Philosophy and the Arts in Singapore

Discussions on the arts in Singapore have not, to my knowledge, touched upon the subject of philosophy. Philosophy is thought to be a subject only for academic pursuit. Alternatively, philosophy is thought of as a topic intertwined with religion- Buddhism, say, is a philosophy. Consequently, the idea of philosophy, as being in relation to the arts in Singapore, has been neglected. Yet, philosophical thought is crucial to the arts in Singapore. The very act of challenging our existing beliefs and of reflecting and introspecting upon experience as well as on the human condition- what we do in the arts- is a deeply philosophical activity.

I try to delineate some ways in which philosophy is related to the arts. These ways may be criticized by artists, critics and historians as being old-fashioned and outdated, especially given the change of a perspective of art as an object or a final product of some kind, to a perspective of art as a concept that changes over time. If art is an object, art can be representative of the artist’s state of mind, for instance. But if art is a concept, there can be no aesthetic qualities of art that evoke emotions and feelings which transcend the impassive bureaucratic life. So, it is harder to say in this day, that art involves aims such as that of establishing that man is not a machine, for example. It is hard to say in this day, that art involves any aims at all. Nevertheless, the conventional ways of thinking about art that I describe are obvious pre-theoretical ways of thinking about art and philosophy from the ordinary layperson’s perspective. These ways need not be marginalized over the contemporary artist’s, critic’s or historian’s point of view.

From one perspective, the arts- music, theatre, dance, and the literary as well as visual arts- are things that we indulge in during our leisure time; the arts are not an essential part of everyday life as working for money to put food on the table is. On this view, philosophy and art have very little to do with each other. One is a high and dry academic subject, and the other is a means of entertainment for the socio-economic middle-class. However, from a different perspective, the arts are the concrete manifestation of society’s search for meaning and purpose. If art is seen as a means by which we can come to understand ourselves in the world we live in, and if philosophy is understood as the search for wisdom and for how to live a good life, then philosophy and art turn out to have much in common.

One explanation as to why philosophy is possibly understood as a mere academic subject and the arts as mere entertainment is, to avoid social change. The idea is that if the arts and philosophy are indeed capable of transforming thought, and if thought leads to action, then philosophical and artistic activity in Singapore can and will lead to active citizenry and change. If philosophy is an esoteric subject matter for people who live in an ivory tower, active citizenry and change is not a consequence of philosophy. If the arts are just entertainment, then there is no real challenge to the political and social forces around us, and we live in a more stable and ordered society.

The political view that Singapore is governed by Asian values holds that respect for authority and tradition is paramount. The very idea of challenging authority is part of the Western philosophical tradition, and as such, distant from our Asian values. Singapore has a complex character, being at the cross-roads of the East and the West. If Singaporean culture embraces the challenging of ideas and being skeptical about how things are presented to us, this seems to be in conflict with our cultural heritage of respect for authority and tradition. On the other hand, this challenging of ideas and having a skeptical attitude are associated with creative thinking and innovation, which is what Singapore needs to remain competitive in the global economy. As such, the arts and philosophy are needed, and they are needed to be part of everyday life.

If art is not mere entertainment, then what is it? An alternative perspective on art emphasizes the individualistic nature of the artist. When I discuss the individualism of art, it is less of a claim that art is the product of an individual and not a group, than it is a claim concerning the independent spirit that accompanies the making of the artwork. The performing arts typically involve collaboration and the working together of many people. Even the literary arts involve the efforts of many persons, say, for example, in the making and publishing of a book. So, there is no claim here that the arts must be done in isolation or that the arts must be the result of going solo. More than the number of people participating in the making of the arts, individualism is constituted by the idea of independent and original thinking.

There is a certain sense in which it is thought that if art is independent and original, then the source of the art, the artist, must also be independent and original in character and personality. On this view, art is the product of a certain temperament and of a unique identity that pays no attention to authority or tradition, or to societal conventions and cultural norms. In order to create art, the artist must be non-conformist and develop a distinctive identity. The artist is independent from institutions and groups. The artist neither panders to what the elites want, nor to what the masses want. When we appreciate and patron the arts, then, what we are buying into is the moral and intellectual integrity of the artist.

By endorsing the originality of thought that is embodied in the artwork, we are in fact giving our approval to the romantic spirit advocated by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson held that it is possible to transcend the mentality of the herd through one’s thinking through things for oneself and hence being an individual. The herd mentality is undesirable, since it makes us lose sight of who we are. Our personal and subjective vision of the world is subjugated by the impersonal forces that drive us along in society. As the making of artwork is an expression of the freedom of individual thought, great art represents reaching the highest pinnacle of human endeavor. The aim of art is therefore to transcend. If so, art is like philosophy, which aims to go beyond the mere appearances of things. Not being content to stare at the shadows of things, the philosopher frees himself and walks towards the light to understand reality.

This alternative perspective on art is particularly at odds with policy on the arts in Singapore. For the policy-makers, art is treated as a tool for the propagation and the marketing of community values. This is manifested in the institutions for the arts in Singapore. For the National Arts Council, for instance, creating social cohesion and developing cultural identity is what gives art value to society. So, there is a very clear and definite sense in which art aims towards the shaping of a community and perhaps, a community’s collective desires, thoughts and opinions. This should give us some pause for thought. If art exists solely for the purpose of creating social cohesion and for developing cultural identity in a community, there is no longer any independent or original thinking needed to make art. There is a subordination of the individual’s interests and thinking to the group’s interests and thinking.

The question that arises is whether or not art must be political, whether directly or indirectly. The picture painted above of the independent artist seems to indicate that there can be an apolitical artist. But it might be argued that in a broad sense, art will always be political, and the only issue is whose politics the art is espousing. Art is political in that it makes a statement about the cultural values of a society. So, crudely speaking, the aims of art can be divided into those that espouse Western values that are associated with individualism, and those that espouse Eastern values that are associated with the community. The worry is that aligning the aims of art with the government’s political stand is making a mockery of the ideal of arts as an independent observer of society. If Singaporean art must reflect only our community values, then it might be doing so at the expense of not just individual liberty and freedom, but at the expense of general liberty and freedom.

I would like to briefly discuss the role of philosophy as the underpinnings of the arts. When I say this, note that I am not saying that philosophy is identical with the arts. While the arts often evoke feelings and emotions in the audience, philosophy solely appeals to reason. While philosophy has reason as its basis, it is not clear that art also has reason as its foundation. I am also not saying that philosophy is sufficient for art, for in art, there is a need to create beauty or aesthetic appeal in addition to the attempt to understand the human condition. Further, I am not saying that there can be no art without philosophy, or that philosophy is above art in any sense, or that art needs philosophy. I am only trying to draw connections by describing what I see as the commonalities between philosophy and art.

When it comes to the fine arts, like in drawing and painting, fine arts techniques are supported by theories of aesthetics. Every artist who questions, why do we do this and not that? is a philosopher in a sense. Singaporean artists like Ho Tze Nyen have also taken inspiration from famous philosophers and have used philosophical texts as well as philosophical ideas to express themselves and their society. So, artistic work is often supported by philosophical inquiry. Further, if the job of art is to make people think, then the job of the artist is similar to the job of the philosopher. If the function of art is not to pander to existing appetites but to give audiences something that could make them reflect, the function of art is similar to the function of philosophy. The job of the artist is to hold up a mirror to society, and that in part is also what philosophy does. Hence, there are myriad connections between the arts and philosophy.

Philosophy also seems to have a role in working out solutions to pragmatic problems in the arts in Singapore. Take the issue of “selling out”. The question is whether or not the artist should make his work commercially viable. The assumption is that if the work is commercially viable, then the artist is selling out, but if the work is not commercially viable, then the artist is a doggedly starving soul, indifferent to worldly concerns. So, the artist has to sell out in order to survive. But surely, the assumption can be challenged. Why can’t it be possible to create commercially viable artwork that does not equate to selling out? On some level, the work is commercially viable only if the work is good art. If the assumption can be challenged, it makes vulnerable the question that presupposes the assumption. When it comes to discussing about the arts in Singapore, the issue of selling out seems like a wrong-headed sort of question to ask. It reflects the deep-seated idea that art must be understood in accordance with the economics of society. Art is conceived of as a means to an end and not an end in itself.

When discussing commercially viable work, an issue that arises is the issue of accessibility. If an artwork is accessible, it is more likely to be commercially viable. Yet, it has become difficult to say what is more accessible. In terms of the contents of the artwork, a representational painting, for example, is more likely to be accessible than an abstract painting. It is easier to identify with a landscape painting than with a painting of textured vivid brushstrokes of nothing in particular. However, for the viewer who has a little knowledge of art theory, the reverse may be true- it is easier to identify with the abstract painting symbolizing the painter’s emotions and state of mind, than a representational painting that is merely an imitation of the real thing. So, we cannot assume that there is a criterion of accessibility in art; it depends partly on the background knowledge of the audience.

Essentially, though, there is an ethical question that is being asked: Should an artist “sell out”, if it means giving up what is authentic in exchange for economic survival? A survival-of-the-fittest theorist would say yes, while an idealistic stoic would say no. It is not simply a matter of which different philosophical theory one happens to attach to, however. It is an ethical question because it involves a moral dilemma, namely, whether or not to give up one’s freedom of expression to not say what one really believes, for the purposes of economic survival. This practical problem is reminiscent of the problems in ancient philosophy, of how one is to live, if one is to live a good life. In response to this, Socrates distinguished between sophistry and genuine philosophy. A Sophist is someone who uses persuasion to get what he wants, such as money for survival. In contrast, genuine philosophy involves a concern with the good of the people and a concern with the search for truth. Genuine philosophy as described by Socrates thus provides us with a moral ideal to aspire to, in the face of difficult ethical decisions that we might have to make if we work in the arts in Singapore.

I think that philosophy does more than serve as a foundation for the arts and artistic thinking. Rather, philosophy is an integral part of the arts itself. The arts refer to the visual arts, theatre, music, the literary arts, dance, and film, but perhaps, it should also include philosophy. Artistic pursuit is not just the pursuit of creating beauty, but also of understanding human experience. It is this second aim, that of understanding human experience, that I would deem philosophical. Philosophy seeks to understand human experience through theorizing, abstract thinking, and conceptualizing. In some cases of philosophizing, metaphors and literary devices, even poetry is used. Philosophy’s significant contribution lies in the philosophical attitude that must come with creating art. The philosophical attitude involves asking questions, being skeptical about claims to knowledge, and moral and intellectual integrity, or the ability to be candid about how things are like.

If philosophy is an integral part of the arts itself, and if philosophy is needed in our society, as I have argued, then philosophizing as an activity must be documented and supported. For example, the event Philosophy on Tap! by the group Logic Mills, the philosophy workshop on reasoning and the philosophy discussion group series held at the Post-museum in 2011 should be recognized as pioneering activities in the area of philosophy in the arts. Philosophy in the arts gives voice to philosophical thinking concerning the nature of truth, language, politics and religion, and the arts.

In discussing the role of philosophy in the arts, it may be relevant to mention something concerning the philosophy of art. Philosophy of art would include questions such as what is the function of art, or what does art represent. A common criticism of philosophy of art is that while these questions do come up for some artists, other artists might find such questions irrelevant. This is particularly salient because of the contemporary perspective of art which demands the understanding that there is no real direction in art. There is no function of art, or aim of art. In art, anything goes. Anything can be a work of art, and anything can be represented by art. The artist Andy Warhol is well-known for his paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans and silkscreen prints of celebrities, but he also made a famous sculpture of what appeared to be a box of Brillo scouring pads. In doing so, he drew attention to the fact that, in contemporary art, there might not be any discernible difference between the objects of high art and the objects of everyday life (Danto, 2009). If so, the traditional questions in philosophy of art seem no longer relevant today.

A further implication of Warhol’s art is that the comments I have written so far on the role of philosophy as underpinning the arts is rendered plain false. It is no aim of art to create beauty, or to understand oneself, or the human condition. There is neither an aim nor a function of art. But if so, then art would seem, to the layperson, meaningless or else puzzling at best. This is exactly the scenario that we are in- most laypersons do find meaningless or else are puzzled by artworks that, for instance, look like the artist’s own unmade bed. This is not a problem of Western art alone. It is a problem for Singaporean art, since we have inherited the problem from sending many of our artists overseas to study art. Art in Singapore does not deal with isolated concerns pertinent only to Singapore, but it must respond to global concerns.

That philosophy may not be the underpinning for the arts does not indicate, however, that there are no contemporary connections between philosophy and the arts. The problem of the apparent meaninglessness or puzzling nature of art for the layperson is a philosophical problem, namely, as Arthur Danto puts it, the problem of how to distinguish, for every object, between what is a piece of art and what is not a piece of art. For example, is a well-designed pen or even an ordinary pen a piece of art? This problem is a problem concerning the relationship between the everyday and art. This problem parallels other problems in philosophy, such as Descartes’s problem of how to distinguish between dreams and reality, and the problem of how to distinguish between hallucinations and genuine perceptions in the philosophy of perception. At this time, the philosophy of art has become of much greater relevance than before. Hence, there seems to be an even greater connection between philosophy and the arts.

The state of the arts is that artwork today is diverse in character. Some artists still make paintings; others have turned to the design and the making of everyday objects as a response to the problem concerning the relationship between the everyday and art. The lines between art and the everyday have become blurred, and even invisible. As a consequence, anything goes in art. However, it does not follow that what people recognize as artwork has become likewise diverse. There seems to be unsaid guidelines as to what a perceived work of art should be like. Hence, a person is more likely to recognize a painting in a gallery as an artwork, as opposed to a clay pot, for instance, which he might acknowledge to be a work of craft, or a pair of earrings, which he might acknowledge to be a design product.

There is a divergence between the diversity of art and the not-so-diverse perceptions of art from laypersons. This explains the divergence between the kinds of discussions articulated in the arts and the kinds of discussions articulated in philosophy of art. In the arts today, if it is right that anything goes in the arts, then there may be an absence of discussion grounded in laypersons’ conceptions of things, about form in art, about the aesthetics of artwork, and about the function and the aims of art and the arts in general. This would not be true of philosophy, where a more conventional idea of arts is still present.

This divergence between how art is made and how art is perceived by laypersons is precisely what Singaporeans involved in the arts need to address, if they wish to make the arts part of the everyday lives of laypersons. The solution may be that of simple exposure, of making art and art appreciation familiar to laypersons and in particular to the heartlander or the ordinary person living in public housing in Singapore. However, simple exposure requires that the exhibition and performance of art take place in and around the heartlands, as opposed to taking place in the downtown area of Singapore. The iconic Esplanade building may be an impressive sight, and it may provide a venue space for international acts. Yet it serves only to reinforce the image of the arts as a glitzy lifestyle choice. If we genuinely wish to connect art to the heartlands, then it is imperative that we consider very carefully, amongst other things, the location and the kind of theatres and venue spaces for the arts that we build.


Danto, A.C. 2009. Andy Warhol. USA: Yale University Press

Danto, A.C. 1998. After the End of Art. USA: Princeton University Press

Lee Wen. 2011. Permutations of Individualism.

National Arts Council, Singapore. 2011. Arts Engaging the Youth and Community.

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: