People in the art world would not normally consider themselves to be political. That is, they may have strong views about politics, but the majority of art that is made is not concerned with political issues of the day. There is a strong, politically motivated sector of the art scene that is concerned with real world issues – globalization, the environment, the war in Iraq, Australia’s immigration policies – but for the most part, the art world is avowedly apolitical.
The only issues-based politics that gets most artists riled up are pragmatic issues such as getting paid and being represented fairly. Real world politics are separate from most artist’s practice. And who can blame them? If artists don’t get paid, for example, they leave their galleries in search of more equitable deals. If they’re not going to be paid to show in a public gallery, they can choose not to be involved. If you were an artist who had a dealer who lost one of your artworks, you could sue for negligence, or demand to be paid for the missing work. If a gallery manager didn’t send out invitations to your opening until after the actual opening, you’d be completely within your rights to demand some form of compensation.
In the real world of the Australian art scene, artists will carefully weigh up their options – if you’re not getting paid in a timely manner, do you leave or hope it gets better? If a dealer lost your painting, would you sue or hope that they don’t lose any more? If someone invited you to be in a show in a public gallery and you didn’t get paid – would you agree to be in it because it would be good for your career? The answer is that for most artists the option to settle for less is the only option.
But let’s just say that you found out that your dealer had murdered someone – is your ethical and moral will strong enough to say, “fuck it, I’m not getting involved with murderers…”? It seems like a simple question. Of course, you would refuse to be involved. But what if that gallery manager had got their job through illegal means – by bribing someone, or framing someone for a crime they didn’t commit or driving them into bankruptcy and then into prison? And what if every single person in town knew that that gallery manager, gallerist, curator or arts advisor was guilty – yet no one had acted to stop them? Would you be involved?
Australian artists are being asked to make just such an ethical decision. The National Arts Council of Singapore [NACS] has just announced the theme for its newly inaugurated Biennale:
Singapore BIENNALE 2006 4 September – 12 November 2006 (Vernissage: 1 – 3 September 2006)
BELIEF is the theme for Singapore’s first visual arts biennale, Singapore Biennale 2006 (SB2006). If today’s world has painfully called into question many certainties governing society, history and humankind, can it also be described as an era of uncertainty in which the very subject of belief is in question? In the context of this so-called crisis of values, what do we individually and collectively believe in? Do we act on our beliefs or is belief simply a mindless act? Are the religious beliefs communicated by the great faiths more relevant than the secular beliefs in science, progress, democracy and politics that succeeded them? Or has the conflict between the two spawned such states of violent and ethical extremism in the service of religious and economic power that belief in anything appears incomprehensible? Are we beyond belief or at the threshold of its revival?
The NACS, a Singaporean government department, aims to promote the city state as a cultural centre in the region:
SB2006 is a culmination of the growth of Singapore’s artists and achievements in visual arts at home and abroad. It highlights Singapore’s prominence as an international visual arts hub, not only providing new opportunities for Singapore artists, curators and arts businesses, but also as a key enabler of exchange and collaborations for the global arts community.
We had no idea that Singapore was such a conduit of visual arts in the region. Every time we think of the place we only think of two things – lots of coffee shops and the death penalty. As Amnesty International puts it:
Singaporean Government controls imposed on the press and civil society organizations curbed freedom of expression and were an obstacle to the independent monitoring of human rights. A range of restrictive legislation remained in place, undermining the rights to freedom of expression and assembly. All assemblies of five or more people require a police permit. Such permits are rarely granted to those wishing to express dissenting political opinions.
The law also includes art gallery openings of exhibitions deemed to be too critical of government policy. Art works are also policed for content and a recent work about hanging was altered after it was “discovered” [by government informants] that the piece featured Van Nguyen’s prison number. Luckily for the exhibition’s organisers, the show was only closed for 24 hours and they may yet escape prosecution under the country’s tough anti-sedition laws. Recent talk that the Singaporean govenrment would relax its laws prohibiting gatherings on private premises have yet to be brought into effect – gatherings of more than 5 are still banned from discussing “inappropriate” topics.
The Singaporean government does not encourage a free press, finding it too Western and unhelpful in the city state’s unique cultural context :
Singapore should not be embarrassed by its lowly ranking on the international press freedom index [140th out of 167 – Reporters Sans Frontieres] because it has achieved top ratings for economic freedom and prosperity, its senior minister said. Defending the city-state’s model of press control, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said the country should not subscribe to the Western model of a free press that favours criticism and opposition. Instead, Singapore should develop a non-adversarial press that reported accurately and objectively. “I do not favour a subservient press. An unthinking press is not good for Singapore. But press freedom must be practiced with a larger sense of responsibility and the ability to understand what is in, or not in, our national interests,” Goh said late on Monday, at the anniversary dinner of the Today newspaper.
Then there is the issue of the death penalty – 400 people executed since 1991 make Singapore the holder of the dubious honor of having the highest per capita death rate for judicial executions in the world. One may argue over the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent or the appropriateness of mandatory sentences, but coupled with the country’s draconian sedition laws, its use of the courts to supress politcial opposition, Singapore’s government is one of the most oppressive régimes in the world.
Sometimes politics and the art world seem a little vague and nebulous – other times not so vague. Which Australian artists will be pragmatic enough to accept an invitation to exhibit at SB2006? We’ll keep you posted.