This morning, we found a curious letter in our emailbox. It came from the, ahem, mysterious local art collective Black Baroque Committee and it was a response to artist Lee Wen’s not-so-recent response to a letter published in the Straits Times that was a response to a not-so-recent news report in response to Loo Zihan’s Cane, which was a response to Josef Ng’s Brother Cane.
The group obviously took their time crafting a collective response but hey, better late than never right?
Below is their open letter in full. Alternatively, you can read it in their blog here.
In Response to Lee Wen’s Open Letter to S.T.
We would like, first of all, to thank Lee Wen for giving us his honest views on what (he thinks) is required of the public in appreciation of performance art, in particular and to a lesser extent of art in general. However, what Mr. Lee deems as art, or even “good art”, is simply not. Not only is it vulgar and demeaning, it doesn’t take a genius to see that the entire generation of artists who were involved in those “acts” were merely ape-ing the west. While there is nothing inherently wrong about ape-ing the west, it is purely stupid to ape the worst parts of the west, which even the west declares to be the pits.
While we agree that the status quo should be relentlessly challenged, any art, performance or otherwise, which stresses individualism as its principle objective or method can hardly be considered to be dialectical or progressive. For whose gains are we talking about, when we pronounce such lofty ideals of progress for the human race? The artist?
Let us take for example the following incident in New York sometime in the late twentieth century.
When Andres Serrano caused a scandal at the New Museum of Contemporary Art by exhibiting his “Piss Christ,” a photograph depicting a crucifix immersed in urine, the liberals came to his defence stating that:
Like Robert Mapplethorpe, Mr. Serrano struggles against inhibitions about the human body. His use of bodily fluids is not intended to arouse disgust but to challenge the notion of disgust where the human body is concerned. It is possible to see Mr. Serrano’s use of bodily fluids as pure provocation. But you can also believe that Mr. Serrano views them as a form of purification. The fluids make us look at the images harder and consider basic religious doctrine about matter and spirit.
Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek refutes this form of defence with the following hypothetical situation.
Let us say I were to publish a video clip depicting in detail how I defecate, how the anal hole gradually gets wider until the excremental sausage falls out, while also showing the stupidly satisfied/relaxed expression on my face when the business is over –could one claim then that “Mr. Žižek struggles against inhibitions about the human body. His use of bodily excrement is not intended to arouse disgust but to challenge the notion of disgust where the human body is concerned. It is possible to see Mr. Žižek’s use of bodily excrement as pure provocation. But you can also believe that Mr. Žižek views them as a form of purification – the body gets purified by ejecting excrement. The excrement make us look at the images harder and consider basic religious doctrine about matter and spirit”?
Let us, literally, cut the crap here and declare for once and for all, No! The snipping of pubic hair is NOT art, no matter how many times it is repeated, re-enacted, banned or tolerated. Foolish are those who, till now have remained silent about it, but stupider still are those who, out of fear of being labelled philistines, purchased tickets to watch its re-enactment.
The second point in Lee Wen’s letter that we would like to refute is his analogy of society’s treatment of the artist in the idiom to “knock down the nail that stands (or sticks) out.” Perhaps, we should ask ourselves the basic question, “What are nails for?” If not for joining pieces of wood together, if it does not perform its expected function, then, by all means, the nail that sticks out should be knocked down. This should be what everyone expects of society. However, if Mr. Lee’s intention of using the analogy of the nail was to assert the individualism of the artist, then perhaps, we could introduce yet another analogy, that of the porcupine or a bed of nails. If we are to stick out, let us then, stick out together!
There is also an apparent contradiction when Lee Wen proposes the need for plurality in “art and cultural dimensions”, and yet at the same time, he derides what he saw as collectivistic Asian values. So much for respecting plurality and diversity, when it is still the overcoming or triumph of a particular discourse over a seemingly inferior one. While it is not true that universal values do not exist, it is still necessary to critically examine certain values which try to disguise themselves as universal or transcendental, when all they really accomplish is the establishment of a new hegemony.
We appreciate Mr. Lee’s brief lesson on art history and the emergence of the artist as an individual but we are disappointed that his history lesson does not go back far enough (despite his seniority). A sense of perspective is required here to appreciate the next point. The practice of art has always been a social activity; recall the cave paintings 20,000 years ago and the Pyramids of Giza 4,500 years ago.
The common (mis-) conception is that the pyramids were built by a nation of slaves but we beg to differ. They were built by free subjects who willingly took to the whip because they believed in something greater than themselves. The common notion of the artist as an individual genius is a recent, Western invention and now exacerbated by Hollywood movies. What is a mere 60 years of this individualistic, narcissistic egoist particularity when compared to the vast universal history of 20,000 years? In today’s secularized society where most, if not all artists have done away with the idea of God, we find ourselves desperately searching for something to fill that God-shaped hole. And most people find it in the mirror – or in virtual mirrors such as social networks where we post our most intimate thoughts and activities for all to see, but more precisely for us to see ourselves being looked at by others. We hereby request the public to reconsider their role in the entire landscape of culture; not to over-emphasize the role of the individual be it as an artist, scientist, politician, executive, construction worker or domestic maid. For without society, the individual is nothing.
It seems that the only cultural discourses which he allows for are of a decidedly Western persuasion, forgetting the implications which such ideologies have played in much of world history- centuries of colonialism, oppression and bloodshed in the name of progress and enlightenment. And this recent cult of individualism functions in precisely the same way as religion did in the Crusades or contemporary Jihadist terrorism. It is the reason why we do not bat an eyelid when we hear of another Western “humanitarian” intervention on the news- because subconsciously, we do not consider people outside of the Western discourse to be people at all. In asserting our individuality (actually, more people are individualistic in Singapore than Lee Wen would like to believe), we have in fact denied the others of the right to exist. To put it simply, we regress into solipsism, and have lost all touch with concrete reality and social injustice, preferring instead the aesthetic search for beauty, creativity etc., and the repetition of sentimental moral platitudes which ultimately accomplishes nothing, whether in art or for the progress of human society.
Does art exist in a vacuum, apart from social reality? It does not. And neither do artists. If the artist would only retreat into his or her personal world of feelings and struggles, he or she misses out on the larger and broader picture of things, and by necessity the work will be a petty, insipid piece of work- esoteric, self-serving, and above all, appreciated by almost nobody but the cultural “elites” whom the artist so seemingly despises.
Black Baroque Committee
4 May 2012