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Monks vs the muse

by Kamol Sukin, The Nation, Oct 28, 2007

Artists and critics fear controversy over paintings will stifle creativity

Bangkok, Thailand -- The recent public backlash against two award-winning paintings that criticised Thai monks could lead to self censorship by artists and prize-giving committees. Artists, art academics and critics said the reaction could also close the door on expression of opinions of the clergy through art.

"It is very likely," Silapakorn University art lecturer Thavorn Ko-udomvit told The Nation.

"It will certainly happen and lead to the unwanted consequence of the public at a certain level giving monks an untouchable status," said artist Manit Srivanichaphum.

The artists behind the controversial works, Anupong Chantorn and Wartiht Sembut, said they would continue painting but would think twice before submitting their work for awards in future.

Monks and religion were among taboo topics until the past few decades, when Thai society developed a more democratic mindset.

Manit said the two incidents had suddenly brought back the "untouchable" status to Buddhist clergy. "It's a very bad sign," he added.

The controversy first arose in September, when Anupong's painting of monks with crows' beaks, titled "Bhikku Sandarn Kar", was awarded the gold prize at the 2007 National Artist Awards.

Awards organiser Silapakorn University immediately faced opposition from several hundred members of a Buddhist alliance led by monks, whose protests brought the issue into the limelight.

The alliance demanded that the award be withdrawn and that the painting should not be displayed at exhibitions of this year's award-winning works to be held around the country.

The university rejected the demand after consulting experts in relevant fields, prompting the alliance to file a lawsuit against the university in the Administrative Court for defaming Buddhism.

"Painting monks with beaks like crows or dogs wearing monk robes is nothing but defamation of Buddhism. Are the artists Buddhist?" asked Sathien Wiphornmaha, one of the protest leaders.

"It puts monks in general in a difficult situation and inconveniences them. Why didn't the artists paint positive pictures?" asked Phrathep Wisut Kawi, a senior monk from Mahamakut Wittayalai University, an institution for Buddhist monks.

However, most artists, art academics, social commentators - and even a large section of monks - disagreed with these sentiments.

They countered that monks should be monitored as much as other groups in society, and that "Bhikku Sandarn Kar" was simply a depiction of one of the 10 bad types of monks to be avoided that the Lord Buddha mentioned in his teachings.

A similar controversy broke out again last week over Wartiht's painting "Doo Phra", which won a prize at the 2007 Young Thai Artist Awards organised and sponsored by the Siam Cement Foundation (SCF).

SCF decided not to exhibit the painting along with the other prize-winning works because it criticised monks' behaviour and could lead to protests. The painting depicts monks looking at amulets, which they are not supposed to do.

"[The decision] was like being punched in the face. I felt terrible. The organiser invited me and my family to the awards presentation. When I arrived I found an empty frame under my name and photo. My parents drove overnight from Chiang Rai to see it," said Wartiht.

"They said they would also not print my painting in exhibition brochure, but would still give me an award and cash. I felt like trading my right hand [that he uses to paint] with that amount of money," he said, explaining why he later joined friends in a protest in front of SCF's office, returned the award and money and asked for his work back.

Wartiht, Anupong, Thavorn and Manit all agreed that the SCF panicked too much in this case.

"It have been okay if SCF was protested against first and then decided to not exhibit the painting," Manit said.

One of the stated objectives of the foundation, set up by Siam Cement Group as part of its corporate social responsibility programme, is to promote creativity in youth through art. But its treatment of "Doo Phra" seemed to go against this principle.

"I feel really upset with SCF," Wartiht said.

Anupong said his experience was better than Wartiht's in one way. "Silapakorn University dealt with it intelligently and stuck to its principle [freedom of expression in art] despite facing protests. I feel proud of my beloved institution," he said.

However, both artists see significant positive outcomes of their ordeal: more public discussion on art and religion, including the behaviour of monks, and more people visiting art exhibitions.

Anupong said he had received great support from strangers, including a monk who asked permission to copy the painting and put it up at his temple in the Northeast as a reminder of how not to behave.

Thavorn said he could understand both sides of the "Doo Phra" incident and took no sides. "I believe in freedom of expression. I also believe that finally, the masses will have the last word on the conflict if it is unreasonable."

Manit said he believed both incidents were related to national politics and current changes in Thai society.

"Censorship is what the ammartayathipatai [bureaucracy] is pushing in all areas. In this case, if we look carefully, we see that the protesting monks are just one group and are ones who made political moves during the drafting of the constitution [to demand Buddhism as the national religion]. We cannot deny that they have attempted to protect their power in the old structure, which naturally does not allow criticism or monitoring," Manit said.

"It would be sad if self-censorship becomes the norm in art circles from now on," he said.

On the positive side, Thavorn said he hoped the controversy might inspire other artist to produce work commenting on social issues, including religion, even though they might not win any awards.

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