Image, faith and the age of intolerance
At some point, religion breeds a culture of intolerance. It then becomes a form of absolutism, all the more toxic in the climate of nationalist fervour and dictatorial bombast. See the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, the Wahabism of present-day Saudi Arabia, or in some parts of Buddhist Myanmar. Now bravo, Thailand is flirting with that fundamentalist trap — we’re not quite there yet, thank heaven, though the door has swung open and the chanting has already begun.
What did the faint-hearted censors fear when they banned the Thai film Arbat? They feared image, I think, because image, throughout history, is the basest manifestation of blasphemy, the iconography of evil that has the power of seduction. In our case, the image of a handsome monk touching a young girl, as the Arbat trailer shows, or smoking, or drinking alcohol. In reality, some monks do all of this, the censors themselves admit as much. But it’s different — it’s worse — when those behaviours are transformed into images, because to fundamentalists images vulgarise truth and turn reality into profanity. It’s a mentality that preceded paintings and certainly cinema. Cinema, the moving image for the masses, only heightens that wickedness via its simulation of life and reality.
Smash the paintings, ban the movies. The fear of image is intensified by the atmosphere of authoritarianism, and by the daily dose of righteousness by the men in power. “We have to protect the religion,” — meaning Buddhism — that’s the reason for the ban, and “protection” has always been cited as a wild card to practice intolerance over the past year. Never mind that Arbat (now called Arpat, a ridiculous name-change to pacify the censors) is a conservative film at heart, according to a friend who has seen all of it. It’s a morality lesson that bad monks will see bad ends. To the fundamentalists, what matters is the image — not the message — and here the image is the evil from which we all need the talisman of censorship.
Religion, like movies, cannot resist the power of interpretation. This year, Iran submits the film Mohammad as the country’s representative to the Oscar’s best foreign language category. As the title suggests, it’s the first part of the planned trilogy about the life of the Islamic prophet. Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia’s Wahabi clerics condemned the film as blasphemy (without having to see it, because to produce an image of the prophet is forbidden), an “obscene work” and a “hostile act against Islam”. Image as sin, or image as a eulogy? I dare not intervene; it’s just that those harsh words against Mohammad could have also come from our own censorship board, which recruited monks as advisers.
The underlying philosophy goes like this: In Thailand, the history of image-making — and of art-making — is deeply tied to the traditional ideology that the purpose of art is to serve the religion. That’s why our temples are so beautiful; the best artists and craftsmen built and decorated them. That’s why our National Artists are often (though not always) those who paint elaborate Buddhist-themed imagery. That’s why, partly, our fine arts schools were founded in the first place — to produce artists to serve the religion and the palace. We treasure their works, of course, we treasure high art that is born out of high spiritualism. We only believe that there are many things else we should learn to treasure, too.
When image — when art — doesn’t comply with that rule, when it subverts rather than flatters religion, then it gets into trouble. Arbat, or whatever it is called now, is just the latest example. Monk movies have got the axe several times before, not to mention paintings. All this censorship exemplifies an ancient thinking — emboldened by the present climate of self-righteous rule — that art and morality are the same. Look, Bach wrote the most beautiful church music, but that was the early 18th century, before the pagan romp of Stravinsky challenged it all 200 years later (Stravinsky’s sound and the image it inspired were called blasphemy too). Siamese artists made the most beautiful temples, and 200 years later our religious body still believes artists should remain their loyal servants.
Modern art is politics, and religion in the modern times can’t escape politics — not necessarily parliamentary politics, but politics of the mind, the heart, the freedom to choose, to question, to mock and to interpret. Only those stuck in the early 18th century still hold on to the absolute idea that image and art are lapdogs of the faith, and that secular creativity should be monitored and even banned. Separation of Temple and State has never been decreed here. If we never realised that before, this age of intolerance should prompt us to do so now.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.