Taiwan LSE row: Censoring the ‘World Upside Down’ would be no way to treat a work of art
When the London School of Economics unveiled the giant globe to the public, it was described as “a new sculpture on campus by the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger” or in other words, a piece of art.
How, then, can the institution defend its decision to potentially re-name Taiwan on the globe, in response to political protests from mainland students?
Intellectually, there have been centuries of debate surrounding the question of “What is art?” and the answer remains elusive; like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. Whether people believe that a globe can be a piece of art is of little consequence and irrelevant.
But the question of “What is the purpose of art?” is a bit clearer as there have been practical applications and real-life examples of these purposes. Art is often defined as a form of self-expression—about dreams, opinions, visions, as well as reflections on society—and its creation is manifested through an artist whose choices are conscious and intentional.
As viewers of art, it is not our place to have a say on how the art is created or presented. As we are the receivers of art, our job is actually to ponder, reflect, love (or hate), criticize, and debate the message it sends. We all interpret art in different ways and no one interpretation is more correct than the other.
What disappoints me as a student of the LSE, as a lover of art, and as a citizen of the world is that this potential decision to strictly “follow the UN map” and supersede the decision of the artist is dictatorial, hypocritical, and ultimately defeats the purpose of art.
Throughout history, we can name art pieces of all kinds we deem controversial and too political but they all have their places in human history. For example, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica is grey, massive, and in many ways, visually unappealing as it portrays the graphic destruction of the Basque village of Guernica.
Its purpose is not to fall into the “beauty” aesthetic of art—its purpose is to portray the suffering and agony that the people of Guernica suffered and to let us as the human race not forget those who perished.
Another example is the opera of John Adams, The Death of Klinghoffer, which depicts the death of an American Jew, Leon Klinghoffer, at the hands of four Palestinian terrorists, based on the real-life example of the hijacking of the Achilles Lauro.
The opera was written not to be anti-Semitic but to highlight the connected histories of the Jews and Palestinians and to open a discussion. The opera itself was boycotted in New York City as being anti-Semitic, but even this did not make the opera writer change anything, as it was his art for us to appreciate or not.
We will not like every art piece that is created—this is natural. We all have different tastes and preferences. It is normal for us to find art so controversial we feel very strongly against it but the answer is not to disrespect the art or the artist by changing it without the artist’s will.
In this particular example of the LSE’s globe, just because many one-China supporters disliked the fact that Taiwan was a different colour and had just Taiwan for a name did not mean the solution would be to force change unilaterally.
The artist, whatever his inspirations and intentions were (this is not always for us to fully know), chose to present the globe as it was presented on day one. Those choices were conscious and we must respect the artist whether we agree or not.
All maps political, so it was obvious that it was not going to make everybody happy—but that’s not the point of art. The answer to the mainland backlash was to have a sincere discussion, because one of the purposes of art is to facilitate these kinds of dialogue between people who do not agree. Art is not there for us to change to suit our opinions.
The school’s decision to marginalise one group of students for the satisfaction of another over a piece of art is absolutely appalling in many ways. It destroys the sanctity of art. Why even have artists if you are going to just box them up?
The school’s justification to use the UN map actually has no relevance whatsoever. Even as the artist said, “The UN is the authority as to the names and borders. This is the world, as we know it from a different viewpoint. Familiar, strange, and subject to change.”
Wallinger’s words ring true—despite the fact that the UN is the authority on current maps, the whole point of the globe is to see the world differently and from a different viewpoint and realise that these things we see as borders and names are subject to change.
He originally consulted the UN map when he made this sculpture, and still consciously chose the representations that he did, thus it is disrespectful to “correct” the artist on his own creation using “political correctness”, as this is absolutely beside the point.
It is clear that those who complained and those who forced the change are not open to looking at this sculpture through a new viewpoint.
The school’s decision shows us where its priorities are. The LSE is not a true supporter of the arts as it does not understand that art should not be changed by anyone but the artist. Do you see people redoing Michelangelo’s David just because someone dislikes nudity, or covering up Artemisa Gentilleschi’s Judith and Holofernes just because someone cannot stand depictions of reality?
The correct decision would have been to either leave the globe as is or completely remove it. The LSE’s hesitation also shows us that they would rather make the large Chinese student body happy at the expense of Taiwanese students.
Could it be that tuition money from the large population of Chinese students is more important than the school’s mission – to provoke thought and find commonalities within our differences in our intellectual enquiries? The insecurity and intolerance of the people who complained is proof that the school does not promote tolerance in differences of opinion and actually tolerates intolerance.
De jure, Taiwan is part of China. But de facto, Taiwan’s status in the world is grey. And the only way to address this grey area is to discuss, debate, to engage, not to suppress.
Before I am accused of bias against the mainlanders and towards the Taiwanese, I must say that I myself am the most qualified to talk about this issue as I am literally half Chinese and half Taiwanese. I have a parent from each country.
They have taught me that through tolerance and love we can overcome anything that divides us. The LSE’s decision reflects an absence of tolerance and love in the LSE community. It saddens me to be part of a school that does not promote these qualities nor the respect of art throughout its student body. At this point, it’s no wonder the school’s student satisfaction rate is so low.
Kong Tsung-gan‘s new collection of essays – narrative, journalistic, documentary, analytical, polemical, and philosophical – trace the fast-paced, often bewildering developments in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. As Long As There Is Resistance, There Is Hope is available exclusively through HKFP with a min. HK$200 donation. Thanks to the kindness of the author, 100 per cent of your payment will go to HKFP’s critical 2019 #PressForFreedom Funding Drive.