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The Aspects of Censorship in the Arts

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Censorship has been around dating back at least to Plato. It is an ever-occurring issue that can be swept under the rug temporarily but could never be completely resolved. While it is recognised that censorship was made to safeguard the public from harm, to what extent does it apply? Is hiding and silencing the masses a tool to overlap the “unwanted harm” deemed by those who exercise censorship?

The purpose of censorship is to limit freedom of speech to maintain the status quo where contents which are seen as sensitive are kept on the down-low. In Singapore under Article 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, specifically Article 14(1), guarantees to Singapore citizens the rights to freedom of speech and expression, peaceful assembly without arms, and association. However, the enjoyment of these rights may be restricted by laws imposed by the Parliament of Singapore on the grounds stated in Article 14(2) of the Constitution. (Freedom of Speech, Assembly and Association) Singapore boasts the freedom to speak the mind on grounds where such restrictions it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore, public order or morality would face the laws of the court. Censorship as we all know, is an overarching topic.

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival & Singapore International Festival of the Arts

Various notable festivals in Singapore have to go through censorship amendments as advised from National Arts Council (NAC) and Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA). Two performances from M1 Singapore Fringe Festival that sparked news headlines were a performance lecture Naked Ladies and interactive piece Undressing Room. It had superseded the R18 rating under the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AECC). Therefore, both performances have to be revised and resubmitted for classification. The annual festival is famed for its boundary-pushing performances which invokes the thinking process. Arts Engage addressed this issue in response to IMDA’s decision by questioning IMDA’s standpoint on censoring the performances and expressed support for the festival organisers. It called the ratings denial ‘opaque, backroom censorship’ and an ‘unmerited and retrograde step which runs counter to the move towards a reasonable, open and fair regimen of arts regulation in Singapore’. (Nanda) IMDA responded by stating that it aims to strike the right balance between a performance’s artistic merits, and prevailing social norms where artistic expression should be on par with the consideration for social mores. It has led to question whether IMDA even understood the performances in general or the value it conveys to the masses behind each art work.

Similarly, with Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) a performance called Five Easy Pieces directed by Swiss director Milo Rau received the rating of R18+ in 2016. (Harmon) It is an onerous piece consisting of a convicted murderer-cum-paedophile, which features seven child performers aged eight to thirteen sharing the story themselves. A year prior, the films Tony Manero by Chilean director Pablo Larrain and A German Youth by French film-maker Jean-Gabriel Periot were also regulated. These regulations go against SIFA’s stand on intervention and creating a space for discussion in Singapore.

In a statement, organisers were notified that both films required a scene to be cut due to sexual and mature content respectively. Instead of screening a film with edits, the organisers have chosen to remove them “to respect the integrity of the directors’ vision and craft”. (Martin)

Censorship as we know enforces a halt in the progression for the arts community. It not only affects the artists in their works but also the community as a whole. In this instance, the arts community will see a decrease in a space for discussion and open-mindedness.

Artistic Merit, Vision & Integrity

Free speech should be an absolute right. Where artistic merit should be credited where is due, artistic vision and integrity too should be acknowledged. The artistic vision of every work being made is one of the integral processes of creation. Artistic vision is an artist’s way of seeing in their perspective, the style they use, images and story they aim to portray. Artists become part of their art as it reflects who they are, their beliefs, how they perceive the world and the people in it. They exude their own vision, their style of working and being able to communicate in a way that is uniquely theirs. This creates their voice, the means of communicating, through the execution of their work.

Artistic integrity as a conceptualization consists of our actions, values, methods, principles, expectations and outcome. It signifies honesty, having strong moral principles and a personal code of conduct with no exceptions. Arts funding has its pros and cons in an artist’s creative process. According to Singapore’s Cultural Statistics in 2016, one factor of Singapore’s economic success is the thriving arts scene, up to 85% of which is funded by the government. (Harmon) While some agree that it has benefitted a significant amount with its assistance, others argue that with money, it comes with strings attached. Grants applied with NAC will be regulated as it has the right to take back funds if the work produced is not within their guidelines. This too applies with IMDA; the regulatory body that issues licenses and audience restrictions before any performance, film or exhibition goes public.

In the process of an artist’s integrity, creativity and free speech, regulations conducted by these bodies will leave a threatening impact on the arts community. One must be free to express themselves in an open and civilised society. Ong Keng Sen, artistic director of TheatreWorks and festival director of SIFA from 2014 to 2017, expressed his opinions whereby these restrictions would have major consequences for the quality of art produced and its potential for critique. (Harmon) With arts funding, control is established. Their funding, or lack of funding within the regulations is now an effective means of blockage.

By amending the works Naked Ladies and Undressing Room from M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and Five Easy Pieces from SIFA, the artistic integrity of the entire process is affected. With the two foreign films that were pulled out due to its “sexual and mature conduct and nudity” which goes against societal norms due to censorship, withdrawing these performances would be a shame in the progression of a vibrant arts culture and community in Singapore.

Artists might prefer to showcase their art works elsewhere, where censorship regulations are not as rigid. This would then affect the arts scene in Singapore and the lack of intervention or dialogue raised from the works within the audience.

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Audience Responsibility

With changes made on these pieces, one will not deny the impact it has left on both the artist and his/her craft per se. Executive director of Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) Wahyuni Hadi shares her two cents on censorship and the responsibility the audience have. She is the co-producer of award-winning Singapore film Ilo Ilo where a surge was seen from its box-office takings in Singapore, after it achieved international accolades. As for Five Easy Pieces mentioned, the only children allowed in were the child performers themselves. In an interview with 938LIVE in 2016, Wahyuni mentioned that children should be more aware of issues and the world they are in. There is no need in underestimating the audiences thus removing the layer of protectiveness is essential. She is certain that by doing so, “this will definitely increase support for local independent films too.” (Hadi) With far stricter regulations here, she believes that more artists will venture overseas. Part of the responsibility depends on the artist to push the boundaries to have that discussion with government agencies, but a major fraction lies with the audience. It is part of the audience’s responsibility, instead of relying on the government to exercise censorship. She concluded her opinions by encouraging and allowing the content to be made readily available, but to ultimately make our own decisions as part of the audience responsibility. There is a demand to re-evaluate censorship.

With SGIFF having a no-cut policy to further enhance the artistic integrity of the film, it ultimately leaves an underlying effect on censorship and how the society is “progressing” in retrograde motion. In the festival environment, it would be ideal to have the filmmaker present to share their story with aims to create that dialogue. This would create better understanding with the artist and their craft. With that, one of SGIFF’s roles as a film festival is to fight for the artists’ integrity.

Both Ong Keng Sen and Wahyuni Hadi share the same sentiments; that censorship paves a negative impact in the arts community. Questioning the government agencies who regulates censorship will spark a dialogue that would aid in the reshaping of the status quo. In the meantime, pulling out art works because of such censorship regulations will not only affect the vision of the artist but create a more conservative and backward society. The artistic integrity should be maintained to value the artist, but it should not be amended. Once it is altered, the entire creative process and integrity of the artist will be tainted. With no works being present to spark an intervention within the arts community, this would then generate a more controlled arts community with regulations to abide by.

Plato’s Philosophy on Arts Censorship

Plato was known for being the pivotal figure in the history of ancient Greek and Western philosophy, along with his teacher, Socrates, and his most prominent student, Aristotle. He was the innovator of the written dialogue and dialectic forms in philosophy. Whilst he conformed to his ideals of what arts should be, he had a notion that it was a conflicting issue. According to Plato, poetry was a form of falsehood as it appears to be an illusion. Thus, philosophy was far more ideal as it represents the truth. This would then lead to two theories made by Plato; 1. Art is an Imitation and 2. Art is Powerful; therefore, it can be dangerous. (Clowney)

The Republic; a Socratic dialogue by Plato, stated that art imitates the objects and events of everyday life. In theory, a work of art is a copy of a copy of a particular form. It is even more of an illusion than ordinary. Therefore, works of art are at best a form of entertainment, but at worst a menacing delusion.

Art forms of all kinds evoke a plethora of emotions. It boils down to one point, art moves people powerfully. Art has the influence to shape behaviour and character as a person. With that reason alone, Plato insisted that music along with poetry and drama and other art forms, should be part of the education of young citizens in his ideal republic with the strict regulations on highlighting only the ‘good.’

In the Republic, Plato makes a systematic case for the censorship of the arts. Two examples include: to have a good society, children must be exposed to good material and shielded from bad material and also, the State should allow only good art and suppress bad art [401b, 595a]. (Hicks) Thus, the modern-day act on censorship in the arts scene shows similar significance.

Plato’s philosophy of art suggested a vital purpose which was to highlight, instruct, and foster virtues where its misuse can destroy a culture. Without granting art total control, art serves a purpose, to illuminate values, including the warning of their destruction.

Certain types of visual image or literature have been definitively linked to crime. Excessive sex and violence in film and television have been shown, targeted from studies made in the USA, to contribute to a tendency towards similar behaviour in spectators. (Huesmann & Taylor) There is a causal link between such images and physical harm. Though, the link between sex and violence on screen in real-life is far from conclusive. To say that those who watch violent films are more likely to commit crime does not establish the causal role of the films; it is equally likely that those who opt to watch such materials already have such tendencies, which are manifested both in their choice of viewing and their behaviour. (Huesmann & Taylor) Such censorship might actually deteriorate their real-world behaviour, as they no longer have any form of release in the semblance of fantasy.

Conclusion

Ong Keng Sen worries if silence within the arts community is continued with the dismay of their funding being affected, the control on censorship that government bodies have will be much more effective. He stresses that, “one of the strengths of the arts community is openness. If we’re challenging the lack of transparency, we have to first and foremost be transparent to ourselves.” (Lee) He encourages artists to create more dialogues and be more self-critical. Wahyuni concurs that transparency is vital. She hopes to create that dialogue or have the opportunity to prove the agencies otherwise by forming an understanding and trying to balance what society wants and needs. Where there is a need for progression, the arts and culture play a significant role in the growth to create the sort of sophistication that the arts community pursue. Evidently, it is up to government bodies and participating agencies on the decision they make.

As for Plato’s ideologies, it applies to a varying extent. It is an apparent duty for parents to tailor activities for varieties of child personalities and ages, within limits. Which brings back to Wahyuni’s statement that it is the audience responsibility to decide for themselves. Shielding one from bad materials is key but what is considered ‘bad’ in this context? Plato continues the error of considering the community a collective, rather than an abstraction of each individual. He fails to acknowledge that people reason for themselves, evaluating both the good and bad ideas. They are not controlled by the art they encounter. It is not only the influence of artists which determines people’s character and beliefs, but their whole experience and intellectual integrations. Plato’s philosophy of art seems fittingly tailored to his inconclusive understanding of human nature.

Censorship has no place in a free society. Audience responsibility should be exercised instead of depending on censorship regulations made by government bodies and agencies who might not even comprehend the vision and value of the particular art work in the first place. Artistic integrity should be acknowledged; not just by removing or amending the art work which would alter the intended purpose, but to rethink if censorship is even necessary. Artists in Singapore are aware of the contributing impact censorship entails. With the benefits of arts funding in assisting such creative work, there is also a cloud looming over the artists’ heads; knowing that there are certain rules and regulations to follow or the entire work will be stripped off. While some artists give in to the idea of making such amendments to best suit the criteria, a majority prefer to keep the artistic integrity intact which then leads zero dialogue being stirred in the arts community. This might eventually lead to the downfall of the arts scene as a whole.

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The Aspects of Censorship in the Arts. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved August 14, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-aspects-of-censorship-in-the-arts/
“The Aspects of Censorship in the Arts.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-aspects-of-censorship-in-the-arts/
The Aspects of Censorship in the Arts. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-aspects-of-censorship-in-the-arts/> [Accessed 14 Aug. 2022].
The Aspects of Censorship in the Arts [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2022 Aug 14]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-aspects-of-censorship-in-the-arts/
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