Why are tyrants so afraid of art?

Why have Thai authorities always been afraid of artistic expression?

By | Thu 25 Mar 2021

Many years ago I forgot my entire portfolio at my art college in London after finishing my foundation course. The college then closed for the summer, and by the time I returned to retrieve my work, it had all been destroyed.

Over a quarter of a century later, I still yearn for some of those pieces. They weren’t great, not even particularly good, but they were mine. I was inspired to paint them, I laboured over them, I had wonderful memories working on them with my fellow students, and I wanted to show them to my parents. I still miss them.

So not only am I hurting on behalf of all the students at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts who have recently had their art works callously thrown into black bin liners, I am also furious. If you haven’t been following this now-national drama, then basically it’s this: On Monday a group of yellow-shirt wearing members of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, cleared out and placed student installation art works into black bin liners to throw away, initially claiming they thought it was all garbage, then admitting that they thought the art to be too politically sensitive. There has been an outpouring of condemnation for their actions ever since.

Why this issue had commanded national attention is because it is symptomatic of, well, everything! It is about the old guard over-guarding and gatekeeping what isn’t only theirs to guard or keep. It is about the censorship and lack of freedom of expression which is stifling creativity and ideas. It is the frustration of the youth who feel as though their voices are being silenced. It is the lack of respect for fine arts based on ignorance, prejudice and I would dare say fear. It is emblematic of our society in crisis with one generation revering and living in the past – corrupt and stagnant – while the youth, frustrated at the world they have inherited, are told to know – and stay in – their places.

History will not be kind to these people. Thailand is facing seismic-levels of social upheavals as the economy continues to be so depressed it’s on the brink of suicide, democracy hijacked by the military, the ever-widening of our social disparity manifesting untold symptoms and the media landscape decimated. Our politicians and leaders do not listen, understand nor meet, the needs of the people, busy hoarding ill-gotten-gains while Rome burns.

Chiang Mai University has, since its inception, oscillated between supporting students’ freedoms, activism and expression and draconian censorship. The championing by one ajarn negated by another’s fear and loathing…and thankfully vice versa. Incidents like this are bound to happen, especially during these volatile times. What will be interesting is how the university responds. The first statement issued from the dean of the faculty of arts was underwhelming, and riddled with falsehoods. The statement released on Tuesday said that the art works were cleared to make room for an exhibition (this was a working area, not an exhibition area), and upon asking students present no one owned up to the art work (artists don’t need to sit vigil next to their works around the clock) so they decided to put them

away (putting away normally doesn’t involve black bin liners) when they came upon a piece which could be against the law as it depicted a national flag with unsavoury words written on them (not their place to make such decisions) so out of concern for faculty and students (really?) they collected the works to be picked up at a later date (the works were about to be thrown away).

The university’s student council issued a letter to the university yesterday demanding clarity on the matter. It stated that while it has heard that the university has initiated an investigation into the matter, the students wish all results of such investigation to be transparently available.

What is even more galling about all this is that it is always the students who face censure, arrest and hardship as a result of their activism. Unless directly involved, the faculty bears no responsibility. Instead of encouraging students’ creativity and expressions, the faculty has become the very power that they fear.

It is frustrating for us all who support much of the rights, freedoms and improvements the younger generation is demanding of society and government, yet what can we do?

They need money, so there is always that. They also need us to listen to their voices and stop dismissing their opinions. It’s their time now and it’s their future. Who the hell are we to tell them to shut up and endure?