Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Censorship in Shanghai

The latest news of a silly act of censorship offers a neat example of how explosive an artist’s words can be. Pete Wyer wrote a new ballet, The Far Shore, for the Shanghai Expo, but the performance was cancelled by the British Council when they saw that it was dedicated to the people of Tibet. Apparently, according to these idiotic cultural mandarins, artists should be seen but not heard. Likewise, the English National Ballet — who were due to perform the piece — support the British Council in saying that the ballet is “a political vehicle”. Well, that’s a surprise, isn’t it? Art is political sometimes, but anyway this was just the dedication of the piece: no one on stage mentions Tibet! Of course, China is very sensitive to criticism of its role in oppressing the people in Tibet. And we don’t want to upset the Chinese do we? It just seems that the British Council are being unduly pusillanimous and lamentably cowardly. They deserve to stew in their own bad bile. As Wyer says: “It is standard artistic practice for a composer or artist to dedicate their work to whoever or whatever they like. In this case I dedicated the work to the Tibetan people and their culture – a culture that is appreciated by many Chinese people in China, too.” Quite.

3 comments:

  1. Whilst few in our (democratic) world would or could argue about the shocking state of the Tibet situation.

    The British council are about building cultural relations- "the building of engagement and trust between people of different cultures through the exchange of knowledge and ideas". The Shanghai Expo is about building bridges between China and UK - surely also a worthy cause?

    In this instance what occurred was not 'censorship' nor did it happen in Shanghai. It's called diplomacy. Wyer was commissioned to write the score by the British Council. If he disagreed with their ideals he could have turned the commission down and continued to use his compositions to promote the Tibetan cause with integrity.

    Despite what ENB and the British council (or I) feel about Tibet (and I can't speak for the first two). This was not the arena to express such views. Like it or not you cannot mention Tibet and China without it being political.

    I admire Wyer's passionate commitment to the cause but as the British council was funding this project, he agreed to be involved, they had the right to do with it as they wished - as much as Wyer had the right to dedicate it to whom he wished. Simples.

    As it turns out of course, since 'there is no such thing as bad publicity' both the cause and Wyer benefit from this sad furore.

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  2. I'm sorry, Wildflower, but this is clearly censorship. There is no way the dedication of Mr. Wyer's piece to the Tibetan people violated his arrangement with the British Council or National Ballet. It is accepted artistic practice for a composer to dedicate his/her score to whomever they wish. A practice I'm sure the British Council and National Ballet were fully aware of when they commissioned Mr. Wyer's composition.

    The British Council and ENB preemptively pulled the piece out of fear of an unfavorable response by Chinese officials. I would hardly call this 'diplomacy,' which is a means of active negotiation. It is more accurate to view the Council's/ENB's actions as a case of (preemptive) appeasement. I agree with you that building bridges between China and Britain through the Shanghai Expo is a worthy cause, but certainly not when the Chinese government is the only one to have the final say over who and what may cross such bridges. I also don't believe it should be within the purview of the British Council to offer a Chinese-sanitized version of British culture in it's exchanges, especially when British culture has a proud tradition of free artistic expression.

    Also, while you make it a point not to speak for how the ENB and British Council feel about Tibet, you should also not attempt to speak for Wyer's intentions while writing his composition and assume that it was "to promote the Tibetan cause," which there is no evidence for, especially seeing how no one besides Mr. Wyer and the musicians who recorded the score in England would have known about the dedication. Furthermore, from what has been reported Mr. Wyer has never stated that he composed the piece as a vehicle "to promote the Tibetan cause." I'm not saying that a work of art and it's dedication are always separate, but it is just as likely that the piece was written and then it was decided to dedicate it to the Tibetan people and their culture, which Wyer has also pointed out is appreciated by many Chinese, as well (coincidentally, the Shanghai Expo was to kick off "Tibet Week" on the day of the performance of Mr Wyer's piece, albeit I'm sure with the intention to promote Beijing's propaganda on Tibet, rather than any honest celebration/appreciation of Tibet).

    In the end, yes, the British Council and ENB had the right to pull his piece, but that doesn't mean it was the right thing to do. Falling back on such a technicality for justification lays bare the shallow ground on which they attempt to build a defense for their (cowardly) actions.

    Bit of a disclaimer - I'm an avid fan of Mr. Wyer's work and a longtime Tibet supporter.

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  3. One point of order Chris - As the score was meant to be performed LIVE in Shanghai, and a future run of performances were planned in the UK, the dedication would have most likely ended up in a program note in the UK, and would have been seen by at least two different orchestras and conductors, as well as the dancers of two companies.

    I accept your point that Wyer's compositional intentions may not be to promote the cause, but as some of his works have Tibetan themes:- Tibetan Sanctus, Numinous city for his example; and as he has a close connection with someone who is "PR for the Dalai Lama" (his words), whilst 'promotion' may not be the right word, 'support' of the cause is, and as a fellow supporter - raising awareness is key.

    As for the censorship issue- We always need to keep pushing boundaries and reaching out but "To everything there is a season", there is a time and a place. He was aware the dedication was risky. He took the risk. It didn't particularly pay off.

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