By Abdul Hamid, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio
The argument is not new; in fact, it’s hackneyed and probably rehearsed to death in about fifteen different languages. Art is not relevant, it is elitist, it does not speak to the common man, it usually wishes a space devoid from the larger society, and it is a waste of money. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the National Arts Council has recently announced that it will not be participating in the next edition of the Venice Biennale. The reason for having pulled out of the foremost contemporary art exhibition in the world sounds reasonable too, since the aim is to “ensure that…future presentations will contribute more systematically and effectively towards visual arts development in Singapore” (my emphasis). On what benchmarks can more effective visual arts development be, if it is not some recognition from the larger international community? Seems as if that is not a good enough yardstick, if going by the critical acclaim Ming Wong and Ho Tzu Nyen received for their works.
If that is the case, what could effective arts development then mean? While the council’s decision to put the Singapore Arts Festival on hiatus until 2014 may be a step in the right direction, with members of the arts community and partners to discuss a new working model for the Festival, this withdrawal seems to be slightly askew of its intended objectives. Don’t worry, however, “NAC will [still] support invited Singapore artists…to participate in the curated sections* of the Venice Biennale. (*This is different from pavilions presented and paid for by national agencies for national presentations.)” Does this mean that we will only support artists if their works are paid by another country? Or does it mean that the standards haven’t been quite met yet, according to Singapore standards? But what are Singapore’s standards? This is all ill-explained.
Perhaps reaching a Singapore-recognised standard now lies in increasing community engagement with the arts. To achieve this, the preferred conception of art now seems to be closely related to that of kite-flying, batik-painting, and word-game competitions to galvanise the masses towards creative artistic expression. While I am wholly supportive of creating a society more appreciative of art (and unearthing new talents), it seems to discount the arduous creative process behind every artistic creation. It only seems like magic because the audience/consumer only sees the final product. Additionally, artistic works which may be abstract or highly conceptual don’t usually gain much public support. Perhaps it is wise to start small, but associating art with kitschy rubbish might give Singaporeans the impression that art is really, really easy to create. The truth is, like any other discipline out there, it requires focus, perseverance, (skills) training, money, and time for it to grow organically. Does that sound familiar? This means failure at some points, and small successes in others. Didn’t we get out of a “medal drought” after Singapore’s athletes earned a bronze at the recently concluded Olympic Games?
Alas, the unfortunate truth here is that the arts are seen as highly subjective. A bronze medal is much more tangible (you can bite it) than critical acclaim, especially since everyone recognises bronze when they see it. Acclaim is debatable, along with the audience’s reception of art – which can sometimes be polarising. I can only hope that whatever the National Arts Council has up its sleeve doesn’t come in the form of turning art into a cheap commodity. While art may still be at the whim of a business-driven world, that doesn’t mean that it should appeal to the lowest common denominator to generate demand. Shouldn’t funds be channelled instead to those with the aptitude and drive to create art that can be competitive globally? Buying art is a pretty lucrative business, people. Perhaps the system that rewards hard work and ability only applies to endeavours with economic rewards. I wouldn’t know – I just know that we will reach the Singaporean benchmark of artistic excellence when I can create the Mona Lisa equivalent batik cloth.