15 September 2017

No kiss and make-up: Sonny Liew and Singapore's National Arts Council

After Sonny Liew won several Eisner awards for the graphic novel which the National Arts Council (NAC) of Singapore has previously denounced as "potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions", the government agency (despite its reluctance to spell out its direct affiliation to the ministry of culture on its own website) and self-declared champion of the arts in Singapore released a congratulatory statement whose mixture of embarrassment and halfhearted conciliation did not escape notice.

It appears that this would not be the end of the matter, and it was wrong to expect a kiss and make-up between award-winning artist and the nation's arts administrators.

So we decided to interview Sonny Liew ourselves.

Previously, I have warned that Liew's Eisener win makes the NAC's nakedly political spree of withdrawing arts grants embarrassing and untenable: When the international arts system - fellow artists, gatekeepers (normally curators or in Sonny's case, the Eisner awards committee), institutions, consumers - unanimously recognises the merit of an artist's work, and the NAC stands alone in its dissenting opinion, sticking out like a tone deaf singer in a choir, it is the NAC that gets called out as a failure in artistic judgement and a clown show. It is the NAC that loses its credibility as an arts administrator and champion.

Liew's return of new NAC funding and withdrawal from its annual tentpole event marks a further deterioration in the relationship between the NAC and artists in Singapore. But was the artist being petulant, or the arts body recalcitrant?

NAC doubles down on grant-censorship model

Let's tackle the NAC grant first. We are told that "the mutually agreed project milestone schedule now does not work for him", that the NAC "respect his decision and wish him success in completing his new work. The Creation Grant supports the incubation of new works and the timeline of up to 18 months allows the Council and artist to establish a reasonable scope of work that would be developed."

In our private interview with Liew, I asked if the NAC had continued to insist on strict conditions for the grant that have been reported elsewhere: Within our stipulated timelines and milestones, the artist shall on a regular basis submit completed chapters and a summary of future content for continued approval of the fund, based on the continued adherence of the work to our political and social guidelines.

Liew replies:
It wasn't about strict conditions imposed - more a desire on my part not to have to second guess, that the book should go where it needs to do.
That is to say, an artist can make promises but never guarantee that how things might turn out, will turn out exactly so. Storytellers don't stop thinking, rethinking, and refining their stories; ongoing research may overturn the best-laid plans to take a story or its characters to a certain destination.

A historian might wonder why the NAC seems to be regressing to the old standards of the Police Entertainment Licensing Unit, exercising continuous censorship in every stage of the creative process, but now in the name of arts management. A cultural theorist would ask if the NAC has confused art with copywriting. But one supposes an artist could just return the money, precisely because it can be intolerable for an author to have to second guess and promise where his story needs to go before the story is fully written.

No time for dialogue, no honest dialogue, no public dialogue?

On the Singapore Writers Festival, Liew tells us that
I just thought that this year the book could be part of a dialogue about arts funding; I wanted to talk to them about their position, get some clarity. It didn't happen before the SWF listing announcement probably because they were busy with the SWF itself. But for me it felt better to not commit to the fest since no dialogue had taken place... At that point it wasn't clear - but I didn't feel comfortable taking part before dialogue.
Again, reading between the lines, one may venture that far from being petulant or vindictive, Liew was fine with his pre-agreed appearance at this year's SWF, and saw it as a chance to engage in public and in private with the NAC over the issues surrounding their decisions to defund The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye and yet congratulate his win in the way they did. After all, that congratulatory message meant all was forgiven and everyone could talk freely about it, right?

But the NAC had no plans to enter a public dialogue on this topic, and Liew perhaps grew increasingly uncomfortable about the blank cheque he had originally written in advance - essentially saying yes to participating in SWF 2017 way ahead of time without knowledge of the agenda, without the power or ability to discuss the agenda, and realising that whether he or the NAC liked it or not, it would have to come up in the agenda.

The State of the arts and the Art of the state

Liew is not going to start a revolution. He's not asking for artists to rise up and return their NAC grants or withdraw from NAC's events either.
I think the arts definitely still needs the NAC - we can't ever divorce ourselves from it.
A cultural theorist will find it hard, almost impossible to contradict Liew here. This is a common point made by several theories of the arts, from Pierre Bourdieu to Howard Becker, that artists don't make their art in isolation, that they depend on audiences, collaborators, production managers, appraisers, middlemen, impresarios, training schools, and so on. And yes, patrons like Alexander VI, the Renaissance merchant princes, to modern day entities like the National Endowment for the Arts in the US, the Arts Council in the UK, or one has to stretch the analogy to breaking point, the NAC here.

In normal times, a body like the NAC confers credibility and legitimacy to the artists it funds. At this very juncture, it is the NAC that has a credibility and legitimacy deficit, and not the artists that seek its funding. The actions of the NAC in the recent past mark it as a cultural commissar in service to the Party, in its enforcement of the Party's authorised, closed rendition of history under the bureaucratic excuse of being tasked to manage acceptable art.

Can artists ever divorce themselves from the NAC? We argue that Singapore's artists have a fighting chance to be recognised internationally, thanks to the nation's increasing integration with the global arts system and pop culture. In the arts, Singapore is a small nation, but highly porous. Its artists have no equivalent of a vast wilderness of Siberia to be exiled, to be forgotten, their works placed out of reach of an international audience.

The NAC will have to start learning how to administer the arts as the arts, and not as cultural commissars of the supreme soviet, or there might really be a run on the bank in the form of a flood of artists shying away from NAC grants.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

" The NAC will have to start learning how to administer the arts as the arts, and not as cultural commissars of the supreme soviet, or there might really be a run on the bank in the form of a flood of artists shying away from NAC grants. "

This will never happen here. Super kiasu PAP brooks no criticism 100%. Look at the action the AG is taking against Lee Hsien Yang's son.
Lee Hsien Loong is hell bent on making his exit free of any leftovers and hangovers that his underlings would be saddled with. The next GE would almost certainly see a drop in votes for the PAP, Lee has to make very sure he leaves no unfinished business that his underpowered underlings would have to clear and clean up.