Cultural Identity and Art Education in Thailand
Ampai Tiranasar, Ph.D.
Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand

Paperto be presented at the 2nd Asia-Pacific Art Education Conference, Hong Kong Dec. 28-30, 2004.

The objectives of this paper are to describe Thai cultural identity in terms of the characteristics and behaviors both from the life of people and from the reflection in Thai traditional art; and to make recommendations for art education in Thailand. ‘Thai national and Thai cultural identity’ can be defined differently depending on the perspective of different groups of people such as ‘national identity’ as for national security purpose, ‘future-oriented identity’ as of the concern of business sector, or ‘regression identity’ as defined by the NGO. However, the definition from everyday life perspective is considered as a taken-for-granted category. Culture is used to identify the values, attitudes, and acceptable behavior of people from a common heritage. Cultural identity is the identity of a group or culture, or of an individual as far as her/his belonging to a group or culture by means of common habits, and characteristics influenced it. Although there are regional differences, as far as the concern of the nation as a whole, we should look for the general likenesses throughout the country. Concerning art education, we can view studying art as cultural communication. We can express and perceive meaning of cultural context through art. By doing that, one would gain the sense of cultural identity and self-respect, which is essential in children development.


Thailand's economic and social development has placed an emphasis on industrialization and technology, which depended largely on Western knowledge and know-how. Even worse, such misguided development brought along with it several serious problems such as urbanization, cultural and environmental destruction, all of which affect the quality of life of the people. Now it is the time for the country to look back at our own philosophy, culture, and indigenous knowledge or Thai knowledge. (Kaewdang , 2002) A culture is dynamic and needs re-interpretation whenever a new historical situation arises. The humanities should therefore re-interpret cultural resources in the light of new situations. Ratanakul (1999) stresses that only through this way we can make creative use of traditional cultures and can these cultures survive in the face of new challenges and the stress and strain that accompany them. The objectives of this paper are to describe Thai cultural identity in terms of the characteristics and behaviors both from the life of people and from the reflection in Thai traditional art; and to make recommendations for art education in Thailand.

Thai identity as the national identity is broadly defined as the composite of outstanding features and characteristics of Thai society and people that differentiates Thailand from other countries, and which has helped the Thai people to move forward, while maintaining their "Thainess," despite external influences and threats throughout history. The concern of national identity had been initiated way back in the Reign of King Vajiravudh, or Rama VI of Thailand (1880-1925), he described Thai society as founded upon, and held together by three fundamental institutions or pillars, namely, the Nation, Religion, and Monarchy. These three institutions, particularly with their positive and outstanding traits, as well as their mutually supportive roles and responsibilities, have significantly contributed to Thailand's unity, security, and development through the ages. It should be noted that in addition to these three institutions mentioned, recently the government added the forth one, the democratic system of government. (National Identity Board, 2004)

The contemporary development of enhancing Thai Identity started in 1976 when Professor Tanin Kraivixien, the then Prime Minister of Thailand, initiated the Thai Identity project in order to promote awareness of cultural heritage and pride in being Thai on the part of the people, particularly children and youth. Main features of the project were dissemination of the royal speeches, activities, and development projects, past and present, as well as programs such as "Yoo Yang Thai", or "Thai way of Living."  In the following year, 1977, the National Identity Board was set up under the Prime Minister's Office to inform the public about royal activities and development projects; outstanding and positive features of Thailand and its people; positive role of religion in the country's social development.

Since then several offices have been established. Ministry of Education is the most important body responsible for cultural affairs. The Office of the National Culture Commission (ONCC) -- established in 1979 as a department of the Ministry of Education -- has been given the function to coordinate, promote and develop cultural activities of both private and public sectors at national and international levels. After the establishment of the ONCC a network of cultural centers was founded all over the country to increase the access to culture. The centers are responsible for cultural development at the provincial level. (Culturelink, 1996)

Another office in relation with cultural enhancement is The Office of the National Education Commission (ONEC) as Thailand's national education policy organization, has conducted research on Thai knowledge in order to revitalize and return it to our educational system. ONEC has proposed to the government the national policy on Thai knowledge, establishment of the organization in charge, establishment of the Thai knowledge learning centers, remuneration for Thai knowledge teachers, and the government's commitment to support the operation of the learning centers. (Kaewdang, 2002)

Until recently, The Ministry of Culture, established in 2002, is responsible for national culture policy and implements strategies to encourage, create, research, disseminate, protect and promote history, culture, moral assets and ethic of the nation. The ministry consists of 6 departments and public organization: Office of the Minister, Office of the Permanent Secretary, The Religious Affairs Department, The Fine Arts Department, Office of the National Culture Commission, Office of the Contemporary Arts and Culture, and Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Center (Public Organization)

At present, there have been initiatives for country development by means of employing culture for various purposes. One of the major forces is that of culture in service of economic, most prominent movements include boosting economic by means of tourism and selling local products. Recently, it was discovered that local differences might stimulate tourism so, since a few years back, every province boosts a cultural office to promote the ‘characteristic’ features of the area. (Mulder, 2000) Since last few years the government has promoted a campaign called‚ One Tambon One Product (OTOP) because the target area is the administrative unit called ‚Tambon, which is the equivalent of village or town in English. The movement was originally started in Oita Prefecture in Japan. The purpose of this campaign was to ‚ improve upon/refine the locally available resources and produce goods that are acceptable internationally. Particularly, the Thai government has been promoting the local industry through the manufacturing of the unique and attractive products based on the abundant native culture, tradition and nature. <> We can assume that this campaign seems to encourage people to search for their local cultural identities. However, on the other side, we have to admit that it has been done to use culture as a means for selling products. It is uncertain that it would have permanent intrinsic value of local cultural identities

Terms related to culture identity

The term ‘culture’ can be defined in many viewpoints, but there are two particularly relevent to education, one anthropological and other biological.  A culture in the anthropological sense is a shared way of life. In the biological sense, it refers to a medium for growing things. (Eisner, 2000) With this frame of definition, a culture can be viewed as the pattern of living among a given group of people. In addition, the pattern of living is developed by the group’s shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and opinions on acceptable behavior of people from a common heritage. (McFee, 1998) This study examines the culture at the national level, which refers to the core culture, including those values and beliefs shared in some degree by the majority of people in the nation. 

Bellah (2004) speculates the meaning of the word "nation" because it may contain a profound ambiguity. On the one hand, it designates a people with a shared history and a shared identity with the essence of cultural memory, continuity and integrity. On the other hand, it designates a modern nation-state with the essence of the economic, political and military power of the nation-state.  He claims that the "nation" in the latter sense has often subordinated, manipulated and exploited the "nation" in the former sense. Further, "Nationalism" is a correspondingly ambiguous term, for it is often not clear whether it means pride in one's history and cultural identity or pride in the power of one's nation-state. Modern nation-states in the West and in Asia have from time to time cloaked themselves in the mantle of national cultural identity at the very moment that they were destroying genuine traditional culture in the effort to centralize and enhance state power. In this sense modern nationalism has often been more an enemy to a genuine cultural identity than an expression of it.

"Tradition" as a category of sociological analysis has been used most frequently as a simple contrast term to "modernity" and as such has taken on almost a pejorative meaning. The term "tradition" is used in a quite restricted and largely negative way describing a situation where one takes the past uncritically as a model for unimaginative imitation, a singularly narrow and unhelpful conception of traditional which is only marginally applicable to pre-modern societies. Nothing new arises from tradition. To clear up the problem, "cultural identity" is a useful synonym for tradition, especially since "identity" does not have the pejorative implication in modern social science that tradition does. "Identity" is a term most often used in psychology. A person with a strong sense of identity is person who has integrity, coherence and continuity so that he or she is able to maintain a consistent life pattern with overall purposes and meanings.

Modernization is not a substitute for tradition. Ideally the relation between tradition and modernization should be a dialectical and ultimately a harmonious one. A viable tradition should continue to guide individuals and societies in their quest for what is genuinely good, with which all the great religions and philosophies of mankind have been concerned, and modernization should simply supply more effective means for that quest. Both the successes and the failures of modernization raise fundamental questions about the meaning of life. The traditions can set the end and modernization can be reduced to providing the means, and, where it undermines the ends, modernization itself might to be brought under control.

Thai People's Way of Life

Thai people have been known having very close tie with their religion, Buddhism. (Continuing Education Center and Translation Center, Faculty of Arts, 1998, Khemmani, and others, 1996, and Anumanrajadhon, 1956). Podhisita (1998) explains that in Thailand, the orientation toward Buddhism is important and all pervasive. From birth to death, an individual is brought into involvement with various rites and ceremonies as he/she passes through successive stages of the life cycle. Buddhist rites and rituals are often suffused with non-Buddhist beliefs derived from Brahminism and animism (Podhisita 1998, Anumanrajadhon, 1956).  In this part includes the reviews in relation to Buddhism in Thailand, characteristics of Thai People, and education in Thailand.

Buddhism in Thailand
Buddhism has supplied cognitive and evaluative elements that have been incorporated into Thai culture and built into the Thai social structure. Consequently, Buddhism is deemed as the instrument of the Thai people’s identity and cultural continuity. Buddhism is consistently woven into all thoughts and actions of the Thais whose cultural life has been their great attachment to the doctrines and rites of the Buddhist order.

The ideal Buddhist aspiration is to attain perfection through Nirvana, the state that leaves a man free from the bonds of this life suffering. The ultimate goal is to approach the state of no further rebirth. This can be achieved by means of the Four Noble Truths pointed out by the Lord Buddha: Truth of suffering, its origin, its extinction and the path that leads to the extinction. The Nirvana is far beyond the ability of normal human beings. Alternatively, among Buddhists, the goal of religious action is making merit in order to gain happiness, security, and property in this life and next life.

Thai Buddhists, with the theory of the Southern School of Buddhism believe in transmigration by which all divine, human, or animal life keeps passing through recurring cycles of regeneration. (Keston, 1988) One’s life does not begin with birth and end with death, but is a link in a chain of lives each conditioned by volitional acts called “karma” committed in previous existences. If one who is in Human Realm usually does good, he will be born in Heaven after his death. In contrast, one who does bad things will be born in Hell after his death. The most important social value is religious morality to achieve the attainment and accumulation of merit. Religious morality includes conforming to the moral code of Buddhism and performing meritorious acts as well as serving as a monk for some period of time.

The primary path to esteem and prestige for Thai men is the service in the monastic order. Traditional values for becoming a monk are to gain great merit for himself and his parents for going to Heaven, and to become a mature adult. If not, he would be called ‘khon dib,’ the unripe person. Most Thai young men leave monkhood after spending three months in the temple rather than a life-long pursuit.

A monk stands at the apex of Thai society. It is a monk who defines the upper limit of the human dimension of the Buddhist moral hierarchy. (Keston, 1988) The Buddhist monks are the most honored and respected persons in the society, even the royalty are supposed to pay respect to the monks. The order in the society of Buddhist monks is deemed as the ideal society. There is the greatest possible freedom and respect for the individual with regard to cultivation of compassion and wisdom. It is a non-coercive, non-authoritarian, democratic society. The whole society shares all things, which are held in common possession. Accordingly, it is an order of society, which has no political ambition. There is no struggle for leadership as it comes only from good character and spiritual insight.

The Buddhist monks usually are those who local people will turn to for counseling on almost all the matters. Abbots and senior monks frequently enjoy more prestige and moral persuasion than the village head, and in times of personal crisis they are often the first whose advice is sought. (National Identity Board, 2000) Thus, the beings of villages are in accordant with the personality of the monks, particularly the abbots. If an abbot is scholarly, meditative, and retiring, the monastery is unlikely to concern itself much with mundane village affairs. On the other hand, if the abbot is a dynamic personality he may make the temple a community center with a subtle but powerful influence on social action.

In terms of the physical environment, the focus for Thai Buddhists is that in the monastery, the temple, called in Thai language as ‘wat.’ The wat is often separated from the community by an open field to give the resident monks maximum privacy and seclusion for the religious activities. This grassy expanse serves as the village common, a place where children play and where local fairs and activities are held. (National Identity Board, 2000, Keston, 1988) The wat functions as the focal point of the village as to symbolize the Buddhist religion and also to act as the major unify element, the social center of the community. Thus, the sense of community of the villagers is built around the wat. The monastery constructed and maintained largely through local donations and thus reflecting the village’s wealth. (National Identity Board, 2000)

At present, it make clear Thai in rural Thailand, religion is alive and well. The people continue to invest in merit, and that the traditional way of seeking some education for the rural poor by temporarily entering the monkhood is still valid. The value of becoming a monk is proven to be transmitted as the ratio to monks and novices to population has changed only very slightly over the past twenty-five years. (Mulder, 2000) In addition, we can see the Thai government reflects it. The government encourages the pattern of behavior by granting on rainy season’s paid leave to any male government officials who wish to be ordained. (Keston, 1988)

Characteristics of Thai People

In Podhisita's study (1998), 5 sets of the relationships between Buddhism and the Thai world views were identified: The world of hierarchy, The world of merit and demerit, The world of ‘bun khun,’ The world of the "cool heart," and The world of individualism. 

Concerning the world of hierarchy, the Thai society is made up of positions that are hierarchical related. Each position in the hierarchical system is fixed.  Individuals, however, are not necessarily bound to any given position without they’re being any possibility of mobility.  Moreover, individuals are seen as either higher or lower, younger or older, weaker or stronger, subordinate or superior, senior or junior, and rarely equal, in relation to one another. Thus, young people need to learn appropriate behavior concerning the hierarchy. They are taught to recognize the difference between "high place" and "low place" particularly as in the roles of adults and children, or teachers and students. 

This hierarchy is dynamic in nature because it allows movement in any direction. In the social order, according to Thai belief, a person is who he is and where he is because of who he has been and what he has done. This Buddhist view is strikingly different from that of Hinduism. For the Buddhist, it does not matter who one is but what one does; whereas, for the Hindu, one does what one does because of who one is. (Keyes,1978 quoted in Podhisita,1998)  Although the hierarchy relationship among the Thais is considered as one of the unique cultural identity, some Thais believe and hold on certain individual or personage, which creates asymmetrical relationship. Smuckarn (1991) urges that when people hold on this belief with out appropriate reasons, it could be one of the weak points of Thai culture.

The second aspect of Thai social life is the world of merit and demerit. This concept comes from the Buddhist 'karm.'  'Karm' means actions, which implies those happened in the past life as well as in the present life. What gained by an individual in the past life would bring to effect at the present life. Whereas what one does at present would become in effect in the future life. Thus, the culmination of karm garnered through past lives as well as the present one. (Kirsch quoted in Podhisita, 1998)  The effects of past karma also lie behind such common expressions as ‘mai pen rai’ (never mind, it doesn’t matter) or the sense of forgiveness. When something unfortunate happens, reflecting the feeling that one must gracefully submit to external forces beyond one’s control. (National Identity Board, 2000)

The third aspect is the world of ‘bun khun,’ which can be described as any good thing, help or favor done by someone, which entails gratitude and obligation on the part of the beneficiary. What parents do for their children is bun khun; what teachers do in teaching students is also a kind of bun khun.  One of the ultimate ways to pay gratitude and to gain great merit for himself and his parents is to become a monk, because this will enable them to go to Heaven.

The other characteristics which the people, when received, deem as bun khun are ‘nam chai’ and ‘long khaek.’ ‘Nam chai’ is the typical Thais’ sincere consideration for others, a concept encompassing spontaneous warmth and compassion that allows families to make anonymous sacrifices for friends and to extend hospitality to strangers. Another characteristic in relation to ‘nam chai,’ is the ‘long khaek,’ means taking turns in helping one and other or cooperative labor.  Traditionally speaking, there was no paid labor. This happens when neighbors pool their work force and work for a host. Hosting is on a rotating basis. This means each host in turn is expected to perform work for his neighbor who becomes a host.

The fourth aspect is the world of the ‘cool heart,’ Podhisita explains that it implies many meanings. First, it implies a psychological quality of not being anxious when confronting problems. Secondly, it means 'not getting angry easily' when; in general, one would be expected to be. Thirdly, it may refer to the ability to suppress one's emotion and not becoming easily excited or emotionally disturbed. And finally, cool heart may simply imply indifference. In whatever sense it is used, cool heart is the characteristic of a stable personality. 

Thai social life places strong value on overt calmness in social interaction. Outward expressions of anger, dislike and annoyance are considered improper.  Also, they are regarded as dangerous to social harmony and as being obvious signs of ignorance and immaturity.  Moreover, display of dismay, despair, displeasure, disapproval or enthusiasm are frowned upon.  Accordingly, a person who is, indifferent, ‘choei choei’, is respected for having what is considered an important virtue. (National Identity Board, 2000) A basic rule in Thai social interaction is to avoid an open, face-to-face conflict. Avoiding of open conflicts and control of one's anger are considered to be not only an intelligent social response, but also a meritorious act.  In addition, the avoidance gives the Thais inner freedom. The well-bred in Thai culture are expected to be able to control their emotions. Whatever they feel inside should be hidden behind the smiles. (Prasasvinitchai, 2003) Moreover, the Thais are highly flexible and compromising. They hold the motto of bending to avoid breaking. (Smukarn, 1991) Moderation is the keynote of social relationships. One should try to be friendly, pleasant, and polite with other people, not too involved, yet not too distant. (Keston, 1988)

The other Thai feeling is ‘kreang chai,’ which means an extreme reluctance to impose on anyone or disturb his personal equilibrium by direct criticism, challenge or confrontation.  Keston (1988) describes it as a concept of self-effacement (smooth away) and showing consideration to others, avoiding embarrassment. In general, people will do their utmost to avoid personal conflict. Indeed, during normal social discourse, strong public displays of emotion are rare, sometimes leading to misunderstanding among outsiders from other culture. (National Identity Board, 2000) The Thais prefer to avoid confrontation and at the same time resent aggressiveness. (Keston, 1988)

Lastly, the world of individualism characterizes Thai people as free and independent souls. In some cases, the individualistic nature of the Thai personality refers to 'self-centeredness.' Values and behavior reflecting individualism and autonomy are rather usual in Thai culture. Thus, there is a popular phrase in Thai society that to do as one whishes is to be a genuine Thai. Moreover, the Thais have zest for enjoyment. (Keston, 1988) The individualism aspect seems to bring the lack or weakness of strong adherence to the social groups. Subsequence of this may partly account for the weakness of many social, economic and political activities in Thailand, which require strong grouping (group discipline, sense of belonging, etc.) to be successful. (Podhisita, 1998)

In addition to the characteristics reviewed above, a few others should be noted too. Thais enjoy freedom without any serious consideration of limitation. Thus, they would do what they please. At time this characteristic implies the lack of social responsibility and consciousness. The Thais remain impressively their own. Whatever the changes and problems, they seem to cope in a self-assured way that may strike outsiders as surprisingly nonchalant in relation to be the scale of social problems. Perhaps this is related to the dichotomization of life’s experience into an area that rally matters and that concerns one’s immediate personal relationships, and public life that is thought to be a matter of state and government, far away entities that are beyond the reach and control of individual citizens. Politics is something to watch, a spectator sport that may be exciting, but it still has to go a long way if it is to evolve to the stage where party programs, platform politics, and the representation of the public interest in its all diversity are included in its dimensions. (Mulder, 2002:16) Smukarn (1991) cautious such behavior can be viewed as one of the weak points of Thai culture.

The Thais give a lot of consideration to culture and tradition. They follow and maintain faithfully. (Keston, 1988) Smukarn (1991) calls this characteristic the “Thai-ism,” holding the sense of Thainess. Although normally, in everyday life, it seldom obviously shown, whenever the nation is facing any critical circumstances, majority of people will show up to give their helping hands such as in times of political crisis or natural disasters.

Thais are highly adaptive and pragmatic. (Smukarn, 1991) They are not averse to development and can be quick to adopt new ideas. (Keston, 1988) For example, the adoption of foreign culture as in foreign foods, many dishes came from foreign culture. Some of these go far back into history, like the egg-based Portuguese sweets, which were introduced in the Ayuthaya period, while others like bread and cake are more recent acquisitions. (National Identity Board, 2000)

The way that the Thais look at themselves and relate to social groups is similar to people in many Asian countries. Aik Kwang Ng (2001) explains that how Asian people look at themselves as people with interdependent self-construal, view themselves as part of a larger web of social relations.  A person’s identity derives from his ability to maintain a connection with significant others. He is motivated to fit in with them. He behaves in an interdependent and social manner. In addition, he lets his in group determine his goals and interests in life, conforms to what they way and do, and strenuously avoid any social conflict with them.

From this explanation, Ng characterizes the Asian people as interdependent; the Asian society puts a greater emphasis on social group in comparison with the person.  Whereas the Westerners are independent; the Western society emphasizes person in comparison with the social group.  Thai people also share similarity with others in the Asian region in which comes from the hierarchical relationship in Thai society. The relationship between Buddhism and the Thai worldview may constitute difficulties to adjust oneself either in the role of a teacher and a student. While current trends in art education promote self expression and student- centered art education, the aspects of hierarchy and ‘bun khun,’ may reflect teacher-directed teaching and in the way the students follow what the teachers may lead them. 
The characteristic that is deep rooted in many aspects of the life of Thai people is a habit of imitation, particularly in the case of working on Thai traditional art. Silpa Bhirasri (1970) describes in his book on Thai Contemporary Art, for centuries Eastern art followed a traditional style, which in many cases was very conventional and transmitted from generation to generation with severe observance of technique and ideas. The same root as the first but with opposite cause: imitation of the Western art: On account of unlimited repetition of the same forms and ideas, the young people want to free themselves from this kind of mental slavery and accordingly are inclined to reject those of all in the past and accept everything which is new. The result is that many works of Eastern artists lack any racial or individual peculiarity. They are imitations of the Western works. It should be noted that imitation might be suitable for certain type of work as in traditional artwork, however, if we apply to all other circumstances without consideration, it could hinder the desirable outcome.

Education in Thailand
Before Thailand adopted the educational system from the West, we had had our own educational system which was informal and provided in three institutions; home, temple and palace. Parents taught children family occupation, social values and traditions while monks taught reading, morality and Buddhism. The palace was the place where all kinds of the nation's classical art were developed, preserved and taught.
The recent important educational movement in Thailand has started about six years ago. On July1, 1999, the Bill received the final approval of the House of Representatives. On August 14 of the same year, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej graciously granted His Royal assent for the promulgation of the National Education Act B.E. 2542 (1999), which subsequently published on August 19,1999 in the Royal Gazette. The Act stipulates 9 years for compulsory education.

Several significant points could be found in the National Education Act. For example, Section 22 in the Act states that Education shall be based on the principle that all learners are capable of learning and self-development, and are regarded as being most important. The teaching-learning process shall aim at enabling the learners to develop themselves at their own pace and to the best of their potential. Compulsory education shall be for nine years as stated in Section 17. Art is included in one of five knowledge areas in Section 23: "(3) Knowledge about religion, art, culture, sports, Thai wisdom, and the application of wisdom." At present education in Thailand is organized in accordance with the Basic Education Curriculum B.E. 2544 (A.D. 2001). In this curriculum, art is designated as one of the core subjects consisting 3 substances: visual art, music and performing arts. The emphasis upon cultural heritage is noted in all of these substances. In visual art, one of the two standards for all school level is the understanding visual arts, history and culture relationship; appreciating visual arts cultural heritage, local wisdom and Thai wisdom. (The Ministry of Education, 2002)

In the primary and secondary school art education class activities art still mainly put the emphasis on studio-art activities, which are those in relation to creating art works. In addition, these activities are mostly close-ended of "how-to-do" activities within the classroom environment. There are very limited stances linking them with the student's real life and society in general.  Although the art appreciation and applying art to real life usage appear in the art curricula objectives, in most of the actual art lessons, at best, this matter is incorporated in the art activities as a by-product of the studio activities.  Concerning artwork responses, Thai children have rather limited ability. Chanswast (1996) conducted a study concerning the verbal responses to works of art of Thai elementary students where four levels of responding were used as a framework. These levels were composed of description, formal analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. It was found that over 65 % of the responses fell into the first level, description. The other three levels each shared around 10 % 

In addition, in the classroom setting, it is common to find that students are silent and passive. Not only in Thailand, Ng (2001) claims that students in Asian societies share the same behaviors. The lack of passion of the Asian student for what he studies is mirrored by his unwillingness to take charge of the learning process. Instead, the students expects their teachers to give them explicit instructions on what tasks and assignments they should read and when to read them, what tasks and assignments they should complete and how to do them. They feel uneasy about unstructured situations in which they have to decide what to do for them. They hesitate to ask questions and do not participate actively in class.

Art in Thailand

Thailand has prominent art forms with a long history.  Thai art has been influenced by many art forms of the  Mons, the Khmers, the Indians, the Chinese, and the Westerners as a basis to develop their own art forms. Yet, the Thai art forms have been modified that they are considered esthetic work of art of the Thais themselves. (Continuing Education Center and Translation Center, Faculty of Arts, 1998) Thailand has her uniqueness in various art forms such as sculpture, architecture, painting and handicraft. However, the Thai traditional painting was selected to be included in the following review for the purpose of illustrating the reflections of Thai cultural identity upon traditional art in Thailand. In addition, in order to show the present circumstances, there will be a brief review of Thai contemporary art.

Thai traditional painting
Concerning the forms in Thai paintings, Charoenwongse (1992) indicates that they can be divided into four levels: Idealistic, combination of Idealistic and Realistic, Realistic, and Surrealistic. At the first level is considered the highest form, includes the Lord Buddha, kings and heavenly beings. At the second level, the artists followed the tradition transmitted from the past to express the content and philosophy of religion, includes high status people. At the third level, the artists employed their own expression and knowledge gained from experiencing the society and environment in their era, includes common people. These included emotion, atmosphere, history, ways of life, and customs and traditions of people in the particular time. At the forth level which is the lowest one, includes creatures in hell. The artists used their imagination to create the work to express the emotion of terror and depression to warn the viewers to be cautious of the results of the wrong doings.

No Na Paknam (2001) explains that although the murals were mainly concerned with telling an epic story, the lives of ordinary people were also depicted. Known as "Kak" pictures, these little asides about the lives of the people give sociological and anthropological information and record the tradition and customs of different periods. One can see here and there, even in the most sacred scenes, deftly painted vignettes of people working, playing, gossiping, and flirting. These minor characters and the animals are free to be themselves and they are shown realistically, often with broad humor. (Lyons,1990)

Conceptions expressed in Thai Traditional Paintings are mostly concerning human behaviors and ways of life in relation to Buddhism and their natural environments. The conception could be classified into 5 categories.
1) Behaviors of human and their inner nature. The expressions included the emotions of human such as love, greediness, anger, and mercy. For example, in the scene of fighting, it reflects several emotions.

2) Behaviors among human. Whereas the main contents of Thai traditional paintings depict those of Buddhism, they also included the actual life of the people in society within the particular time when the painters created the works. They show the relationships of people at different levels such as among the kings, the kings and their people, and among the common people. Through these relationships we can see the expressions of diverse or even contrast emotions. In some paintings, while the main characters are in sadness, the common people are flirting or children are playing.

3) Behaviors between the people and their environment, both in natural scenes and in man made constructions.

4) Behaviors of human and beliefs beyond reality especially the scenes showing life in hell.

5) Behaviors between human and moral value and conduct in the society. This was done by means of the analogy of good and bad through the scenes showing the previous life of the Lord Buddha. (Charoenwongse, 1992)

Thai traditional paintings has many roles and functions:

1) As decoration. It may be as an art piece or as a part of constructions. Besides expressing the beauty of aesthetic values, they are the means to enhance understanding in Buddha teachings. When one looks at the paintings, while he or she would get the sense of appreciation, he or she would also learn desirable moral conducts.

2) As reflection of social life. As mentioned before that the main purpose of the artists were to show the stories related to Buddhism. However, in the minor components, the artists also filled in the actual environment in their times, which generally were the everyday life of the common people. Thus the paintings are valuable resources for studying the people social life. Consequently, they reflect the Thai identity with the emphasis of Buddhism.

It should be noted that even though the history of the Lord Buddha life originated in India and the Buddha was Indian by birth, the artists could create the paintings combining the Lord Buddha within the Thai context. The paintings successfully present harmony and unity.

Murals reflect the knowledge, abilities, culture, customs and ways of life of the people from all walks of life, from kings to commoners. They show the artists’ sense of nature during different periods. Paintings are like mirrors that reflect the events in each period or era. When studied in depth, the pictures reveal a process of development. (No Na Paknam,2001)

3) As an artwork. The expression of Thai artists is not simply functional as an illustration but we can see artists' expression of emotion, concept and imagination through the lives and society of people at various statuses, from the royal figures to the common people. While generally, the traditional form and content may look similar, if we look into details, we can see uniqueness of work created by different groups of artists even though they lived at the same period of time.

4) As academic resources. Thai traditional paintings are multiple academic resources. In addition to the main concern of Buddhism, we can see history, social life, culture, economics, and many other aspects as the scholars conducting numerous research studies using the painting as their basis to elicit findings in aspects of their interest. (Chareunwongse ,1992)

From the review of Thai way of life and Thai traditional painting above, we can see that the two matters are related. The way of life reflected through the paintings. The reason is that the foundation of these matters is from the beliefs and philosophy in Buddhism. Specifically, the hierarchy is show in the relationships of figures in the paintings including the gestures, placing, the costumes and the painting styles. The merit and demerit aspect is shown in numerous paintings as being in heaven and in hell. The ‘bun koon’ is typically reflected many paintings particularly those from Jadaka. The ‘cool heart’ in the facial expressions, particularly the figures at the high level, the facial is almost does not show direct emotion. The individualism can be seen in the scene with the diverse or even contrast emotions. In the paintings, even though, the main story was in the serious or sad mood, common people were free to do what they wished such as flirting or children were playing.

Contemporary art in Thailand
The contemporary art had started when the Fine Art Department established an Academy of Fine Arts in 1933. The basic principles of art training were the study of nature and of traditional arts. The most difficult problem to solve was the curriculum of the academy. From the stereotyped repetition of traditional art we could not revive a new movement. On the other hand it was not sound to go astray from the old spirit of Thai art. Therefore, it was decided to start afresh from Nature and make active research from old art.

In the past, the traditional art reflects the very essence of the artists’ faith in religion. In those days their wants were of the minimum. Nowadays the wants of material life are coupled with the dominating dynamism, of which an artist has to create works of art like a printing machine; the old kind of spiritual work is no longer possible.

The contemporary art came in at the time for expressions other than the old ones must be created to serve the human spirit. An artist is more sensitive than the laymen an as such he experiences emotions stimulated by his surroundings and as modern surroundings, particularly referring to towns, differ profoundly from the old ones, so contemporary art has to differ from past artistic expression, disregarding directly foreign influences.

The modern system of teaching, following the Western example, has illumined our young generation on fundamental and universal subjects. This fact has shaped a deep change in the mental capacity of the Thai. As far as art is concerned, modern education has freed artists from the duty of illustrating old literature. General knowledge has widened the field of imagination and the result is the young Thai artists “want” to create something new corresponding to their own conceptions and plastic realizations. In doing so, they work against the current of public artistic appreciation, but it is indispensable for them to follow their natural instinct because it sincerely reflects their own historical surroundings, which are now the surroundings of everyone in Thailand.

In the aspect of education, we should not undervalue the fact that the majority of the textbooks are works of Western scientific research; Easterners, in the past, having applied their minds mostly to philosophical speculation. Because education is the major factor forming the mentality of people, so an Easterner cannot help but be influenced by Western ideas as Westerners nowadays are influenced by Eastern philosophy. Bhirasri (1970) urges that instead of solely provide students with Western textbooks, it should be desirable and useful to have books on contemporary Eastern books, circulating regularly among all Eastern countries. The books would have an important influence on stimulating an art with more accentuated Eastern characteristics. In addition, the Easterners should have their own critics corresponding to their own ethnic and philosophical traditions. For this reason we reiterate the necessity to have books and periodicals treating Eastern art.

Bhirasri affirms that if a Thai does not purposely imitate works of foreign artists, he will always express, under any new style, the individuality of his race which is formed by peculiar natural temperament, climate, religion, atavistic feelings and thoughts, and other factors. In addition, about the concern the educational Western influences, Bhirasri insists that the Easterners need not be alarmed because, for a good mind, and it is always a good mind which produces fine works of art, such influences are exerted solely in the field of knowledge and not of the spirit. (Bhirasri, 1970:6-7) 

Recommendations for art education in Thailand

All the reviews above should help in illustrating circumstances in Thailand in relation to Thai cultural identity. It is clear that Thailand has her own uniqueness in which art educators would find the ways to share and transmit to the younger generation. In this last part will include several recommendations: the speculation concerning the desirable role of the humanities in relation to cultural heritage; suggestions in relation to school art education; and collaborative efforts among various cultural art forms.

Ratanakul proposes that it is desirable to have a Thai who can live with personal integrity and unalienated from his cultural roots but in the world where the forces of modernity and communication between people are more and more creating an international community and culture. Although the content of the humanities in developing countries cannot exclude entirely the cultural values of the West, the humanities can assimilate them through their critical function, in a selective and constructive manner. Through the study of humanistic disciplines, students are made aware of the existence of cultural pluralism and can appreciate and identify themselves with their own unique cultural heritage.

In Thailand, the humanities are not only important in the preservation of cultural heritage but also play a significant role in the re-interpretation and criticism of the national culture. These two functions of the humanities are necessary if we want the humanities to be more than a mere reservoir of the cultural past. There are many ways in which the humanities can make themselves vital and creative resources for coping with the new challenges of modernity.

In order for Buddhism to remain a powerful and cultural force in the formation of Thai national identity, the tradition must re-fashion itself but in ways which are characteristically Buddhist. Buddhist scholars are placing emphasis on the this-worldly concern of the tradition. The Buddhist ideal of detachment is translated into disinterestedness (unselfish public concern and services) and a dispassionate mode of action that will provide unemotional but not indifferent solutions to political and social problems. Non-violence is reinterpreted to imply less exploitation and destructiveness as far as the environment and natural resources are concerned as well as non-aggressiveness and tolerance in personal relations. All these re-interpretations are efforts to enable traditional cultures to give meaning to man in a new situation.

Concerning the school art education, in general, art educators have shown greater interest in children as creators of art than as appreciators of visual forms. The highly personal and creative nature of art has received more attention than the influence of art on society. What we need is a concept of art education that will help children to appreciate the artistry in varied life styles and to wisely shape their own.

It is desirable for art education to consider the other two essential goals: appreciation of the artistic heritage; and awareness of the role of art in society. Through studies of the artistic heritage, children learn that art is related to cultural endeavors of the past and present. When children's lives and artistic efforts are related to the artistic heritage, the entire experience is personalized, and children are helped to value the work of others. At the same time, their encounters with the artistic heritage confirm the authenticity of their own creative efforts. On the other hand, by studying the role of art in society, children can begin to appreciate art as a way of encountering life and not view it as a vague phenomenon.  We should help children become aware of the many ways visual forms can shape and express the feelings of people of all cultures. Children should understand that the visual forms they create help them express their own identities as well as their membership in groups. Visual forms also mark important events in their lives. (Chapman, 1978)

Points where children’s culturally learned abilities may lead to differences in their responses to art include: their familiar and preferred images, symbols and design qualities; their culturally learned perception, cognition, and systems of ordering; their group or self centered motivations; socio-cultural stratification and its art; their exposure to culture change. (McFee, 1998)

In relation to plan art lessons concerning cultural identity, several selected techniques can be used to enhance the range and depth of children’s responses suggested by Chapman (1978) as follows:

Exploring symbolism and connotations: The symbolic meaning one can make sense of visual forms influences perceptual response. We can become more conscious of the assumptions we make about the meanings of things we perceive. We can heighten children’s perception by exploring sources of symbolism in the forms we see—sources based in childhood experiences, in family events, in religious rituals, in local and national traditions.

Becoming aware of context: Context—the background features of a situation. The contexts include temporal contexts, spatial contexts and social contexts. We might view our relationships with other things, events, and people in the following contexts: space, time, stability of relationships, value, and reality. What we are likely to see is largely determined by what we assume to be important.

Empathizing and maintaining psychic distance: Empathy is the projection of one’s own personality into a situation. We personify the situation; we endow external, inanimate things with our own feelings. Empathy involves the unconscious projection of our feelings onto the object so that we think of the object as if it actually had our feelings. There are two extremes of experiencing empathy. “Underdistancing” is a state in which we cannot fully experience a work because we have no sense of our own identity.  And, “Overdistancing” occurs when we are so objective or self-conscious that we are unable to let the work influence us at all. We should try to establish the proper degree of psychic distance, a balance between total objectivity and total subjectivity.

Speculating: Speculating is the process of mentally or imaginatively examining the clues in order to formulate good guesses about the significance of a visual form. We could envision how form would look if all its dominant features were transformed into various alternatives such as different sizes, materials, techniques etc. Speculation may focus on the origin of the work within a time, place, and culture; on the purposes served by the work; or on the possible intention of the artist. Furthermore, we might compare the work with other forms of the same type.  In every case, speculation is aimed at discovering possible explanations for what we see in the work and how we feel about what we see.

In addition to techniques in organizing art activities, art teachers should consider the relationship between the teachers and the students. Both teachers and students need to adjust their role in the educational environment. The Thai people's way of life reviewed earlier reflects the uniqueness of Thai culture, however, some of those may become obstructions to the pursuit desirable art education goals. 

The view of hierarchical relationships of people, particularly between teachers and their students, by the expression of both sides is one of the uniqueness of Thai culture. However, the reasons constituting this hierarchy need to be reviewed. It should become mutual relationship on both parties. It will be very little meaningful if we treat respectfulness superficially. Students should not only pay physical respect to his/her teacher or to show their respect just because he/she is their 'teacher.' Rather, teachers should become respectful upon their actions. 

Students should respect the actions their teacher in performing desirable roles in educating students. In other words, the 'merit' of the teacher will come into play in order to gain the students' respect. On the other hand, the teacher should respect his/her students as human beings who are in the process of growing. Art activities provide opportunity for both parties to exercise this matter. Art education aims for students' self-expression, originality, and creativity. These will become possible only when the teachers recognize and express the respect in the students' works. 

The characteristic of 'cool heart' is also another Thai culture strong point. However, it will be useful when used in the appropriate situation. To suppress one's emotion and not becoming easily excited may inhibit the chance for them to express their true feelings in the artwork. Thus, the teacher must try to encourage his/her students to freely express the feelings and ideas in their works. However, the concept of 'cool heart' may be appropriate in the art lessons dealing with the content in the responsive mode. The lessons involve the classroom group activity. That is, in addition to learning the content, the students need to perform appropriate social interaction. Other than learning to express their opinions and ideas, they need to learn to accept those of others. This is where 'cool heart' should be exercised; not being anxious when confront problems, 'not getting angry easily', and to suppress one's emotion and not becoming easily excited or emotionally disturbed. 

Together with the characteristic of 'cool heart,' the individualistic sense of the Thai people should be made to be beneficial to art education. The individualism implies free and independent souls, which in a good sense, is a good foundation for a democracy society. However, this trait can bring the lack or weakness of strong adherence to the social groups. Therefore, art educators should selectively make use of Thai traits in promoting students' growth. 

Thai cultural art has special characteristic of various forms of art helping one and other in expression of a particular art form. In Nagavajara’s phrase in Thai, ‘Silp Song Thang’ means one art form illuminates the way for other art forms. For example, in Thai mural paintings, get the help from Thai traditional dance such as the body expressions and gestures and costumes. (Nagavajara, 2003) In addition, Prasasvinitchai (2003) explains that as in Thai mural painting, the characters express their feelings with their gestures. Their body language indicates their emotional state the same way the movement of ballet dancer tell us the feelings without any need to see the facial expressions. Thus, there should be further study to investigate the linkage among Thai cultural art forms in which the outcomes would lead to even more comprehensive view of arts in Thai culture.


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