Singapore: Arts council to withdraw funding of ‘offensive arts’, says chairman

1 December 2015

The chairman of the National Arts Council in Singapore weighed in on an ongoing debate in the country over whether state funding for the arts should be used to enforce censorship.

In her speech at the opening of the Singapore International Film Festival on 26 November 2015, Professor Chan Heng Chee brought up a 1998 ruling by the United States Supreme Court which upheld the withdrawal of state funding for “offensive art”, and advised institutions to “consider decency and respect” for diverse values when awarding grants.

She was referring to a case involving performance artist Karen Finley and other artists who took The National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, which gives money to encourage the development of the arts, to court after they were denied funding for their work.

Professor Chan said: “I relate this to show governments have to deal with this conflict, this difference in points of view. Governments or states end up, like it or not, the arbiter. It is not just the state that sets standards. Society and subsets of society set standards too.

“But standards and values will evolve. Until then, there will be negotiation and compromise.”

Her remarks came after several weeks of debate on how state funding is allocated to the arts. In a radio interview in October 2015, Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, was asked why the state should fund artistic works that go against perceived national values. He responded that state funding is taxpayer money and should not be withheld from dissenting voices.

Arts circles in Singapore expressed disappointment by the arts council chairman’s remarks.

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