The question of artistic expression and its limits have come a long way. Over the years, various societies have chosen to impose different degrees of restrictions to artistic expression but despite this, boundaries continue to be pushed, and opinions continue to change. My society, Singapore, holds a notoriously conservative stance against freedom of artistic expression, and has strict limits and regulations regarding the nature of visual art, theatre, music, and performance allowed to be exposed to the public. I agree that there should be certain limits placed on artistic expression, but feel that the limits imposed in my society are far too restrictive, and should be extended as freedom of artistic expression can bring about many benefits to society as a whole.
To start off, art has the unique ability to spark important conversations about controversial issues within society, and more freedom of artistic expression is necessary for this to happen effectively. In a world of rapidly evolving beliefs, art is a powerful tool for enacting social change. In the 1990s, (Tang Da Wu’s controversial performance art involving the cutting of his pubic hair) and eating pieces of paper with red penises painted on them in the middle of Chinatown left the public’s mouth agape, and authorities raging. Tang went on to produce a whole series of performance pieces of the same nature. In these works, he condemned the use of tiger penis for supposed medicinal reasons in Traditional Chinese Medicine, which was extremely popular at the time, and wanted to raise awareness about the abuse of the environment. His art received a huge amount of backlash initially and authorities attempted to shut it down, but nevertheless, it sparked debate about the use of animal parts in traditional medicine that eventually saw the use of tiger penis being phased out in Singapore. It is clear that Tang’s work led to important discussion on environmental issues and eventually, tangible societal change, and this would not have been possible if his artistic expression had been restricted by limits derived from conventional societal expectations of what is “acceptable” in public art. A more modern example of this can be seen in Pangdemonium, a local theatre company’s, production of the commissioned play “This is What Happens to Pretty Girls”. The play, a highly emotional piece in response to the #MeToo movement, was unfortunately napped with an NC16, Advisory 18 rating, despite it being most relevant to teenage girls. Nevertheless, the play deeply moved audience members with its harrowing content and realistic acting, and more importantly, help to bring the #MeToo conversation about sexual assault, rape culture, and consent into the Singaporean stratosphere. In a conservative society where sex is an extremely taboo topic, Pangdemonium’s production introduced the discussion to Singaporeans, but due to limits placed on artistic expression and its audience, the production was not accessible to many teenagers. Therefore, it is evident that freedom of artistic expression is extremely useful in sparking debate on controversial issues, and even enacting positive societal change. However, the positive effects of these works of artistic expression can be restricted when authorities place limits on artistic expression, and the audience it deems suitable for this expression.
Another effect of overly harsh limits placed on artistic expression is the snuffing out of creative initiatives meant to brighten up Singapore’s otherwise busy, work-focused society. In the earlier part of the 2000s, a Singaporean artist famously created stickers which she pasted along the pedestrian crossings, and on the traffic lights. The stickers included quips such as “You think your grandfather’s road ah?” and “Press once can already.”, humorous inside jokes unique to Singaporean culture. The stickers brought about a good amount of laughter and amusement from the Singaporean public, and went viral on social media. However, the fun was not to last as within weeks, the artist was made to take down the stickers and pay a fine. The authorities’ reaction to the art disappointed, but did not surprise Singaporeans. After all, Singapore is infamous for its aversion to even harmless, small-scale forms of creative expression. In a similar incident, a different artist decorated a flight of stairs in a HDB block to give the illusion that its steps were made of gold, and she was again, made to take down the work and pay a fine within mere weeks. Both these incidents point to Singaporean authorities’ sheer intolerance for artistic expression outside of strict regulations, which is detrimental to Singaporean society as these harmless artistic initiatives can help to lighten the mood of the usually stressed Singaporean population. So, it is clear that the limits placed on artistic expression in Singapore should be relaxed, so that Singaporeans have the chance to indulge in amusement amidst their busy lives.
With all the benefits brought about by increasing the freedom of artistic expression, some might question: is it not, then, counter-intuitive to believe that some limits are necessary? I would argue that it is, in fact, not. More liberties should be afforded to artistic expression in Singapore, but the line should be drawn where there is harm inflicted upon people or groups within society. It is dangerous to state that “no limits” – an absolute term, should be placed on artistic expression, as in that situation, anything can be done in the name of art, or under the guise of art. This includes violence, discrimination, and other forms of harm. As it is the government’s duty of care to protect its citizens from these direct forms of hurt or harm, it is their responsibility to impose limits on artistic expression to prevent such incidents from occurring.
In conclusion, freedom of artistic expression can bring about many benefits in my society. This includes enacting positive societal change and catalysing societal progression, or even lifting society’s spirits. However, it is important to have some restrictions in place that prevent different forms of “artistic expression” from inflicting harm on citizens. Therefore, I believe that the current limits placed on artistic expression in Singapore should be extended as they are too harsh, but disagree that there should be “no limits” placed on artistic expression in my society.
Stephanie Chia (19-U1)