriors waging war on a museum. It put on a fundraising dinner called the Empire Ball to kick of its curated exhibition of the Tate's edgy, critical, anti-colonial take on Empire and Artists (co-branding yay or nay?). They object to the word empire, of course.
C. Social Justice Warriors waging war on Fox's Empire. The word empire is imperialist (duh) and triggering.
The UK exports Empire Pie all over Europe.
Why are Euroleftist then not triggered by Empire Pie?!
But let's talk about the National Gallery Singapore's little tiff with the SJWs. Of all three cases, it is the most tragicomic for several reasons. To whit:

The National Gallery Singapore (TNGS) has been building its reputation as a Curator's gallery. Nothing that happens, happens without the careful and deliberate choices taken its curators. Unofficially, we can say their operational motto is The Curators Are God. I cannot confirm or deny if they say that too in private, within the gallery itself.

As is clear from its publicity material, TNGS is very clear on the critical stand it takes on the issue of Empire (i.e. Mostly A Very Bad Thing). The protesters (including some of the artists participating in the exhibition and okay with its theme and approach) have chosen to ignore that stand to insist that the use of the word EMPIRE in its fundraising Empire Ball is triggering, etc.

Of interest to us is this particular denunciation from ArtHop, a soi dissant intellectual rag to explain to its artistic audience, the Southeast Asia artworld. Note the intellectual poverty and posturing, the attempt to use a badly-quilted patchwork of academic jargon to advance what is essentially a classic SJW argument of ideological purity and self-induced moral outrage.

We at Illusio offer our takedown on its piss poor takedown of TNGS, not because we are fans of TNGS, but because Illusio stands for thinking critically no matter which side of the argument (or moral fence) we're supposed to be on. And because of that, we are obliged to call out the rise of the Illiberal Left and its anti-intellectual tendencies.

Ideally, how we'd like to dress up for the Empire Ball
if only to deliver major whoopass to some SJWs
"there are many things that Singapore itself has to hand to colonialism, racism—in all forms: institutionalised, casual, and everyday—being one of them"

History will tell you that people are inherently racist, and it doesn't take colonialism to make people racist. People were always already racist, even before the British Empire happened to them. Article makes the absurd claim that Empire invented racism.

"We are, perhaps, the only country that has managed to construct a national historical narrative that has made colonialism seem like a good thing."

Dear Arthop, since you claim to be a portal for understanding Southeast Asia and its art, please get educated on French colonialism in Indochina, which entailed nation-building on 2 levels: instilling nationalism in its Indochinese countries, nestled in a nationalism towards "La Patrie", the greater nation or empire. Leaders like Ho Chi Minh were groomed in patriotic youth organisations throughout these "colonies", and attended flagraising ceremonies and daily rituals affirming their patriotism to both France and their individual countries. Uncle Ho would tell you that colonialism was one of the best things to happen to Vietnam. And that the Chinese was the worst thing to happen to Vietnam.

"By pleading ignorance, it also points to a deeper issue inherent in Singapore’s national institutions: one of self-reflexivity and sensitivity"

This is just untruthful.  TNGS brought in Tate's anti-Empire exhibition and organised a gala dinner. It assumed that the exhibition would speak clearly for its anti-colonial sentiments and posturing. It also knew upfront and prefaced its publicity by pointing out the double-edged nature of empire. What Arthop is doing then, whether deliberately or not, is a misrepresentation of TNGS, if not a calumny.

Scars of colonialism? Oh, please.
Empires are in fact A Very Good Thing, as Monty Python's Life of Brian will attest!

"As a nation, we have managed to cover up our scars of colonialism very well, refusing to recognise, or even explore, in mainstream discourse the kinds of problematics that our own colonial experience has brought to us. This insulation, insularity, may have somewhat made Singapore less sensitive to the critical dialogues surrounding colonialism on a broader scale."

It's difficult to address anything properly, much less with a critical eye, when you want to blame colonialism for everything. Which Arthop should know to be an insularity in itself. If you want to blame whitey for everything, then you blind yourself to the mode of empire-building by the regional natives (displacement by immigration: Raffles brought in the Bugis en masse to Singapore after cajoling the former Sultan and his Malay followers to relocate) , the mode of empire-building by the immigrant Chinese (The Chinese imperium in imperio, as accused by the British. Simply put, the Chinese set up a Chamber of commerce that answered to the Manchu Dynasty, schools that taught to standards set by the Manchu Dynasty, and then the KMT regime. The KMT Chinese Rubber Dealers' Association imposed a hefty tax on all rubber reaching Singapore and Malaya. Much of early case law in the Straits Settlements tried to resolve the question of extraterritoriality of the Qing Empire's laws to Chinese in Malaya and Singapore, as well as to reconcile Chinese customary law to a English common law context...)

"One has to ask if there were any other voices in the dominantly (sic) Singaporean Chinese board—voices that spoke from the experiences of other communities and peoples—sitting around that boardroom table during the fateful meeting of the Empire Ball to say that it was not a good idea"

Arthop, our trustworthy explainers of Southeast Asian artworld, seems to be entirely ignorant of the fact that at TNGS, nothing gets approved without curatorial assent. It is evidently a surprise to Arthop that TNGS curators are predominantly NON-SINGAPOREAN CHINESE, and NON-SINGAPOREAN. They, not the board, call the shots. After all, "The Curators are Gods" is an official operating mantra at the NGS...

The problem is not about the lack of self-reflexivity. If anything, TNGS curators are overly reflexive. The problem is with TNGS being so self-regarding as a cultural curator, it feels that everyone will and should agree with its view and take on everything it presents.

The problem also, is that the SJW mode of discourse is fundamentally anti-intellectual. For all its marshalling of critical-sounding, academic-sounding (zomg "problematics of colonialism"!!) phrases, Arthop struggles with facts and concepts that should come naturally to a critical theorist. We at Illusio call them out on their failure as public intellectuals.

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