Monday, October 26, 2009

The Thai High Artworld and Critical Discourse

The Thai High Artworld and Critical Discourse
นิตยสารสยามรัฐ สัปดาห์วิจารณ์ [Siam Rath Weekly News magazine], by hosting หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column], has been making art criticism available to thousands of readers for more than 30 years. In terms of the column’s longevity and number of copies distributed, หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column] simply has no equal in the world of Thai art criticism. Dozens of artists, art educators and other members of the Thai artworld have, at one time or another, contributed articles to หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column], but in the face of the column’s challenging weekly format, it was Pishnu, Wibul and Parinya, and now Manit and Paisarn whose energy and dedication to writing stretched through years.

Some critics, in addition to being turned away by the difficult intellectual task of producing frequent articles, might also have been put off by หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column’s] apparently very modest standing in the view of Thailand’s official high artworld. For example, a leading Silpakorn intellectual and highly respected scholar once casually remarked to the author about หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column] column that, ‘Nobody reads it.’ He was referring, it would seem, to people in his own circles, since the magazine does most assuredly have readers.

According to the Siam Rath 2009 Media Kit obtained by the author, นิตยสารสยามรัฐ สัปดาห์วิจารณ์ [Siam Rath Weekly News magazine], with a monthly distribution of 200,000, has in 2009 at least 1800 individual subscribers, mostly in the Bangkok area. Up country, around 9,000 provincial public reading pavilions also maintain subscriptions. Although these figures pale in comparison with the million/day distribution of Thailand’s most popular daily newspaper, they are quite respectable in comparison with other publications of contemporary art criticism in Thailand.

The back issues of นิตยสารสยามรัฐ สัปดาห์วิจารณ์ [Siam Rath Weekly News magazine] on the shelves of the periodicals reading room in the National Library look very thoroughly thumbed through. Plenty of people are reading นิตยสารสยามรัฐ สัปดาห์วิจารณ์ [Siam Rath Weekly News magazine], and some of them must be reading the หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column].

The challenge of carrying on critical discourse about contemporary high art in the Thai mass media has been very daunting for serious Thai artists and art critics. In fact, regular academic study and practice of critical writing has only recently been gaining momentum. It is no mean challenge, writing for mass audiences while holding true to standards of critical excellence.

Pishnu Supanimitr, when interviewed by the author about his role as the first leading writer and critic for หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column], expressed pride in his pioneering efforts to bring art criticism to the public via the mass media. However, he was not confident, in retrospect, about the success of the column in fully adhering to the best academic standards of authentic art criticism. Pishnu’s conflicted view of his own success in หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [the Silpa Wattanatham column] suggests a formidable gap between the high artworld’s idea of proper art criticism and what connects with the local public’s reading tastes.

During his tenure at the หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม Silpa Wattanatham column (1977 – 1983), Pishnu on many occasions mentioned the work of his friend and colleague, Ithipol Tangchalok, clearly regarding him as an exemplary artist of great talent and integrity. In the year 2000, Ithipol - by then, even more famous and widely esteemed as a master artist and senior teacher in the studio classes of Silpakorn’s Faculty of Painting - took the unusual step of writing an essay for an exhibition catalog in which he critiqued his own work.

Explaining his unorthodox decision to analyze, interpret, and evaluate his own paintings, Ithipol complained that the dearth of professional Thai art critics had forced him to undertake this burden. The critical writing of Ithipol (Pishnu’s long-time colleague) may suggest the kind of critique preferred by high artworld scholars.
As Ithipol explains, via R. Michael Crabtree’s English translation:

It is widely agreed that art criticism has largely failed in its mission to build a bridge between the creators of works of art and the art-viewing public. In Thailand, this failure is due in large measure to the absence of professional art critics. Artists are left to explain their work to the public themselves. In my own case, I have been creating works of art for more than 30 years, but no serious attempt has ever been made to study, analyze and assess my work. And now, on the occasion of my second solo show, I must rely on my own experience as an art instructor and a critic of student paintings for almost 30 years to comment on my own work. This has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantages are that as the creator, I have intimate knowledge and understanding of the process by which my art came
into being. I can penetrate into the thoughts, feelings and frame of mind which shaped each work.

In order to put the public in touch with his work, Ithipol assumes the critical point of view of an instructor analyzing a work of art in a classroom. From the start, the style and tone of the critique is, not surprisingly, quite academic. The critical focus is on the personal experience of the artist in actually creating the work. For example, Ithipol describes his experience and beliefs about studio practice. (He refers to himself in third person.)

"His movements must be decisive and instinctive, and he must maintain a high degree of concentration throughout the entire process. His eyes, hands, heart and mind must become one with his paper, tools, and paints as he works. It is this immediacy and the absence of afterthought which give the paintings their purity and sincerity."

How can we explain the fact that in the year 2000, despite Ithipol’s achievements as a highly respected artist; despite the long history of art exhibitions in the Thai high artworld and the many credible judges of those exhibitions; and despite the obvious critical credentials of some of his colleagues at the Faculty of Painting, Ithipol could find no ‘professional art critic’ to turn to, and complained that no one had ever taken serious and sustained critical interest in his work?

Dr. Chetana Nakavajara believes that there is so little criticism in print in Thailand because most Thai prefer their oral tradition to reading a written critique. The Thai as a people are extremely garrulous, and traditionally obtain more information by watching and listening than by reading.

Dr. Chetana expressed the hope that written criticism will play a greater mediating role and will in time somehow connect the public with more fine artists and fine works of high art. Under Dr. Chetana’s leadership as head of a ground-breaking research project on Criticism as an Intellectual Force in Contemporary Society, Jakapan Vilasineekul, from the Sculpture Department of the Faculty of Painting at Silpakorn University, and his team compiled a volume (supplemented by commentary and analyses) of 50 sample critiques by Thai and non-Thai writers.
Examples of criticism in English are translated for Thai readers. The collection includes about 20 entries by various non-native -Thai writers such as Karl Barthes, Sol Levitt, and Silpa Bhirasri (Corrado Feruci). Of the remaining 30 entries, at least 7 or 8 are the work of staff or artworld figures from Silpakorn University. Critiques from หน้าศิลปวัฒนธรรม [Silpa Wattanatham] are included among the noteworthy examples in this volume --- one each by Pishnu Supanimitr and Manit Sriwanichpoom, and two by Amnart Yensabai.

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