Friday, December 25, 2009

Getting Serious About Creativity

I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister which appeared in today's edition of The Nation. Originally, I'd written a 2,500-word piece which really got into the nitty gritty of how the future might play out, but maybe all those details are best left for a genuine strategy session, if I were ever lucky enough to be invited to one.

Dec 21, 2009

Dear Prime Minister:

It was an honour to perform excerpts from Bruce Gaston’s extraordinary A Boy and a Tiger for you yesterday. It prompts me to write you this letter in a spirit of optimism and hope.

I am writing to you on behalf of my fellow Distinguished Silpathorn Artist Bruce Gaston and myself, but I believe I speak for all creative people in this country and Thai artists in other countries.

Recently Ajarn Bruce and I and many other artists were invited by the Ministry of Culture to two very different meetings. One was an intimate meeting with the Office for Contemporary Culture. As artists, we gave our forthright opinions and we all felt that our government was listening to us. We had a real sense that our ideas would be incorporated into policy.

The other was a huge seminar attended by hundreds of people in which government officials tried to lecture us benighted artists on the meaning of creativity and our function in society. Artists were incensed and some walked out.

The contrast between these two perspectives compels me to write. A renaissance of national consciousness may come to a halt while we wait for bureaucrats to reinvent the wheel.

When Ajarn Bruce and I began working together in the 1970s, Thailand was reeling from what, in the 1940s, was a traumatic cultural revolution. Thai classical music, vibrant and innovative in the early twentieth century, had been rejected in a rash policy of westernization. When traditional arts came back, the backlash caused an overreaction. Invention and creativity were replaced by rote-learning. No one challenged what was preserved, whether masterpiece or mediocrity.

In the 1970s a small group of artists flung open the doors. Bruce Gaston’s operas, like Chuchok, and my own fusion of Thai and western classical music, played out against the backdrop of the Bhirasri center, which showcased uniquely Thai contemporary visual arts. In a 1977 interview in Asia Week, I predicted that we would be the world’s next cultural hub.

By 1979, we were exhausted. We’d survived a lifetime’s worth of artistic ferment. We believed it was a noble but failed experiment. Bruce and I didn’t collaborate again for 30 years except to create, together, the songs “Thailand, the Golden Paradise” and “Amazing Thailand,” still used by the Tourism Ministry to sell Thailand to the outside world.

Thirty years later, I came home and made some startling discoveries.

First off, our revolution succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. What we did has infiltrated into every level of popular culture and become part of the definition of “Thai-ness”.

Some pundits view those two events — the slamming of the doors during the 1940s and their re-opening in the 1970s — as the last century’s two pivotal moments in Thai music. But what’s past is past, and we must look to the future.

Since those two meetings, I feel a sense of urgency. The government is committing a sizeable investment into our nation’s future. Funds are limited and we have to nurse our resources.

I propose four essential principles in putting creativity to work for this country.

First: we must stop dreaming that Thailand should become what it already is — the epicenter of creativity in the region. Everyone knows this except the Thais themselves. Please study what has already been achieved here, often against incredible odds.

For example, in my field of opera, Thailand is the acknowledged regional leader. Our productions are reviewed in the New York Times, Financial Times, and all the international opera magazines. We have achieved this on creativity alone, because, we don’t receive the 80% government subsidy that a European opera company does.

Second: Get perceptive people with a global perspective to oversee your policy. Otherwise, creativity will be overwhelmed by mediocrity. Really make excellence a priority; don’t pay lip service to it as previous regimes have done.

Third: Fund creativity and creative projects directly. Established artistic entities and artists should receive direct and substantial subsidies. If symphony orchestras, major opera companies, khon troupes, and avant-garde theatre groups get real money every year, you will see the investment repaid a thousandfold. We are not talking here about commercialism, but real culture, our national identity.

Finally, I must propose the most difficult thing for a paternalistic government to accept. But, having first learned to stop reinventing the wheel, having then set your eye on the truly excellent, and having made sure that those who are genuinely creative have the means with which to create … the final thing government must do is let go.

Please look at the BBC, a wholly government-funded institution which nevertheless has a charter stating firmly that the government cannot interfere in any creative matter. Government must trust us. We are your conscience. It is we who speak the truth, even when it is painful for the nation to hear.

Please consider carefully this simple, four-step plan for a true creative economy. If you can set up the infrastructure for it to happen, the country’s finest artists will rally for a creative flowering such has not been seen since the Ayuthaya period. I guarantee that the diaspora of Thai talent will reverse itself. Though I am one of the first Thai artists to have come home, I am confident that I will not be the last.

This moment in our cultural history is the vindication of what we dreamed of decades ago. A Siamese Renaissance, set in motion thirty-five years ago amid distrust, controversy, and apathy, is upon us. What we have prophesied has come to pass and, with the full cooperation of the government, can take us to places even we dreamers cannot yet dream of.

With my best wishes

Somtow Sucharitkul

World Fantasy Award Winner
Distinguished Silapathorn Artist

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