A Poverty of Art

DSC01862-EArt thrives in adversity, because adversity that is socio-political strife breeds emotion and emotion in turn engenders expression. Where direct expression, i.e. physical or journalistic protests, fails to crystallise, usually as a result of state repression, art then, in all its forms, assumes the attendant means of expression.

Art henceforth thrives with a rich lushness in cultural and historic experience.

Singapore, though a young country (country in the sense of geographic territory) still in its wax of a crescent, is no stranger to cultural and historic experience. It has suffered itself through a brutal foreign occupation, bore scars from the Far East tribulations of the Cold War, sailed through nation building while afflicted with paranoiac siege mentality, and lumbered through numerous tensions that characterise a heterogenous, globalised, economically competitive, existentialist, stress-addicted, first world society.

But the art that contemporary Singapore produces on a communal level is tame as best, and non-existent at worst. Art seems to be as alien to the contemporary Singaporean culture as is the very idea of political expression.

It wasn’t always the case.

We had our brand of pioneering painters, writers, poets, theatre practitioners (albeit with Marxist leanings). We had the hugely popular National Theatre, co-founded by citizens. And when I say popular, I mean in the sense of its appeal and unanimous support of the general masses as a whole. The then Culture Minister, S. Rajaratnam proclaimed that “the theatre provides a good example of how the success of any effort depends ultimately on the co-operation and dedication of people from all walks of life”, demonstrating the broad-base and egalitarian position of art in Singaporean society and culture. Yusof bin Ishak declared the first performance there as the beginnings of a South-east Asian cultural renaissance.

And then somewhere along the way, something changed.

Theatre practitioners were locked up, performance art was banned, the National Theatre was bulldozed quietly and without fanfare, and art went underground.

Art met its greatest adversary – the paranoiac state. But art should have thrived in adversity, because repression feeds expression. Instead, beyond just going underground, art was erased from public consciousness and popular access. The people simply forgot about art.

Was it because a state-enforced abandonment of our dialect mother tongues robbed the linguistic means by which we could give expression to emotion? Or was it because economic prosperity robbed us of cultural and historical experience, and hence left us in artistic poverty?

Kuo Pao Kun made the assertion in 1993 that Singaporean society is a victim of a poverty of poverty. Perhaps indeed. While the country as a geographical territory has had rich cultural and historical experience, the society as a whole is a sanitised patient plugged into the prosperity of digital entertainment. Expression is more a of whiny complaint than a call to political mobilisation.

Art and expression has died in Singaporean society.

And whatever that dies takes more than just budgeted state-funding to revive.


Photo taken at Art Stage Singapore 2013.

Note: Before you throw the annual report of art statistics at me, I must clarify that the societal poverty of art that I refer to is not simply the lack of museums or low art participation (which is gladly in fact quite the opposite). What I refer to instead is the lack of cross-sectional community access, participation and embracement of art. What the hell does an auntie on the MRT care for a national gallery? And why would the mee pok man at my hawker centre ever give two shits about stepping into the Esplanade?

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