Friday, 9 January 2009

Justice looking for a name

The Scream is Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s most famous painting. I was in Oslo the last two weeks, spending Christmas and the New Year with old friends up in the mountain cabins snowed over with snow, and took the rare opportunity to one day slip into the National Art Gallery in the city to see this painting in its original.

They say a painting is all silence, and all presence, but never silenced. Like justice. That world there, living on the canvas, does not speak in the name of language. It only equivocates. A true piece of art, even though it only equivocates, can make a statement, can make a name for itself. It can be understood, if only we let it. Because art is not an alien creation minted in the unfathomable service of money – it is an expression of our humanness. So you stand in front of a painting, and you confront it, you question it: Why. This colour. This diagonal. Why. This intensity. Here and not there. Why. This light. Why. This boy, this pallor, this crease, this fold. Why. 

Why do Singapore's courts crucify those who question its truth?

The questions become an interrogation of yourself and your own truth, because the painting cannot speak. It equivocates, and you make a meaning out of it, through your own eyes, upon your own tongue, thinking in your own mind, feeling with your own haert. If a painting cannot speak a word – a soundful of a word – how can it scream? And when it screams, how can you hear? This: you stare and you stare at the scream and let the painting melt away. Glowing colours, undulating lines, simple life forms and the sea and sky and you, crystalising in your depths within, until you see, feel, and hear, right in front of you, in the name of that singular scream searing through your self.

When artists paint, it is an expression of their feelings, usually of pain. When artists paint, it is a message in a bottle, in it a letter for you to unfold. And within it a lover's name that you hold.

Naming is a difficult and time-consuming process; it concerns essences, and it means power. But on the wild nights who can call you home? Only the one who knows your name.

- Jeanette Winterson

They say that Lady Justice is blindfolded. But sometimes her blindfolds are off. And sometimes, she is made blind. Like God, human beings make her in their own image. Like God, human beings speak for her. But unlike God, human beings are here and fallible. 

Through justice, ‘truth’ is revealed. Through justice, power is illuminated. In whose name, who reveals, and who illuminates? When you question the authority of justice, like you would the jurisdiction of art, the onus is upon her – justice and art – to equivocate her truth. You question it, painting and truth; you interrogate it, justice and truth. 

And you indict it, Singapore and its unravelling of justice: why does its Lady Justice crucify those who question its truth?

Through an indictment of justice, justice is conceded, confessed, and declared. And justice is freed. But when power is used to stopper the questions, and impose upon all its own truth, that is not a painting or a revelation of justice. That is a scream that can neither be seen nor heard. That is injustice in its every letter: it is 'justice' because it tells you that it is; it is a 'scream' because it tells you that it is. It is not the painting that is silenced. It is you who are censored. It is the truth that no one believes in. It is the truth imperiled and justice imprisoned.

And The Scream lives on unheard. 

Actually, Munch had painted another piece, that is less well-known, less well-liked, but that is my favourite. It is a self-portrait. Self-portraits of artists are infinitely intriguing pieces of art, because they reveal more about the artist’s heart than any other. Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette has his face turned towards you. His sombre clothes are blended into the darkness behind, and his lower torso melts into a sepulchral mist, as if he were an apparition, a ghostly yet vivid mirror of his self. Why are only his face and hand illuminated? And why is he gazing so intently at you? Why is his hand placed, seemingly so gently, upon his heart? The face, the hand, and the heart of the artist and his singular piece of art, what is the portrait of the artist saying to you? 

No one knows, though you might. And neither do Munch nor his paintings impose their truths upon you. Truth, painted. You the viewer, stare and stare it down. You question it, you interrogate it, and you indict it, the painted truth. Only then can its truth be revealed in its full colour, the painted truth unveiled. 

Only then can an artist do art the truth and justice that it deserves. And only then can one in the name of one's heart, feel the truth, and believe in it.

So indict it, Singapore and its unravelling of justice. Why does its Lady Justice crucify those who question its truth?

Until then, it is you who are censored, it is justice unbelieved, it is art that lives in shame, and it is injustice without another name. 


  1. Wonderful! A very beautiful and meaningful peice of art that you have painted. I simply love it.

    May I copy it and spread it around in some of the forums?
    Of course, I will mention who the author is, and put a link to your blog also.