The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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SEPT 2023 Issue
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Singapore and the Region: State of Art Law or Art Law of the State?

Moses Tan, <em>a caveat, a score</em>, 2023. Mild steel, polymer clay, found trolley, 71 x 43 x 25 1/2 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Singapore Art Museum.
Moses Tan, a caveat, a score, 2023. Mild steel, polymer clay, found trolley, 71 x 43 x 25 1/2 inches. Image courtesy the artist and Singapore Art Museum.

In the last thirty years, the countries of Southeast Asia which surround Singapore have largely modernized, driven in part by political will, especially during intermittent moments of stability. While the precarity and haphazardness of the region has been described as “building an airplane while in flight”, this dispatch aims to shed light on the state of art law and the art law of the state—of Singapore and the region.

To do so, one must first examine the art law of the state, the black letter law and policy, before one can uncover the state of art law—the interplay of art law and the lives of artists and persons in the arts. The futurist Rem Koolhaas had cautioned against “read[ing] Singapore on its own terms.” While Singapore’s myriad cultural policies are best viewed as signposts and cosmopolitan goals, in reality things are unwieldy and inconvenient, especially when law and policy come to a head. These policies include Singapore’s Renaissance City Plans of the early 2000’s, progenies of a 1989 report to develop the young nation’s arts and cultural sectors. These plans contained the barefaced determination to engineer a Renaissance Singapore with citizens that were “creative, vibrant and imbued with a keen sense of aesthetics,” together with “an adventurous spirit, an inquiring and creative mind and a strong passion for life.” While these early building blocks clearly did not lack ambition, they seemed to cater to a monolithic conception of arts and culture that was aligned to, and complemented, economic progress—devoid of heterogeneity, plurality and room for experimentation.

Today, if the advent of regional art fairs, international galleries, auction houses and freeports are indicative, the arts landscapes of the region have grown increasingly cosmopolitan. With that said, the work of art lawyers operating in the region and the Global South seems to interact and interface with the art law of the state. While Singapore’s commercial-centric and predictable courts are no stranger to commercial disputes, art disputes have also been rare. Art law is often created on a blank slate, and issues already in the West are argued anew—such as whether specific performance should be granted for artworks which, by their nature, were unique and where an award of damages would not be adequate compensation. I had witnessed an opponent arguing this same point in court, and ultimately failing to convince the judge—an outcome which may have been very different elsewhere.

While these unique circumstances present opportunities to create legal precedent, it is also here that an art lawyer’s work in the region is difficult. The art law of the state often requires the art lawyer to navigate the vagaries of censorship—to defend free expression, which may not even be worth the “cultural trash” it produces, yet is an inalienable human right, and which is pitted against headwinds in places where social stability through collectivism and communitarianism are prioritized over individual rights. Incursions to the freedom of expression included the ten-year de facto ban on performance art in Singapore after Brother Cane (1994)—a performance where the artist Josef Ng protested the police entrapment, prosecution, and public-shaming of gay men by caning blocks of tofu and cutting his pubic hair with his back turned against the audience.

From a different perspective, the art law of the state, in the form of legislation, is often lacking protective measures to protect artistically or culturally significant things, or even worse, allows for their acquisition and destruction. In Singapore, important examples of modernist architecture, entire neighborhoods and enclaves, and even the last vestiges of primary rainforest have been demolished. In these circumstances, the art lawyer simply does not have feet to stand on as there is often little usable legislation or laws, with the decision of what is worthy of preservation often left in the hands of the state and the competing interests of progress, development and urban renewal (if it was even needed at all). There may also be no constitutional right to own property, or the presence of laws that allow the compulsory acquisition of property by the government.

So if this is the art law of the state, then where does that leave the state of art law? The answer lies in what we expect art law to be. Art law in Singapore and the region is developing uniquely and differently from that of the West, in part due to unique developmental, political and socio-economic factors. While there are still art-related cases to be fought in court, a body of artistic-legal jurisprudence has yet to be accumulated. Even so, it may not start with the civil-contractual disputes that we are accustomed to in the West, but the urgencies of censorship, state power, and the freedom of expression. The extent of these are in turn dependent on political will—the same political will that had in 2022 repealed Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code, a colonial-era law that criminalised gay sex—which for the arts landscape, had opened up possibilities for the institutional support and funding of queer artists and exhibitions. Perhaps a Renaissance of sorts.


Ryan Su

Ryan Su is a Singapore art lawyer and frequently advises museums, artists, galleries, curators and collectors. He is on the board of several non-profits and a Contributing Editor at ArtAsiaPacific, is the recipient of the Patron of the Arts (2017, 2020), and is completing his PhD in art law and dispute resolution. He holds an LL.B (Hons.) and LL.M (Lond.) in International Dispute Resolution & Economic Law and is presently Special Counsel at OC Queen Street, the Singapore office of Osborne Clarke.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

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