Arts circle disappointed by arts council chairman's remarks

Arts circle disappointed by arts council chairman's remarks

The chairman of the National Arts Council (NAC) on Thursday weighed in on an ongoing debate here over whether state funding for the arts should be used to enforce censorship.

In her speech at the opening of the Singapore International Film Festival, Professor Chan Heng Chee brought up a 1998 ruling by the United States Supreme Court which upheld the withdrawal of state funding for "offensive art", and advised institutions to "consider decency and respect" for diverse values when awarding grants.

She was referring to a case involving performance artist Karen Finley and other artists who took The National Endowment for the Arts in the US, which gives money to encourage the development of the arts, to court after they were denied funding for their work.

Prof Chan said: "I relate this to show governments have to deal with this conflict, this difference in points of view. Governments or states end up, like it or not, the arbiter. It is not just the state that sets standards. Society and subsets of society set standards too.

"But standards and values will evolve. Until then, there will be negotiation and compromise."

Her remarks came after several weeks of debate on how state funding is allocated to the arts. In a radio interview last month, Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, was asked why the state should fund artistic works that go against perceived national values. He responded that state funding is taxpayer money and should not be withheld from dissenting voices.

The council's chief executive officer Kathy Lai, in a commentary published in The Straits Times on Nov 7, argued that the council does its best to support a diversity of artistic expression, but "we will have difficulty funding art with public funds if such works merely feed a desire for self-expression, without any consideration of their impact on the public and whether they truly enrich their lives".

A week later, artists' network Arts Engage responded to Ms Lai's commentary, querying the assumption that "only the state... can decide 'what is good for society'". It called the commentary "the clearest articulation to date that the State uses funding as a blunt instrument of censorship".

The text of Prof Chan's speech also read: "It is not surprising at all that artists will speak out against censorship or conditional funding of any kind. We should not look at the exchange of views on this matter as a case of the state against artists, or the artists against the state. After all, we are one community, a diverse community, but one community and one country."

She agreed that state funding was taxpayers' money and said: "If taxpayers were to have their say, many may argue for more money to be spent on welfare subsidies or education and less on the arts."

She added that government support for the arts and creative industries has increased over the years. The arts council has a budget of $90 million a year to support the development of the arts, artists and arts housing.

Among the audience on Thursday was theatre practitioner Alvin Tan of The Necessary Stage. He said he was disappointed that the speech, coming from a representative of the body that is meant to champion and develop the arts in Singapore, did not articulate the point of view of artists. "There should have been more balance. "

Photographer Valence Sim, 33, who was also in the audience, said of the speech: "It was quite inappropriate. Her topic was censorship. This is an international film festival where Singapore is trying to bring in international film-makers, many of whom are trying to test boundaries in their films. What Prof Chan said just contradicts the entire film-making process."

Film-maker Jasmine Ng, 43, said: "I think it was great that Mike Wiluan, the chairman of the Singapore International Film Festival, had on the same stage made a speech about the festival being the longest- running film festival in South-east Asia and that it is well-regarded internationally because of diverse and bold programming and the no- censorship stand upheld all the years."

The festival does not screen movies which the authorities asked to be cut.

Arts Engage representatives could not be reached for their response to Prof Chan's speech by press time.

This article was first published on Nov 28, 2015.
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