Email Forum on Art and Social Change, May 2011

KAO Chien-hui
Valerie DORAN
Rasheed ARAEEN
Naiza KHAN
Raqs Media
LEE Weng Choy

In light of recent events, including the detention of artist and activist Ai Weiwei; the sacking of Jack Persekian as the Director of the Sharjah Biennial for the content of one work in the exhibition; and the censorship of AAA’s Mobile Library project ‘Open Edit’ at Sàn Art independent art space in Ho Chi Minh City, AAA has set up an email forum to invite art professionals to address issues on art and social change. AAA asked several individuals to begin the forum by thinking about a few questions: Can art affect social change, and how? When does it work? When does it fail? What are the roles of artists and arts institutions in a country like China where freedom of speech and expression are restricted? What is the social and political role of the artist? What can and should the regional arts community do when an individual artist is singled out by the state? Below, please find the first round of email correspondence from 12–30 April.

Friday, 22 April 2011, response from KAO Chien-hui, Chicago-based critic and independent curator; Associate Professor, Graduate Institute of Interdisciplinary Art, National Normal Kaohsiung University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan; and AAA Academic Advisor

Any art activity cannot avoid its political intention. When AAA addressed those questions, the organisation reveals its political function as well. However, while I don’t mind the political standing that AAA chooses, I am more concerned with some essential issues on the new relationship of aesthetics and politics. Especially, the definition of art activism and social movement.    
The questions that AAA brought out in its first email are a little bit ambiguous to me, but these questions also let me rethink some essential state in art.  

Can art affect social change, and, if so, how? When does it work? When does it fail?

Are we going to define ‘art as activism’ or ‘the social function of art’?

What are the roles of artists and arts institutions in a country like China, where freedom of speech and expression are restricted?

Are we going to address the question in a general way, not only as it pertains to countries like China, but also as it relates to some Middle Eastern countries? Especially, the freedom of speech and expression of some females whose freedoms are restricted by their countries due to political or religious reasons?  

What is the social and political role of the artist?

The question becomes too much about idealism. If we change the sentence to ask: What is the social and political role of the businessmen (or any designated role in society), then the question, ‘what is the social and political role of the artist?’ might become a private question. 
Do artists have a special position in society? Should they lead society to a better state? I asked these questions in my Critical Thinking and Visual Analysis class, a course of the Graduate Institute of Interdisciplinary Art. Most students did not consider the role of artists to be particularly great or important in society. Ironically, they identified another interesting direction: Before society asks what artists should do, my students also wanted to know what society should do for artists. 

What can and should a regional arts community do when an individual artist is singled out by the state?

In my mind, the question is not always asked with a clear, logical set of conditions. If we are talking about Ai Weiwei’s case, then we might all assume that he was singled out by the state for his art activism. But, so far, the only information about Ai Weiwei’s disappearance is: ‘the artist disappears!!’. This is the only ‘fact’ that we have. Not knowing where he is and accusing the state of having done something to him are two different things. 
This question seems to presume that an individual artist who is singled out by the state must be innocent, so the regional arts community should do something for him or her. This is not the ‘truth’. But we might think about the boundary of art and law in different regions—and what regional art institutes could do. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2011, response from Valerie DORAN, Hong Kong-based independent curator, critic, translator, and AAA Academic Advisor

The following are thoughts in response to some of the questions posited:
The other day I was reading a recent essay by the Chinese art critic and curator Li Xianting. He was talking about the development of Chinese 'realist’ ink painting in the early part of the 20th century and, in particular, about the Chinese term xieshi zhuyi adopted at the time as a translation for the Western aesthetic term ‘Realism’. As Li explains it, the Chinese character xie (to write, describe, or express), contains within it the implication of subjective expression: thus, by extension, pairing the word xie with the word shi (reality), produces the idea that 'reality’ is being ‘expressed’. This implication, Li continues, makes the term xieshi zhuyi quite distinctive from the Western sense of 'Realism’, the implication of which is the objective depiction of reality.
What is the social and political role of the artist?

Why am I talking about xieshi zhuyi when I am supposed to be answering the above question? Because I think that the beginning of some kind of answer can be found here. That is, the role of the artist is to ‘express reality’ as he or she sees it. Not objectively, but authentically. And the ‘reality’ being expressed may be one of many different kinds, depending on what it is that is demanding or capturing an artist’s attention at a particular time: it may be an artist’s psychological reality; the reality of a mundane, circumscribed life; the reality of light on water; the reality of a holocaust; the reality of hyper-reality; the reality of any kind of suffering that enters into an artist’s consciousness, from a single death, to a war, to a school collapsing. 
One of reasons many people consider art to be important is the same reason it is considered by others to be dangerous. Pardon me for referencing Tolstoy in a Barthes-riddled world, but there is an enduring relevance in his observation that the importance of art lies in the way the creative expression of the artist ‘infects’ the receiver (the audience), so that the receiver is able to experience—to see, hear, or feel—what the artist is seeing, hearing, or feeling at the moment of expression. And if the reality that the artist communicates, through his or her work, to the audience, is at variance with the reality that ‘the authorities’ wish people to see or feel, the authorities can become unsettled, and sometimes censorship, or worse things, prevail. (On this point, one could say Plato and Mao share a common theoretical ground.) 
What can and should regional arts communities do when an individual artist is singled out by the state?

Recently a new Hong Kong organisation was formed which calls itself ‘Artist Citizens’. Last week, they sent out a call via email and Facebook for people in the art world, and their friends, to join a rally and protest march on April 24th, to support Ai Weiwei in particular, and freedom of speech in general. Over two thousand people showed up. The march was lively, colourful, and interestingly noisy (many people brought musical instruments or other noisemakers). There were no political parties there, working their own agendas, and no confrontations with the rather harried police who had to keep up with the artists as they marched down the middle of Nathan Road. The march certainly caught the attention of bemused onlookers, who had never seen anything quite like it. And it was front-page news in several of the local Chinese newspapers, which published a plethora of colourful photographs alongside interviews with artists, who made good use of the chance to articulate the cause. And while Kacey Wong or Him Lo or Gus Mok (or the many hundreds of others) were marching as artists, in their own interest and to support one of their own, they, and many others, were also marching as citizens. 
A non-profit arts organisation called the Freedom to Create Foundation, founded in 2006 and with a Singapore address, writes on its website ( that ‘Freedom of creative expression is a cornerstone of just and fair societies and is essential to fostering peace and prosperity . . . In many societies, political repression, intolerance, ignorance, and religious extremism inhibit creative expression, especially for women. Artists play an important role in breaking these barriers and championing creative, economic, and political freedom.’
It is naïve to think that Ai Weiwei’s art is unrelated to his detention; but it is also naïve to think that it is the only reason for his detention or for the extreme treatment he has suffered. Ai approached the issues that demanded his attention on many levels: as an artist, as a social activist, as a citizen. And I would guess that his detention is the cumulative result of all of these. Thus the conscious response of artists, and art institutions, equally may be generated from any one of these perspectives. Or cumulatively, from all of them. There is no one, politically correct template for response. 
As I see it, collective art action, or politically engaged art action, are both developments in the creative process reflecting current realities: in other words, the authentic means to expression of the reality artists are experiencing. When the old processes or media no longer suit, artists adopt or invent new ones. If the roles of artist and social activist merge, it is still part of this process.

I would like to end these rough notes with another rough note, by someone else:

The distance between the problems of art and the problems of life is in itself a problem . . . Duchamp thought he had found the answer to this problem. But right now, in this moment, I am facing the very same problem. The difference is, I want another kind of answer.
(Translation of fragment of a note scribbled in a sketchbook in March 1981 by the late Hong Kong artist Antonio Mak Hin-Yeung [1951–1994])

Tuesday, 26 April 2011, response from Rasheed ARAEEN, Editor, Third Text, Pakistan; AAA Academic Advisor

I’m now attaching here something which would interest you: it is, in fact, a manifesto to which those who are interested in ‘art and social change’ must pay serious attention. I hope this manifesto will entice enough response to create a debate that is urgently needed, as all life of our planet earth is now threatened with total destruction. (Please download the document here)

Wednesday, 27 April 2011, response from Naiza KHAN, visual artist and researcher based in Karachi, founding member of the Vasl Artists’ Collective

With reference to what Valerie Doran has mentioned above, the reality that an artist wants to communicate through their art often collides with the establishment to varying degrees, depending on the context. 

I feel that the situation created in the sacking of Jack Persekian unveils the enormous problems and boundaries that artists and art directors face in working within regions and countries where the unwritten laws of censorship, cultural sensitivity, and propriety need to be addressed before exhibitions open to the public. Ironically, it is often these issues that are the core of the artist’s work. This confrontation reveals what a state wishes to define as its parameters of art and culture, and hence, what kind of ‘culture’ it wishes its subjects to engage with. 

This event has unearthed for me, the vulnerability of art vis-a-vis state and establishment. If we work within the safe limits of a bubble—when, as Rasheed Araeen suggests, the institution has made art activism kosher—then as artists, we do not address the public in a direct and unmediated way. But if we cross the line, it leads to closure of exhibitions, or worse.

In Karachi, such a confrontation arose, in April 2009, when the Shanaakht (Identity) Festival, organised by CAP, was sacked and vandalised by workers of the ruling political party. They objected to the photographic work of an artist who had allegedly defamed the leadership of their political party. Artworks exhibited in that show were damaged, and exhibition organisers were given death threats and had to go into hiding. It unleashed a barrage of opinions on blogs, newspapers, and television on the role of the artist in society and whether there should be ‘limits’ to their freedom of expression. 

I think the really important fact that surfaces each time such a confrontation arises, is that the invisible wall of censorship becomes visible, and as artists, we are constantly negotiating that wall. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2011, response from Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective 

Can art affect social change, and how? When does it work? When does it fail?

The continuity of censorship proves that it is not art, but power that stands most threatened today. The urgency and contingency of contemporary life is a clear sign that we are faced with an open set of trajectories. The fact that a state or an entity that claims to be powerful feels the need to restrict expression is a sign of its fragility. It proves that nothing is inevitable or certain, least of all its premises. The present is agile and volatile. Artistic propositions, objects, and images are a part of this flux.

Being together with art can occasionally make it more possible for people to consider difficult choices together. Art, by being free of the burden of pragmatism, can sometimes lead to a collective realisation of ideas, concepts, and necessities that no one would have thought of if they were to consider pragmatic options alone.

Art works best when it creates the conditions that encourage a greater thoughtfulness. Artists rarely succeed when they set out to intervene with art in social processes. This is not to say that artists should not be active politically or socially. But to expect that art can play a greater role in social or political activism by virtue of being art is to both overestimate the power of artistic work and to underestimate the complexity of social and political life. 

What are the roles of artists and arts institutions in a country like China, where freedom of speech and expression are restricted?

Is censorship a form of ‘retrenchment’, an instance of enforced redundancy from social speech? The most pernicious effects of power in today's world result in exclusion from the spheres of the production, reproduction, and circulation of the materials that constitute life. Denying an artist access to his/her tools, to the means of circulation, and to his/her public is akin to people being denied access to land, water, wages, savings, and medicine. This is part and parcel of the daily attrition and collateral damage that a besieged system inflicts on large populations, especially when it finds itself unable to reflect either on its mortality, or on the possibility of its transcendence by other ways of life. It fears both. So how do we engage with this systemic fear? There can be many ways, the more viral and festive the better.

In any situation where the freedom of speech and expression are restricted, it becomes imperative for artists to create modes of expression that defeat the scrutiny of the censor. Censorship does not only come from the state, nor does it happen only in China. Subtle and not-so-subtle pressures operate throughout the domain of global cultures. Sometimes these may take the form of a politically correct consensus; sometimes they may take the shape of a 'formal' attitude, even a tyranny of 'trends' and fashion; and at other times it may simply be instances of puritanical grandstanding that lead to a climate of inhibition.

The recent events in the Sharjah Biennale have again shown how fragile artistic and curatorial freedom is in relation to the pressures of patrons. Similarly, the last decade has witnessed several instances of censorship, harassment, and legal action against artists, curators, filmmakers, writers, and media practitioners in places as diverse as Poland, India, Italy, Iran, Bangladesh, and Hungary. The legal apparatus of intellectual property continues to act as a censoring mechanism in many parts of the world including the USA and Great Britain, leading to many invisible acts of self-censorship. It would be unfortunate if the current (and condemnable) difficulties of Ai Weiwei were to lead us to believe that censorship is a 'Chinese' or an 'Asian' problem. Unfortunately, there are enough instances to suggest that it is a far more widespread issue.

Artists, intellectuals, and cultural workers can respond to censorship in several ways:

a) by creating networks, as people have done before, that multiply and circulate content in viral ways so that it becomes impossible to identify the source and the vector of the communication - thus leading to a crisis within the censoring mechanism.
b) by creating works, as people have done before, whose significance is clear to society at large but opaque to the state and the censoring authorities—this requires the cultivation of a 'shadow language' which can be spoken eloquently, poetically and elliptically and which creates confusion within the apparatus of censorship.
c) by maintaining a consistent and clear approach to the outside, as people have done before, so that news of suppression of dissent can never be blacked out.

What is the social and political role of the artist?

To introduce intelligence, craftsmanship, poise, imagination, humor, grace, and the unpredictable as elements of significance in any social or political discussion or moment; to pose limits, as well as posit new horizons, onto what we consider to be the social and the political.

What can and should the regional arts community do when an individual artist is singled out by the state?

An individual artist’s being singled out could signify a point of stress and fracture in the system. This symptom is a message that transmits the actual weakness of the system. What is the nature of this message? Who is it for? Is it to meant to send a shiver down some bodies in an effort at demanding submission? What are these sites of stress that the state wants to plaster over? Something has moved, shifted, cracked—and the behemoth is acting out of panic, guided by a memory of past responses and dead habits. When thinking of how we can respond to an individual artist being singled out by the state, we could think about what we can do to make the cracks bigger and the plaster that covers them brittle and frail. 

Thursday 28 April 2011, response from LEE Weng Choy, independent art critic, and AAA Academic Advisor
Let me focus my remarks on censorship. A number of years ago, I was invited by the main English daily newspaper in Singapore, The Straits Times, to contribute an article on the issue. Let me excerpt a passage of what I originally wrote:

Let us define exactly what censorship is: it is the arbitrary exercise of power to silence expression. The history of censorship is a history of persons and acts being singled-out not because they truly deserve censorship more than other persons or acts, but because some self-serving authority has found it expedient to make an example out of them. Censorship is always arbitrary because it is precisely about power, as opposed to reason or justice. This is a criticism made not only on principle; it is backed by experience . . . in all the controversies that I have followed closely [in Singapore], I have never found a single instance of censorship to be reasonable or justifiable.

When the article was printed, I was surprised to read myself saying that ‘Censorship is sometimes arbitrary’, rather than what I had claimed, that it is always arbitrary. When I contacted the editor, she said the newspaper had decided to change my position, and without informing me, because they did not want me to come across as too strident. It was not that they were given any directive from above, but that they were acting on their own judgment. The newspaper, of course, proved my point—perhaps better than I could. They censored me, and did so arbitrarily.

Surely anyone who works in the arts, whether in Singapore, China, the UAE, or anywhere else in the world, has stories to tell about censorship. Whether by the state, or otherwise. As Raqs Media Collective say, ‘Subtle and not-so-subtle pressures operate throughout the domain of global cultures.’ Artists, curators, critics, and so on, may have certain experiences and intelligences about censorship, but it's not as if ‘we’ should want to constitute ourselves as a special interest group. One of the points that anti-censorship art activists in Singapore have taken pains to emphasise is that, while arts professionals are concerned about censorship of the arts, what they are most concerned with is censorship in general. The Singapore state, however, would like to separate artists from ordinary persons, so that the state can therefore speak on behalf of ordinary people against those whiny, self-absorbed artsy types.

I agree with Raqs that artists ‘rarely succeed when they set out to intervene with art in social processes . . . to expect that art can play a greater role in social or political activism by virtue of being art is to both overestimate the power of artistic work and to underestimate the complexity of social and political life.’ But as Raqs also point out, yes, artists can and should, as all good citizens should, be active politically and socially. I do believe artists can have more developed sensitivities and reflexes when it comes to navigating issues of censorship. But that doesn't mean that they then have a ‘special position in society’, to cite Chien Hui Kao. It's more often than not a bad idea to use art as a basis for policy or government—I can't think of an example of an artwork that I admire that is so practically prescriptive. So I don't think it's art's role to 'lead society to a better state'.

But I also do strongly believe that artists have a lot to say of value when it comes to censorship. Artists have a responsibility to speak up, but it's not a unique one—it's a responsibility shared by everyone. As Naiza Khan reminds us, it's imperative to ensure that censorship, which aims to make invisible certain voices, is always made visible.

This is a conversation to be continued. AAA invites respondents’ comments on other people’s points within these texts, to be included with additional respondents’ thoughts and additional questions in the next issue.

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