Lai See

Hong Kong does not need a culture tsar to define what is art

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 April, 2013, 6:50am

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Chan Kam-lam may have unwittingly triggered an interesting debate over his warning to the West Kowloon Cultural District that any artworks with indecent, insulting or political elements should not be viewed as art.

Despite denying political interference, what bothers him is that the collection owned by the museum, M+, includes works such as Tiananmen by dissident artist Ai Weiwei . Artists, like journalists, come in many shapes and sizes. Some are good, others are bad. Some have interesting things to say, others less so.

The most interesting artists are quite often those that, through their work, challenge the way we think about the world, or as somebody put it, engage in "the maintenance and development of mental infrastructure". This frequently means offending large sections of the community in which they live, and possibly the political establishment.

There have been many artists in the past that have taken a stand against prevailing views in society. In ancient Greece around 480BC, the tragedian Euripides wrote anti-war dramas during the long conflict between Athens and Sparta, incurring the anger of the state. It is nevertheless one of the hallmarks of a vibrant, sophisticated and healthy society that it can tolerate views that challenge traditional ways of thinking and even current establishment views. Societies that worry about "dissident" artists in their midst tend to be weak and lacking in confidence. Often, suppressing the creative spirit has the opposite outcome to that intended.

Chan's comments and the furore they have caused will no doubt have alerted people to the existence of Ai's work in Hong Kong. The last thing we need in Hong Kong, particularly given the sensitivities of "one country, two systems" is some self-appointed culture tsar telling us what is and isn't art. There is in Chan's comments an interesting irony in that for the communist parties on the mainland and the former Soviet Union, art was officially considered to be political and was promoted as such. But only the art approved by the party was permitted.

It's a small step from saying you can't have political art to saying you can't have politics in newspapers, or to saying this or that piece of art undermines the state. It would be a massive step backwards for Hong Kong if Chan's views were taken seriously by the authorities.


Vote of no confidence

"I hope this [funding] issue will not affect the ties between Hong Kong people and mainland compatriots," she said. "[And that] lawmakers do not to make a mountain out of a molehill."

How typical that this should be the first response of a Hong Kong government official to Legco's vote against a HK$100 million donation to the Sichuan earthquake victims. Hong Kong sent HK$10 billion for the last earthquake, most of which came from the government, with HK$1 billion raised from the Jockey Club and public donations.

People were quite rightly appalled at reports that a good deal of it was siphoned off by corrupt officials. It's not just Hong Kong that's wary. Taiwan's Red Cross has sent a team to the mainland to see how the money raised in Taiwan can best be used without being siphoned off. Even mainland netizens are wary of corruption, with thousands responding to the mainland Red Cross' appeal for donations with the "thumbs down" emoticon and demands for details of donations to be published. It is all very well for Hong Kong bureaucrats to fret over Hong Kong-mainland relations but it is a sad reflection on the level of corruption on the mainland that things should have to come to this. As we see now, it's the small guy that gets hurt by corrupt officials.


On your bike

Government officials have warned that bicycles parked outside Tai Wai station will be seized this morning, and dumped or destroyed without compensation under legislation designed to deal with illegal hawkers. As in Sai Kung and other parts of the territory, there are not enough bicycle parks. One arm of government encourages the use of bicycles as part of the green, healthy Hong Kong it would like to see. Other arms view the bikes as a litter problem. The problem cries out for someone in government to show some leadership and say, yes, we want to encourage people to ride bicycles and we will provide the parks. Is that so difficult? Apparently it is.


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