19 August 2017

Sonny Liew's Eisner win and the future of arts censorship in Singapore

When we wrote a mini-review of Sonny Liew's presentation of The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye almost 2 years ago, we remarked that the graphic novel telling an alternate history of Singapore appeared to be "a pastiche of various periods and styles of comic art that were popular during the 1940s to 1970s".

In the intervening year, we bought a copy of the graphic novel and were amazed at how vastly Liew had undersold himself. Sure, Liew didn't research actually existing comics made by artists in pre-independence Singapore. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye isn't just a pastiche of various periods and styles of comic art; it is a love letter to giants such as Osamu Tezuka, Steve Ditko, Walt Kelly, and Jack Kirby, who have influenced Liew as an artist.

But his book isn't at all an alternate or secret history of Singapore; it is a self-critiquing narrative informed by a historian's understanding that official history is enhanced when it is tempered and even interrogated by the inclusion of multiple viewpoints and the appreciation of paths not taken. It is a masterful love letter to Singapore, warts and all, and a tribute to Singapore's big men and smallfolk alike, and all their dreams.

A post shared by Red Dot Diva (@reddotdiva) on

Photograph of Sonny Liew, reproduced with kind permission from Red Dot Diva

But let's talk about how the clown show at the National Arts Council has to deal with Liew's multiple Eisner wins.

Threat to the nation, or prize winning art?

Liew's Eisner win is of considerable embarrassment to Singapore's National Arts Council (NAC).

Two years ago, the government vehicle for arts sponsorship and grants promptly withdrew funding for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye after viewing the manuscript, issuing a press statement to denounce that the book "potentially undermines the authority and legitimacy of the Government and its public institutions".

Yet The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won the Eisners, the equivalent of the Oscars for the comic book world. Sonny Liew and his graphic novel are feted by industry press, academic press, comic fandom, and fellow artists and comics honchos around the world. Where the NAC accusation has been reported, it is dismissed in a single breath while the artistic and storytelling merits of the novel are extolled. Here, we have a apex national arts body declaring a work to be a piece of artless, revolutionary agit-prop while the comic book artworld celebrates the same work as an artistic achievement and imaginative, subtle storytelling.

This is the NAC clown show: an utter failure of artistic judgment.

This is also the NAC clown show: an utterly incoherent and inconsistent policy, when you realise that Boo Junfeng's Happy and Free deals with the same reimagining of the future to reexamine Singapore's taken for granted and commonsensical history in order to conceive of Singaporean identity differently.

Boo's Happy and Free was featured in the 2013 Singapore Biennale without being denounced as undermining the authority of the state

But more than that, the NAC has proven itself a failure as a champion of the arts. With its naked politically motivation for withdrawing support for Sonny Liew and other artists, the NAC has failed to develop the arts as an autonomous field, and entirely politicised the arts. We might have to face the possibility that the NAC itself has failed to recognize the relative autonomy of art (that is, autonomous to the field of politics, capital, and power, operating on its own logic of practice) administrating culture and the arts as directly subservient to national politics and ideology. You know, just like a Communist relic.

The irony is too delicious. Modelled after (or perhaps a parody of) the 19th century French Academie de Beaux Arts, the NAC doles out "Cultural Medallions" to the "best" of Singapore art and artists without understanding that the 19th century Academie, despite its bureaucracy and aesthetic conservatism (famously moving too slow to recognize the Impressionists), at least sought to curate the arts on its own artistic terms.

What now for NAC and arts administration in Singapore?

Yes, the NAC can stop being a clown show
I do not agree with the popular doom and gloom forecast for arts administration in Singapore. It is true that aside from Liew and Tian, the NAC has been on a politically motivated grants-cutting spree of late. Its victims include former Cultural Medallion winner Alvin Tan. Liew's Eisner win is an embarrassment that will not convince the NAC to double down on the political repression of cultural and artistic life in Singapore, but serve as an impetus to cast off its regressive policy.

Singapore sociologist and cultural theorist Chua Beng Huat notes, in his latest book Liberalism Disavowed, a curious phenomenon: The more integrated Singapore becomes in the global financial system, gaining recognition and punching above its weight in international affairs, the more the Singapore government has to show the world that it is a responsible political player. The Singapore government is far less able to act with impunity to imprison anyone without publicly presenting evidence.

It's only recently that Singapore has found a spot in the cosmopolitan cultural map. Its artists have a fighting chance to be recognized internationally, as opposed to having their legitimacy and worth solely dictated by the NAC. One might argue that Singapore is at the beginning of the process of integration with the global art system, both high and popular. And like being integrated with the financial system, this will be a double-edged sword: Singapore's NAC will too have to show the world that it is a responsible artistic player. After Liew and Tiang, the NAC will be far less able to act with impunity to declare artists as subversive purveyors of agit-prop. It will have to start learning how to administer the arts as the arts, and not as the censorship arm of the ruling party nor petty cultural commissars of the supreme soviet, or there will be plenty more embarrassments to come.

No comments: