Culture Clash: Thailand is known for art and culture, but Thai artists face social stigma

File photo of Napichaya Ampunsang, a principal ballerina at the Bangkok City Ballet. Photo: Courtesy

When I decided to pursue a career in dance, the first question I received was, “Is that even a real job?”

As a ballet teacher and aspiring professional dancer, I’ve often been doubted about my ability to perform and support myself since people in Thailand assume that artistic careers are “fall back jobs” or “hobbies.” Despite pride in the country’s artistic heritage, a career in the arts is still looked down upon in Thailand.

For me, Thailand is truly a society that values keeping face — best described by sociologist Erving Goffman when he called these societies “concerned of how others think of them.” What seems important here is having a job that others will be impressed with, or a skill that will guarantee you a stable job. This prized possession affords respect from the community and job titles such as doctor, lawyer, or architect fit the bill. Wanting a career in the arts is not encouraged, and I am continuously bombarded by the question, “How will you support yourself?”

Ironically, while art makes people feel emotions and explore parts of themselves that they don’t realize existed, at the same time, people are not encouraged to pursue these disciplines and society overlooks their importance.

“All societies need music, whether it’s simple background music or sophisticated jazz,” Janpat Montrelerdrasame, Thai jazz musician and music director of Mad Puppet Studio, who is famous for his exceptional talent in music, said of the importance of art.

Janpat Montrelerdrasame, Thai jazz musician and music director of Mad Puppet Studio. Photo: Courtesy

Napichaya Ampunsang, a principal ballerina with the Bangkok City Ballet (BCB), was not encouraged to pursue the career that she loves. “I know that my grandma did not support this idea at all. It is nonsense in her eyes because it only involved ‘feelings’,” she said.

When Napichaya was asked about her career choice in the early years of it, she would usually reply that she was a dancer and a teacher. The most harsh judgement came from her very own distant relatives rather than strangers.

“When they watched a commercial with dancers in it, they would criticize them for being dancers, believing that they hadn’t made it in life. Because I was, too, a dancer, I felt affected by that. I believe that [dancers] work with integrity and I think that’s honorable. In addition, you can pass the knowledge of dance to others, which is very educational and beneficial to those who receive it.”

It was not until much later, around the time when her students competed in Thailand’s Got Talent, that Napichaya’s relatives started to accept her career choice. But to accept it, they had to see this tangible achievement manifested through hard work.

Artists create artwork that inspires many everyday, just like a salesperson landing a big contract or a lawyer winning an important case. However, the product of their work is revealed in a different form.

For Henry Tan, who works as a performing fine artist and curator of Bangkok gallery Tentacles, the subject of emotional support is not often discussed, “I’m not sure if [my family] support me or not.”

“There are arguments in my family all the time about whether it’s a stable job. I would say that they are just concerned, or care about me,” Tan said.

With the lack of support financially and emotionally from family and friends, artists are often obligated to work at other jobs rather than focusing on their passion. Since he also has an economic background, Tan takes any side jobs offered to him to increase his savings. Janpat teaches piano, plays music at a hotel bar, and is a studio musician for many famous singers in Thailand, while also producing music for Mad Puppet Studio.

Meanwhile, Napichaya not only dances with BCB but also runs and teaches at her own dance school as well as working as an assistant choreographer for the Miss Universe Thailand pageant.

Henry Tan (right). Photo: Courtesy


Salary over spotlight

Napichaya provided interesting insight on why Thais value mundane stable jobs over artistic ones. In the small population of upper class citizens, they can afford enjoy and appreciate arts, while children in the middle and lower classes have to focus on education in hopes to bring their family to a better life.

“People in the upper class have money to appreciate arts. Therefore, these people would be more understanding of what [dancers] are, so they tend not to perceive dancers with such a strong stigma, compared to the lower classes,” said Napichaya.

File photo of Napichaya Ampunsang, a principal ballerina at the Bangkok City Ballet. Photo: Courtesy

Since most people belong to the middle and lower class in Thai society, it makes perfect sense that a career in art is not considered a respectable choice.

“For example, in dance, kids love to perform, and the parents enroll them in dance class. At one point in their life, around Grade 5 or 6, going into middle school, children would focus more on academic education and fall out of the dance world. This is because they don’t know why they are dancing anymore,” she said.

While Janpat grew up with his family and friends encouraging him to pursue his career in music, he still struggled to be accepted by many.

“Thai society doesn’t really appreciate art that much, so being a musician in Thailand is pretty difficult. It’s hard to gain respect from people,” he said.

To me, it is heartbreaking and discouraging for artists to create when societal expectation and stigma weighs them down.

It’s no doubt that artists in Thailand struggle to thrive in a country that values face over talent. Because of this, it drains their creativity and efforts to produce artwork that can continue to inspire and influence Thai society well into the future.

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