By Ranger Mills and Lishan Chan (printed in Because of the Night zine)
Alongside with the disciplines of philosophy and the sciences, art is a generative activity, from which ideas and new ways of thinking can originate. In recent times, however, there has been a change from the perspective of art as generative to art as pragmatic. This signals the eradication of art and its value to an economic element. As a consequence of capitalism encroaching upon our lives, art, for many, now serves as either a means by which people can show off their wealth, or else it is an investment through which buyers can increase their wealth. Art is a commodity and not developed for its own sake.
From one perspective, art should be developed for its own sake. Art should be independent and apolitical. While art can be used to critique society and service nationalistic values, by itself it should not be making political statements. However, it might be argued that art is always political, and the only issue is whose politics the art is espousing. Art is political in that it makes a statement about the values of a society. But 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.
The relationship between the Singapore government and the governed of Singapore seems to be such that the government gives its people the permission to think and behave in particular ways. Censorship of media and the arts is one means by which the government controls what people do. Over time, the presence of OB markers and political subservience encourages self-censorship and shaping oneself according to the dictates of the government. It is in this sense that thinking is controlled as well. In order for there to be generative art, society itself must be made up of inquisitive, thinking, and curious ordinary persons. But if citizens are told what to think and how to behave, they have lost control of their own originality and independence. They are unable to question authority or challenge convention. If so, then the aim of art as a generative activity is doomed.
Control over thinking and behaving leads to art that isn’t real. A definition of art as community building, as scripted by the government, leads to art that isn’t real. What is needed in society is neither good art nor bad art, however, but art that is real and authentic, or art that is a reflection of people’s lives and aspirations. So, it is indeed problematic that Singaporean artworks are marginalised and foreign artworks take centre-stage. For how can foreign artworks reflect the Singaporean life?
The expression of art is made possible by a society that allows it. In order for there to be generative art, then, there needs to be spontaneity, as opposed to management of the arts. Spontaneity is given by the energy of a society and determined by the richness of information and resources available. Spontaneity is about people getting excited and doing things. Yet, what we have is management of the arts, conceived of in terms of contributing to community building. So, rather than given the freedom to making what he so chooses, a cultural medallion winner is cornered into producing small artefacts as gifts for foreign diplomats. The paradoxical nature of art in Singapore is also evident. Rather than having an open art exhibition which embraces art from all walks of life, our open art exhibitions feature only selected works. This is not, by definition, an open art exhibition. What we need, then, is greater openness, if we wish to bring art back into its generative mode.