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An artists’ and academics’ network has launched a campaign calling for support for freedom of expression in art and academia, after art critic Pearamon Tulavardhana was sued for defamation by a Chiang Mai University lecturer whose work was part of an exhibition she criticized.

Pearamon Tulavardhana

In October 2021, Pearamon said she had been sued for defamation by publication by Pongsiri Kiddee, a lecturer at Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, after she published in March 2021 an article in Way Magazine on an exhibition organized by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC), in which Pongsiri’s work was included.

Pearamon’s article reviewed the exhibition featuring artwork purchased by the OCAC as “national treasures.”  It raised questions about the OCAC’s criteria for choosing these works, since there was no work by artists who produce non-traditional styles of art, and whether these works can be considered contemporary, noting that there was no description of the works or an explanation of how these works were curated in the exhibition.

She said that she was sued for comparing his earlier works with his more recent works in her article and saying that they showed no development. She was also sued for writing that the editor should not delete Pongsiri’s academic title from the article, because he might not be happy with it, which was interpreted to mean that she was accusing him of being snobbish.

The lawsuit was filed in Nakhon Si Thammarat, even though Pearamon is based in Bangkok and Pongsiri lives in Chiang Mai. The exhibition in question took place in Bangkok. Pearamon said that her next court hearings have been scheduled for 8 – 9 November.

On Wednesday (2 November), the Cultural Practitioners and Academics for Democracy group (กลุ่มนักปฏิบัติการและนักวิชาการด้านวัฒนธรรมเพื่อประชาธิปไตย) launched a campaign on change.org calling for support for Pearamon, stating that the group believes that a culture of criticism is part of making art and that critics help art grow in accordance with social and cultural changes, as well as creating active citizens. The group said that a critic’s work points out room for improvement in an artist, and it is natural for critical writing to use language to challenge artists or call them out on their role in the society or their work.

The group’s statement also said that, when an artist is also an academic, one must understand that, once their work is released to the public, it is the public’s job to decide whether the work is progressive or whether it’s outdated. It is also especially necessary for the public to raise questions to the artists and their work if they are funded by taxpayers’ money. An educator should also graciously accept criticism, instead of showing anger and harassing the critic.

The statement also said that suing a writer whose work is published in a popular platform and has already been vetted by an editorial team would not reflect well on the reputation of a university whose lecturers cannot accept such public criticism. The public should therefore question whether such a lawsuit is appropriate, noting that the circumstances of the lawsuit seem designed to make it intentionally difficult for the defendant, forcing her to travel long distances and shoulder the expenses for this. The lawsuit would also damage the reputation of the faculty where the plaintiff teaches, as his reaction to good faith criticism is in conflict with international norms within academia and artistic circles.

The group calls for the public to back its call for freedom of expression and the right to criticise academic and artistic works which have been released to the public, and the principle that any published work can be criticised in the interests of the public. They also call on Chiang Mai University to investigate and take disciplinary actions to admonish its staff for behaviour inappropriate for a lecturer, in order to foster a climate of learning and critical thinking in Thai universities.

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