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The perspective of critics from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand——Arts Criticism, Media and "Southeast Asia"

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

Concerns in the art scene from the perspective of critics

UCHINO Tadashi (hereinafter Uchino): Today, we are delighted that the three of you can join us. Given your different backgrounds, we need not limit our discussion to the field of the performing arts, because it is not an especially large sector where you come from or even in Tokyo. So, more generally, what are the issues right now and your concerns as a cultural activist, critical journalist, or reporter? I would like to know more about what is actually going on at the moment in your areas of expertise.

Sharmilla Ganesan (hereinafter Sharmilla): I think it's interesting what you just said about those three roles, and that's primarily one of the challenges in Malaysia. It's a relatively small sector and not formally represented by any real organization. Only very recently have the performing arts started what we might think of as a group to represent the sector's interests. The visual arts, I believe, have tried to start their own one as well.

There is no real organization or cohort that represents criticism or arts journalism in any sense. So, I don't really know how I see myself. I am also even hesitant to call myself a critic most of the time, because that's not the bulk of the work I do. A lot of the work I do is actually more journalistic. I prefer to call myself a culture journalist than a critic but I do write criticism as well. That's really the issue, the lack of people and expertise, resulting in a lot of people having to stretch themselves. You find journalists who are also activists. You find performers who are also critics. You even sometimes find performers who are activists. It can be good, because everyone is interrelated and knows the issues, and it's close and you feel a sense like you are all in this together. But you don't get paid for a lot of the work you do in all of these areas. Secondly, very few people become specialists and I think with criticism, that's a problem. I wouldn't call myself a specialist in any of the areas that I cover. I would like to be able to but I don't have the luxury to only write about the performing arts or visual arts. I wouldn't get paid if that's all I did. For me that's the two sides of the coin that I operate under.

Uchino: What do you see is the problem that the Malaysian cultural sector or whatever you call it confronting or facing at the moment?

Sharmilla: Fragmentation I would say. Because we are divided by language, by region, and by independent theatre versus legacy theatre, the latter being a bigger, better organized theatre, and so on.

Uchino: It legacy theatre commercial or publicly funded?

Sharmilla: We have one or two major ones that are publicly funded, but the majority are not. It is private and independent, but the companies have been around for maybe thirty years or more in some cases, versus independent companies that have just started. They operate very differently. So, fragmentation is one issue in terms of finding points of cohesion. Funding is another huge issue. We don't have a lot of funding from the government for the arts.*1 What we do get is often through the tourism sector. It's often about "What is the return on investment for us?" So, if we put in this much money, how much is it going to bring back to us? That kind of mindset.

*1 Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) has been channeling a certain amount of government funding towards keeping the arts afloat.

Uchino: What about public museums?

Sharmilla: We do have national galleries. We have one national art gallery, which is publicly funded by the government, but then that comes with its own strings. They define what they think is good contemporary art, which may not always align with what everyone thinks.

A Photo of Sharmilla Ganesan

Uchino: Okay. What about Amitha?

Amitha Amranand (hereinafter Amitha): The situation is very similar. There are a very few critics exclusively for theatre or performing arts in Thailand, as most of them also write about film, TV, or other culture genres. They may have to write for ten online publications to survive as freelance writers. I am lucky because I teach. I've held other jobs. I think since I write in English, I am also lucky because I get paid more than writers who write in Thai.

Uchino: Why is that?

Amitha: Salaries at the Bangkok Post, for example, are known to be higher than at other print media. I think it's this thing where if you studied abroad and have a degree from a university abroad, you get a higher salary almost automatically. If you write in English, usually you get better paid. I teach in an international program at Chulalongkorn University. I get paid better, so I am lucky that way as well, but my readership is smaller, and that means my connections are fewer outside my specialized field. But because I write mainly in English, my writing reaches people beyond Thailand. I am one of the few who can work like this, and the rest write in Thai. So yes, specialization is a problem.

Publications like newspapers also don't expect to run that kind of content. Unless I tell my editor that I want to write about theatre in Thailand, they will not assign anyone to write up a review. The performing arts seem that small and powerless in Thailand.

Uchino: Is that the reason the performing arts do not get any coverage? At least, that would seem to be the case in Japan.

Amitha: The sector is relatively small, but it's growing, though it's still small compared to, say, the demand for film reviews. People don't care that much.

Uchino: Compared to film?

Amitha: Right. People also don't care that much about book reviews either.

Sharmilla: For us, that's a problem as well. I used to work for an English newspaper but I see it happening in other publications as well because of the shift to online. You can track how many page views you get and how many people are reading. The management's perspective often is: nobody is reading these reviews. Nobody wants theatre reviews. Nobody wants book reviews. So, what's the point of assigning a writer to do it? Why should I have four writers writing about the arts when you get just three hundred readers?

Amitha: And you have to assert yourselves and gain the trust of the editor. I have been lucky from the very beginning that they allowed me to do what I wanted.

Uchino: Also, since there is so much content on personal blogs and social media, a review does not stand out online. Is that a problem?

Sharmilla: For us, it all builds in together. We have so few people anyway, so I honestly feel that it's great to have these personal blogs and websites, though these people don't get paid. So, ultimately, the ecosystem is not healthy, because it's either people doing it out of passion or getting paid very little to write for these websites.

Amitha: Also, there is the question of how I label myself. I have called myself a critic from the very beginning, because I hated when people were hesitant to say it. They shy away from it, because they feel the term "critic" is too lofty, serious, or formal and they want to be seen just as a passionate follower of the arts or as a supporter. The term "critic" has a negative connotation in Thailand.

Katrina Stuart Santiago (hereinafter Katrina): I think that label comes with a lot of baggage, especially in Manila, where if you were to ask what the major issue is in terms of not just the arts and culture sector, but in general at this point, given the political climate, it would be just the silencing. There is so much fear in speaking up about things that are difficult to talk about, whether it's politics or just having watched something that you didn't like but which everybody seems to have liked. The moment you come out with criticism, no matter how well written it is, you will be attacked for not having liked it.

Uchino: By who?

Katrina: By whoever was behind the production. Or anybody else who actually liked it.

Amitha: Do they actually censor you?

Katrina: No, they don't. But they will start attacking you online, and this is where your question about whether criticism was affected by the blogs and social media comes in. Over the past decade, I have seen the decline in the number of reviews in Manila published both in print and online, so much so that now even the publications I used to write for, whether online or the broadsheets, rarely publish reviews or criticism. One of those publications actually told younger writers that they didn't welcome reviews anymore, that all they welcome are either press releases on productions or exhibits, or feature articles where you have to go in and interview the artists who are part of a production.

Amitha: Because they don't want to deal with them.

Katrina: Yes, I think because they don't want to deal with the backlash against a critic, but I think it's also tied to the shift away from actual reviews and analysis towards puff pieces and free online content. A lot of the microblogs now only talk about the good things. They post something on Instagram and talk about how great the actors were, for example, and those pass off as reviews, even when they aren't really critical enough to be called such. What you have is really a lot of writing that sounds like they are selling the work to you, instead of actually doing constructive criticism in the hope of making the work better.

This mindset is why there is not a lot of real cultural criticism in Manila, especially not among my generation. And the few people doing it tend to specialize: one person does film, one person does music, and so on. We are all independent, because no one is going to pay for the work that we want to do. And I think that's also a product of the internet and how quickly information happens. If you pay twenty people to start saying exactly the same thing about a production, then those twenty people will have their posts shared by twenty other people, and so the kind of positive mileage that they get out of that will be more than the mileage a production or publication will get from a review. The likes and shares for such content just overwhelm actual reviews and criticism.