Introduction : About the research on the art critics of Siamrath Weekly
This project was originally envisaged as an annotated bibliography of articles from the Silpa Wattanatham (Art & Culture) column of the Siamrath Sapdavijarn news magazine during a period of approximately 3 decades, from late 1977 to 2004. The overview of around 1,500 titles of articles by critics with diverse points of view was to reveal long-term patterns of critical preference and support within Thailand’s growing art world.
What actually happened was that these articles turned out to be so rich in aesthetic, critical and historical materials that annotations turned into summaries, the work quickly expanded beyond the scope of a bibliography, and the team was able to cover only about 10 years worth of material, around 500 articles. First attempts at subject and author indexes are also included in the final report.
This research makes accessible for further research and study a particular panorama of critical thought in the modern history of Thailand’s artworld. The summaries address the content of the articles, the who, what, where and when information. We also tried to capture some of the flavor and color of each individual critic’s approach. The summaries were intended to be interesting and pleasantly written which encourage readers to browse through the material, stimulating them to go back and take a look at the original articles for themselves.
The long record of critical writing in the Silpa Wattanatham column is a lively and intriguing historical record which reveals much about the way modern artworld institutions in Thailand have developed. It is only one example of Thailand’s rich, untapped contemporary resources for the study of modern aesthetic and critical thought.. Despite its limitations, we hope that this collection, as far as it goes, will be a useful guide which leads students of the aesthetics, criticism and modern art history of Thailand back to the original writings.
The Mirror of Criticism
Art criticism has been defined as 1) the process which leads to qualitative judgments about works of art and 2) the products in which those judgments emerge.1 Over the long term, discourse among professional critics in magazines and newspapers contributes much to this process by documenting and interpreting art world events by analyzing the acts and policies of influential artworld institutions, and by meditating on the significance of artists and their works. All of these tasks are basic to the critical process of interpreting and evaluating works of art and culture.2 Journalistic accounts thereby contribute to the long-term process of building up histories of art.3
The modern art world in Thailand continues to be well documented by the many art critics who write for popular local magazines. 4 The events and issues recorded in their pages picture the growth and transformation of Thai culture in the modern era, offering fascinating perspectives on how this particular modern artworld arrived at the place where it stands today. Through these critical voices, the art world communicates its vision and mirrors the hopes, feelings and values of modern Thai culture.
Criticism is creative.
In the words of Terry Barrett, “Good criticism is careful and engaging argumentation that furthers dialogue about art and life…Artworks generate different interpretations, and to interpret an artwork is to generate meaning.”5 The voices of the nation’s art critics are thus part of the intellectual discourse by which Thai society in the modern world interprets, explains, and understands itself.
The journalistic art critics in the pages of the Silpa Wattanatham column during the early years were crusaders as well as educators, working hard to persuade their readers of the importance of the modern artworld, as they perceived it.
They have different ways of describing the value of art. In his early writings for Silpa Wattanatham, Pisanu Supanimitr tends to give importance to the ideas of individual artists, the creative process, and the characteristics of well-formed and well-composed elements in outstanding artworks. His beliefs reflect Western Modernist aesthetics and criticism and an outlook strongly influenced by the traditions of the Faculty of Painting at Silpakorn University.
Unlike Pisanu, Thai critics in the Silpa Wattanatham column in later years – Wibul Lisuwan, Dachanee Bradupnil and Amnart Yensabai, for example -- do not see the appreciation or development of expertise in producing aesthetically pristine art objects as their central concern. The critics who come after Pisanu in the second half of the decade from 1977 to 1987 describe the nation’s artworld in much broader strokes. Even as they assign more importance to the cultural role of traditional craftsmen, reverencing the arts and crafts which have shaped Thai culture from its beginnings, they give accounts of their journeys abroad to China and America, where they seek new perspectives on how artists can live and make their way in modern society. In calling the artworld to reach out to the grass roots and to build wider networks of relationships with collectors, patrons and the public, generally, their approach is more populist in both style and spirit.
Criticism has generally been understood to reflect the culture in which it is born, just as works of art have been understood to reflect their makers and their birthplaces.
Critics, like artists and artworks, are generally understood to naturally reflect the culture in which they were formed. 6 For example, critics praise artists with the words used in their own society to point out good people. Good artists and good works of art are often characterized in critical descriptions as having the virtues generally held dear in that society. For example, Modernist American art critics typically praised artists who ‘took risks’ or showed great ‘freedom’ in their work, while Thai critics repeatedly praise the ‘masterful confidence,’ or the great precision, detail, and ‘coolness’ of an artist’s use of a medium or technique.
Having said this, it must be admitted that, in a globalized world, artists certainly expect their work to transcend the boundaries of their own culture. But the question then arises as to the extent, for example, to which Thailand’s high art can serve as a distinctive symbol of the shared values and world view of Thai people, in particular. The answer to this question, it appears, depends very much on how Thai art critics present high art to the people. What purpose high art serves in contemporary society depends to some extent on how high art critics choose to interpret it in the media.
The Critics of Siamrath Sapdavijarn’s
Silpa Wattanatham (Art & Culture) Column, 1977 – 1987
The roles and functions of Thai contemporary art, the culture of the contemporary artworld, and the future of the nation’s traditional culture are the predominant themes in the pages of Siamrat Sapdavijarn’s Silpa Wattanatham column during the decade from late 1977 to 1987.
During this decade, the art critics of this weekly column, including Pishnu Supanimitr, Wibul Lisuwan, the writer using the pen name Dachanee Bradupnil, Amnart Yensabai, and a host of others,* discoursed on the nature and role of art and culture in contemporary Thai society. Whatever their political or aesthetic preferences, their writings in these years provide us with vivid glimpses of Thailand and its artworld moving into a new era.
1977 - 1983 - Pishnu Supanimitr
As a professional art critic writing the weekly Silpa Wattatham column in Siamrat Supdavijarn news magazine, Pishnu Supanimitr was guided by tastes and convictions developed within the framework of his formative years as a student and, eventually, as an instructor at Silpakorn’s Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art, and by his own rich experience as a successful artist, author and civil servant. Pishnu’s skills as a writer, his conciseness, clarity and wit, lend considerable impact to his critical analyses. His articles are generally a pleasure to read and easy to remember. These qualities make Pishnu an excellent model for young writers and students of criticism.
It is Thailand’s high art world which concerns Pishnu, and he focuses on its center, where it begins, among the network of people and activities associated with the Faculty of Painting at Silpakorn University.
For Pishnu, a true work of art is a sort of pure aesthetic beacon, giving unique pleasure and inspiring pride. He saw the creation of high quality works of art as the all-consuming quest of every true artist, and exhibitions as the artworld’s screening process, the institutional means whereby the best artists and the finest artworks are identified and honored. In exhibitions, artists compete to prove their worth under the scrutiny of the most astute judges in the transparent search for those masterpieces whose destiny it is to become important cultural markers. Pishnu therefore gives great importance to these defining events in the nation’s high art world.
In his regular column in Siamrat Sapdavijarn, Pishnu works hard at guiding and developing the tastes of his readers. An eloquent spokesman for the institutional spearhead of the nation’s artworld, he must certainly have influenced public perception of contemporary art in Thailand.
The air of collegiality and stewardship in Pishnu’s writings reflects the critic’s sense of
membership in a fraternity of dedicated artworld professionals, their students and protégés. During his years as the major writer for Silpa Wattnatham, the column gives major coverage to art exhibitions at the Bhirasi Gallery, at Silpakorn’s Faculty of Painting (for example, shows of work by guest artists and teachers of the Faculty), at the Silpakorn University Gallery (especially thesis exhibitions by the Faculty’s graduating seniors), the National Art Exhibition, shows at the National Gallery and at Chang Silpa College, the Bua Luang show, sponsored by Bangkok Bank, the Contemporary Art exhibition sponsored by Thai Farmers Bank, as well as various shows at the Goethe Institute and the British Council.
Pishnu discusses the family relationships among Silpakorn University and the Faculty of Painting, Chang Silpa College, the Fine Arts Department and the National Gallery. He is familiar with the network of officialdom operating these institutions. Though he occasionally shows impatience with the slowness of the bureaucracy, he also acknowledges the constraints under which government officials often work, especially the lack of budget. He discusses in detail the role of the Fine Arts Department in developing the National Art Gallery (Nov. 4, 11 and 18, 1979; and July 20, 1980
Besides giving space in the Silpa Wattanatham column to review occasional plays, concerts and exhibitions by artists from abroad, Pishnu sometimes spotlights Thai films, for example Kru Ban Nawk (July 16, ‘78), Karm (August 13, ‘78), the full length feature cartoon, Sudsakorn (May 13, ‘79), and Thai filmmaking generally (Oct. 24 ‘81). Pishnu was quick to appreciate the early example of realism in Thai film-making, of Kru Ban Nawk (16 July’78). In a cross-over of influence from mass art to the world of high art, he urged artists in other fields to take inspiration from the approach to realism in this film.
Pishnu directly discusses particular aesthetic issues in a number of articles in this period, i.e. on art and politics (28 May ’78; 15, 29 Apr ’79); on artists and art teachers who are government officials (8 Oct ’78); on the nude in art (17 Sept ’78; 8 Feb ’81); on art and pornography (22 Oct ’78); on judging art (11 Mar ’79; 27 Apr ’80; 7 May ’81); on realism in art (23 Jul ’78); and on art and business (29 Apr ’78). He also offers a critique of a critique by a French art historian of works in the National Exhibition (22 Apr ’79).
Questions about the political nature and role of art were sometimes a matter of intense controversy in Pishnu’s early columns. Though it now may seem strange to postmodern thinking, which embraces the political and economic nature of society and culture generally, the view in those days was very strong at the Faculty of Painting that true art must be above politics and commerce.
During the more than five year period from 1977 to 1983 in which his was the dominant critical voice of Siamrat Weekly’s Silpa Wattanatham column, Pishnu Supanimitr spoke authoritatively and with an insider’s knowledge of the inner workings of an art world that, in his view, rested to a great extent on its most important pillar, i.e. the legacy of Professor Silpa Bhirasri and the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Arts at Silpakorn University. As historical documents, Pishnu’s writings strongly reflect that distinctive tradition of values and beliefs, the vantage point from which his school interpreted events in the art world of the day. However, this very distinctive position almost inevitably brought Pishnu into a collision course with the views of new voices arising in the art world. The critical conflicts which echo through this decade of writing in Silpa Wattanatham are much easier to sort out, in retrospect. We can see now that they arose out of differing philosophies of art and different educational traditions which were moving through a period of radical social change with Thai society as a whole.
All in all, we can conclude that the remarkable depth and spread of Pishnu’s experience and skill as artist, author, and educator/civil servant contribute to the consistent high quality of his critical writing in the Silpa Wattanatham column, and attest to his stature as one of the important critics of Thailand’s modern art world in the late 20th century.
1979 – 1985 - Wibul Lisuwan
After Pishnu Supanimitr, Wibul Lisuwan gradually emerges as the major contributor to the Silpa Wattanatham column. Like Pishnu, but in different ways, Wibul’s view of the artworld in Thailand bears some trace of his allegiance to Silpa Bhirasri, a legacy which, on occasion, he solemnly acknowledges (14 oct 84; 20-26 Sept 87).
In Wibul’s hands, the ‘culture’ side of the Art & Culture column takes on much greater importance. Wibul has keen interest in the many ‘good things’ to be found in the nation’s provincial art and culture (26 feb 84; 26 may, 15 sept 85).
At the same time, some of his early articles (12 aug ’84; 4 aug 85) express alarm at the growing financial problems faced by traditional farmer-craftsmen in trying to earn even supplementary income from their cottage industry. As local craftsmen found themselves increasingly overwhelmed by challenges in new technology, new products and Thailand’s changing economy, the long hours invested with pride in traditional skills no longer made sense economically. Wibul watched with sympathy and dismay as the quality of traditional handicrafts declined. In the latter half of 1986 and 1987, he devoted at least 12 articles to topics directly concerned with local art and culture, and to the challenge of preserving this endangered heritage.
He also expressed serious reservations about the relation between tourism and culture (15 feb 87).
The addition in the column of a regular new feature on traditional crafts gave Silpa Wattanatham another new dimension. Old rural folk culture was kept in the spotlight by presenting each week a picture of a traditional craft item, along with a brief explanation.
Thailand’s traditional high art and culture, and the ancient culture revealed in local archaeological explorations also come into new focus in Wibul’s writing.
In 1983, Wibul suggested, too, that the government find a way to preserve the Ancient City, a privately funded but failing cultural theme park which reproduced in miniature many of the nation’s historical monuments and archaeological sites. From ‘84 through ‘85, but mostly in 1987, Wibul wrote more than 10 articles concerning the preservation of examples of traditional high culture and the renovation of ancient cultural sites, for example, through documentary film coverage of the funeral rites for the royal consort of the 7th King (10 mar 85), ‘Pramerumas’ (14 Apr 85), in the new Sukhothai historical park (31 mar ’85), in studies of the archaeology of the Ayudthya Period (jne 30’85), in Thai mural painting ( 23 Nov 86), at Ban Chieng (12- 18 apr 87), in the history of photography in Siam (19-25jul 87) and through the preservation for study of various important archaeological sites (16-22aug 87).
Wibul, like Dachanee Bradupnil, likes to share what he saw and learned in study tours abroad, for example, at a meeting with other Asian artists and scholars in the Philippines (13 May ‘84). He has most to say in this period, however, about an official visit to China. which he made in the company of other Thai artists and scholars for the purpose of presenting art exhibitions and taking part in cultural exchange activities. In August and September 1985, Wibul wrote of his experiences in Peking, Kwangcho and Kwangtung. He describes with particular enthusiasm the creative action by groups of local Chinese artists who showed determination in finding innovative ways to develop and prosper in their own communities. Wibul also describes some of the art he saw in a similar tour in the US in “Art of Vienna in New York” (14-20 jun ’87). By giving concrete accounts of what he had seen of the strategies of other Asian art communities, Wibul showcased many creative possibilities which might be adapted in a Thai context.
Government patronage in the form of publicly funded exhibitions in Thailand’s artworld is the subject of about 10 articles. Wibul takes repeated critical looks at the National Art Exhibition (21 aug 83; 5 aug 84; 28je- 4july 87) and at the role and meaning of the ‘national artist’ awards (9 Dec 84; 29mar-4apr 87). He considers the present and future of the National Gallery (30aug-5 sept 87), and the participation of Thai artists in ASEAN art shows (1 dec 85; 27 jan 85; 2-8; aug 87).
From 1983 to 1987, Wibul devoted approximately 20 articles to individual artists and to solo or group exhibitions in the private sector. The column was also extended to include an additional ‘Art Calendar’ section which offered ongoing separate coverage of shows and other artworld activities.
Like Pishnu, Wibul devotes a number of articles directly to discussions of criteria and principles, and to the conceptual and institutional frameworks which give structure and direction to activities in the nation’s artworld (28 apr ‘85). He takes a serious look at what it means to try to preserve Thai art and culture (9 june ‘85); at the role of private patrons (11sept 83; 5 feb ‘84); and at guidelines for competitions, judging, and honors (19 feb, 16 oct, 23 dec ‘84; 27-apr – 2 may, 17-23 may, 24 sept-3 Oct ‘7).
During the 4 or 5 years covered in this survey of his writing for Silpa Wattanatham, Wibul gives considerable importance to Thailand’s provincial art and culture. Indeed, once outside of Bangkok, the nation’s high artworld seems almost to disappear altogether, as if there existed two, completely different but parallel worlds.
Wibul’s descriptions of the economic, social and technological pressures faced by rural craftsmen show that their struggle is basically a microcosm of the plight of Thailand’s rural sector during a difficult period of rapid change. Besides documenting this social and cultural upheaval, Wibul, in his travels, keeps looking for organizational, administrative and legal strategies which might prove helpful as development models for Thai artists and craftsmen.
Giving so much weight to the culture side of the art-culture equation, Wibul sees these matters concerning and pervading the whole society. Wibul and Pishnu seem to have had different concepts of the term ‘national.’ In writing about Thailand’s artworld and the performance of Thai artists, Pishnu’s idea of ‘national’ meant ‘best of the nation’s best,’ but for Wibul and others with a similar view, it meant something like ‘concerning all Thai people’. Such different points of view in the growing and changing Thai artworld eventually clashed head-on in a battle over who would define and control the direction of the National Art Exhibition.
While Pishnu tends to remain within the context of his own high art institutional cluster, focusing on artists, artworks and exhibitions, Wibul opens the Silpa Wattanatham column to a broader interpretation of Thailand’s artworld. His writing is an invaluable and illuminating contrast with Pishnu. He is keenly aware of a rich world of traditional rural culture which has a life of its own beyond the borders of the high artworld. By opening up windows on this broad cultural and social context, Wibul, another important critic who has contributed greatly to the nation’s artworld, offers valuable and important new perspectives.
1979 – 1985 - Dachanee Bradupnil
During the period under study, the writer contributing under this pen name monitors many activities in support of Thai art and artists in the US, for example, in American museums (2 Sept. ’79), in US universities (14 Oct. 1979), in art competitions involving Thai children in America (6 May ’84; 17 Nov ‘85), in shows featuring contemporary Thai art in America (19 May‘85), and in cultural activities such as Asian American Heritage Week affecting Thai people in the US (2 June ’85). Thai communities living in California, and especially the Thai Arts Council, play an important role (20 Jan ’85; 7 Apr ’85). Dachanee also devotes a series of 3 articles ( 16 Sept, 7 Oct, and 4 Nov ’84) to seeing art in America.
The other half of Dachanee’s writings in this period concern various art shows in Thailand, i.e. the National Art Exhibition (24 May, 31 May, 7 June’ and 25 Aug ’81) and ‘national artists’ (12 May ’85), and various other local contemporary art exhibitions (30 Dec ’84; 3 Mar; 18 Aug ’85), for example, an exhibition by a woman artist (6 Nov ’83) and by Thai school children in the province of Loei (3 Feb ’85).
1983 – 1985 Amnart Yensabai
As Thailand’s high art world grows and expands, more critical voices with new and different preferences, perspectives, and philosophies are heard. These voices express the different personalities of the critics as well as their different world views. The sharp and sometimes peppery criticism of Amnart Yensabai is firmly associated with the Silpakamsart Faculty of Srinakharinviroj University (Prasarnmitr). Critics coming out of this school are influenced by philosophies of education which see art as normally present and enriching every aspect of the daily life of the people. Hence, Amnart is among the critics who write in defense of the value and dignity of commercial artists (31 july ‘83). While appreciating traditional arts like the mural painting of Isarn (25 dec ‘83), Amnart supports artistic realism and social criticism in young artists (18dec 83; 19 aug, 18nov 84) and contemporary Thai art experimenting with new possibilities for old traditions (8 jy ‘84).
Amnart is interested in learning from congenial foreign models (15 jan ‘84). He is also sensitive to issues in philosophy of art education (13 jan, 21apr ’85) and rejoices when local art teachers succeed (13 jan 85). Amnart represents a new wave in the art world which gains force as more schools, colleges and universities begin producing greater numbers of graduates in visual arts. He has a new point of view, with new interpretations of recent art history (9 oct 83). He is ready to boldly place Thailand’s artworld into its larger contemporary historical and political context as well (16dec ‘84). Amnart sees that Thailand’s artworld will have to expand as a result of pressure from within the educational system (27may, 2 dec 84). New kinds of art exhibitions are organized (19 june ‘83; 30 sep ‘84; 16 june, dec 29 ‘85 ) while venerable older shows, like the National Art Exhibition, are challenged to reform along new lines (29aug 83; 18mar 84 ).
* (กมล ทัศนาญชลี / Kamol Tasananchali ;กรแก้ว เทียนศิริ. / Kornkaew Tiensiri; Kanya Charoensupkul;กำจร สุนพงษ์ศรี / Kamchorn Soonpongsri ;คุณสมพงศ์. / Khun Sompong ; เจ้าพระยา / Chaophraya ;ดำรง วงศ์อุปราช / ). Damrong Wong-uparat ; นิติ วัตุยา / Niti Watuya ;ผ่อง เซ่งกิ่ง / Pong Sengking ; ไพบูลย์ ลี้สุวรรณ / Paibul Lisuwan ;ไพโรจน์ สโมสร / Pairote Samosorn ; A Thai Sculptor ;สายเอก / Sai Eke ; เรือนแก้ว / Rern Kaew ;วลิดา อินสอนลา /Walida Insornla ; ศิราพรวว ; อารี สุทธิพันธ์ / Ari Suthiphan ; อิทธิ คงคากุล / Itti Kongkakul; อเนก นาวิกมูล / Anek Nawikmul ; แอน / Anne – Marie Butzbach)………………………………………………………………….
1 Encyclopedia of World Art, “Criticism” Rossario Asunto.
3 As, for example, in the writings of the French critic, Denis Diderot, whose work is cited in John Kissick’s discussion of 18th century French art in Art: Context and Criticism (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1996) and by Carol Duncan in a similar discussion in The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History (Cambridge University Press, 1993) and , along with dozens of other journalistic critics, by Terry Barrett in his text, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary ( Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View CA, London and Toronto, 2000).
4 For example, in Art Record, Fine Art, Matichon Weekly, Feature Magazine, Art- Culture, House and Garden, SeeSan etc.
5 Terry Barrett, Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary (Mayfield Publishing Co.,Mountain View California, London and Toronto, 2000) vi.
6 This has been the position of the Encyclopedia of World Art in the article on ‘Criticism’. It is clear that the author (Rossario Asunto) expects that criticism, like art, must inevitably reflect the world from which the artist is born and of which the artist is a part.
1. Barrett, Terry. Criticizing Art: Understanding the Contemporary ( Mayfield Publishing Company, MountainView CA, London and Toronto, 2000).
2. Beardsley, Monroe C. , The Aesthetic Point of View – Selected Essays, edited by Michael J.Wreen & Donald M. Callen (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1982.)
3. Carol Duncan. The Aesthetics of Power: Essays in Critical Art History (Cambridge University Press, 1993.)
4. Encyclopedia of World Art. ‘Criticism’, by Rossario Asunto.
5. Kissick, John, Art: Context and Criticism (Boston: McGraw Hill, 1996.)
6. Rader, Melvin (editor), A Modern Book of Aesthetics, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1960.)
7. Stern, Laurent, “Voices of Critical Discourse,” in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Fall, 2002. 8. Wimsatt and Brooks, Classical Criticism- A Short History, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1957.)