Monday, November 9, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom. Look at the Monks (Monks Like Crows) (2).


Manit Sriwanichpoom. Look at the Monks (Monks Like Crows) (2). In the Silpa Wattanatham Column of Siam Rath Weekly News Magazine, Yr.55, Vol.7, 9 – 15 Nov.2007.

The case in which the National Buddhist Council has petitioned the criminal court against Anupong Jantorn, the artist who painted Look at the Monks and Thawan Dachinee, one of the judges of the 53rd National Art Exhibition for insulting the Buddhist religion has created a current of fear among artists and art teachers. If they make or show pictures which criticize the low state of the Thai clergy today, or the cultivation of income through religious practices by the clergy, they may also become targets for arrest.

Lately, self-censorship is occurring in the matter of the prize for the 2007 Young Thai Artist Award. The Thai Cement Foundation decided that the winning entry, Look at the Monks was to be cancelled, and placed a blank canvas in its stead. This turned out to be shocking, confusing and very disappointing for the artist, Wathit Semabutr, and his parents who had come all the way from Chiang Rai to celebrate with their son.

Five days later, Wathit and his 3rd year student friends at Silpakorn University, along with members of the Artist’s Party ( which works on behalf of freedom of expression among artists), led by Wasan Sittiket, carried a protest against the action of the Thai Cement Foundation. What follows is a portion of Wathit’s open letter to the foundation, which the artist read aloud:

“I am the owner of the work, ‘Look at the Monks,’ and I don’t think my work is unsuitable. How is it not good enough? Does it have such impact on the Thai Cement Foundation that it can’t be displayed? Why didn’t anyone tell me before that they would not show the work? If the foundation had told me with an explanation, I would have understood, but they did not inform me in advance. And the work does not appear in the catalog either. You want me to take this gracefully? I was brave enough to make the work, but the foundation does not see its merit, or the creative power of youth. This is closing the door on youth, the future of the country. Thai youth really are cut off. This is the reverse of telling the youth to ‘dare to think, dare to do.’ That slogan cannot be used in future.

Just like a hunter with his dog: if the hunter does not exercise his dog, it will not go quickly for its prey. It will have no skill or strength. Rabbits and mice will look upon the dog as a joke, without teeth or claws. It’s like earth or water: if a farmer doesn’t see the value of these resources and sells his land for a golf course or a factory, the quality of the land and water will deteriorate.

The Thai Cement Foundation said they will support Thai youth. The media take an interest when Thai Cement honors judges and other qualified people in the artworld. They look at the art receiving this support in a good way. But it isn’t good if the foundation is cowed by lawless people and if this big company folds. So they abandon the youth – the future of the country and the society – this is not good.

So, I thank the Thai Cement Foundation for protecting Look at the Monks, keeping it from the eyes of the shameless, of the media and the people who collect art. The Thai Cement Foundation honor my work as it did other prize winners out of fear for its reputation. I am ready to return the prize money and take my painting back to keep for myself, this painting which is so threatening to the Thai Cement Foundation.

I would like to see some responsible action and a sincere apology from Thai Cement. They really messed up this time..”

It is very unfortunate. Wathit ‘s letter is well written with dignity and sincerity, and with piercing questions about the foundation’s support for youth. Or were they just having a public relations exercise to dress up their corporate image? The foundation ended up returning the painting to the artist, who gave them back their prize money. It was a denial with neither support nor care. And when Wathit asked for an official apology, he was rudely rebuffed as a brash opportunist trying to make headlines for himself, and a mere tool of the Artist’s Party.

How show we view the case of Look at the Monks ? Is it a personal spat between artist and agency? Some said people would cheer for the group they preferred – the artist or Thai Cement. That this is an issue involving the right of freedom of expression in a democratic society – something media must fight for – is being forgotten.

How much freedom do media have? It is what the artist wants. Media don’t like to be censored; artists don’t like it either.

So what will their teachers teach them about creative ideas? Will the kids simply make pictures of flowers…the sea…mountains…abstractions? If they make a picture of a monk, must it be a monk in meditation, with eyes closed, fully at peace? If the youth think differently, will we censor and disconnect the offending image? Kids will no longer dare to express their ideas.

As for the art teachers who judged the show, they will lose confidence and won’t dare to give prizes to works which reflect social criticism, especially of the Thai clergy. Then, images of government officials, soldiers, policemen and politicians might be censored as well. So you can imagine the future of Thai high art.

As to the business sector, by nature, they do not hold fast to any identity or heart. They only hold on hard to their property and their legal documents. They have little interest in democracy. They support whatever system is good for business.

Capitalists are so malleable and so worldly, they do not bargain well where human rights and dignity and civil liberties are concerned.

Winston Churchill once said that courage is the first and most basic value; without it, the other virtues cannot arise or stand. I think the courage of Wathit Semabutr is admirable. He stands up for his right and freedom and for his own human dignity.

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