Essays

Thais: Art, Culture, and the Growing Up

Thailand seems like a country full of culture. It projects an image to the rest of the world of a land full of temples and smiling people. There is some truth in that of course, otherwise visitors wouldn't rave so much about it. But a lot of it is PR, and Thailand has always been good at PR and its' modern history and culture is full of it. Certainly ever since its rulers had to hobnob with powerful world-leaders going back to the nineteenth century, PR has always been an important part of the scheme of things. This explains why there were some very grand palaces in that era. They were there to impress the colonial elite of the day. Siam was projecting the image of a civilization, puffing itself up to be grand and large enough not to be taken over. Western architects and artists were employed to design and decorate the buildings. (One such artist, Galileo Chini, who had his fresco work shown at the Venice Biennale in 1909, was spotted by King Chulalongkorn). In the process Siam started to use culture to make a political statement, and starting the trend that sees culture becoming part of the Thai survival kit.

Colonial powers geographically nibbling around the Kingdom well into the twentieth century in part encouraged the growth of Nationalism and the Nation-Building movement of the 1940's-50's. The word in Thai for culture was coined in that era from English, but Wattanatham did not have quite the same generic meaning as the original, and it prescribed the values of the 'Thai' way of life, its customs and behavior, tradition, and (manufactured) history. This same nationalistic cultural strategy has been wheeled out decade after decade, and for most people this 'Thai' value lingers on, and is in the current, contemporary Thai Culture. Bangkok may look modern, but it does not necessarily reflect what is in the minds of its' inhabitants. The use of culture for social and political purposes is pervasive and taken for granted.

Recent political events in Thailand and the resulting turmoil have however, forced people to question what went wrong, and among other things, if the cultural status-quo has anything to do with it.

What was it in the Thai society that has made a government, with a record of corruption, dubious dealings and very PR savvy, so successful, and then to be brought down by a benign coup by the military who promised to put the country back on track again within a year, to de-polarize the now fiercely encamped populace, putting it all back together again as good as new?

In the meantime the constitution has been abrogated, and a new one has to be written and debated.

There are people in the art community who feel that artists should take part in this debate, among them the Artists Chumphon Apisuk, Vasan Sitthiket and the poet Naowarat Pongpaiboon. (Or anyone else who would like to join). But what stance are we to take? Cultural diversities, fairness and justice, and freedom of expression, all these democratic principles could start off the discussion.

Could it be that for a society, art is a form of self-dialogue, a conversation with itself? On a community level it reflects, giving rise to the sharing of ideas, of hypotheses. On the personal level, it leads to the qualities of reflection, appreciation or just the simple ability to feel. Creativity, and having critical faculty, is also part and parcel to the process of growing up. If this art process and this cultural mechanism were to be in place, a society might find itself in a better situation to uphold social values, as people will have ways to express, affirm and play them out. The alternative is to let people continue holding onto false ideals, to time-warped values. For Thais, they can go on living lives in the Land of Smile. But the reality is, everyone gets a rude-awakening.

That the whole Thai society failed the Thaksin test now seems obvious. Despite all the cultural togetherness, all kinds of structural rips have been exposed. Will its' coup solution fare any better? With this military intervention, is life imitating art in this 'deus ex machina' scenario? Or is it just another case of the Village Syndrome? The 'Village' I am referring to does not belong to any great academic theory, now that I am on the cultural track, but the village in the film by the film-maker M. Night Shyamalan. The film may be about a quaint community wherein the village elders kept the community in a protective cocoon, and got un-raveled by a stabbing incident by a deranged man, but would reflect the social dynamic of any community large and small. My jump from discussing Thailand, a country of sixty two million people, to a village in a Hollywood film may seem sudden, but that is the point I am making, that in our daily life art can usefully articulate life in some very crucial way.

Interestingly, there seems to be a lot of madmen running around these days, perhaps as a result of some world order status-quo somewhere.

And perhaps the Thai society, like some other developing nations, needs to turn its attention, not just material progress, but also to intellectual progress as well. Software is needed as such as the hardware. Cultural development should be part of all this. Can contemporary art in all its many manifestations go mainstream, vital and significant enough to be at the heart of the social debate, to become a cultural phenomenon and mechanism, a part of the fabric of a democratic society?

Art can help a child, a person, to grow, but culture can also stir a society toward maturity. Will Thais ever have a chance to grow up?

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Author

Chatvichai PROMADHATTAVEDI

Topic
Essays
Date
Mon, 1 Jan 2007