“The best art is produced because of censorship and other constraints,” says a friend, a Singapore poet and fellow at the Yale-NUS liberal arts college. It’s the Singapore Writers Festival and we are talking about the government’s notorious and sometimes clumsy grip on the island’s creative scene.
A few months ago, in response to complaints from conservative parents, the national library decided to pull and destroy a number of children’s books, including one about two penguins hatching a chick. The reason? Both parent penguins were male, a supposed affront to family values. After backlash from the arts crowd, a compromise was made and the title was moved to the ‘adults’ section. So imagine, awkwardly sandwiched between novels from crime fiction author James Patterson and Fight Club’s Chuck Palahniuk is a thin 32 pager And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
So when he told me that he felt actions like this by the authorities are actually good for the arts world, I was caught off-guard. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been. After all, for about as long as art has existed as a legitimate vocation, artists have had patrons and painted within the lines (more or less). Be it a court jester, poet laureate or royal portraiturist, creatives have never really been free to do as they like.
Think of great works of art: the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa and Michelangelo’s statue of David were all paid commissions with clear briefs. And despite that, the most talented have managed to produce enduring masterpieces.
But that’s not what my friend means. “Because of, not in spite of,” he stresses, like a parent patiently guiding a child towards understanding. His point was that an artist or writer bound by limitations is forced to explore new and subtle ways of expression that they might otherwise neglect.
Shakespeare, for instance, used the drama afforded to him through violence and comedy to challenge social norms and entrenched class structures. Although he counted Queen Elizabeth and King James as patrons, he wasn’t afraid of writing entire plays about mad royals such as King Lear. Although his plays are set in patriarchal society, female characters such as Portia and Viola swoop in to save the day.
If artists are defined by the lines they bend and break, how will they make an impact without them?
And as the 17th Singapore Writers Festival continues, despite the recent controversies, some say this tiny island of Singapore is on the cusp of a cultural renaissance.
Jason Li is Monocle’s deputy bureau chief in Singapore.