My love for literature is as far as my relationship with the arts go. I don’t know Leonardo da Vinci from Vincent van Gogh, and I can’t remember the last theatre or dance production I watched. Does Shakespeare in the Park count?
I am neutral about the arts. I know its abstract benefits – inspiring creativity, helping people to be more empathetic, relieving stress, and so on. But beyond that, I know (and feel) close to nothing.
So, when I had to sit down with some of our local artists to talk about arts funding – particularly regarding former NMP Calvin Cheng’s opinion that the government should stop funding the arts – and the value of arts and culture for Singaporeans, it was my chance to ask these art champions why indifferent parties, like myself, should care about the arts.
Should the government stop funding the arts?
Cheng’s point: If the government declines to fund a project, or worse, withdraws a grant, it will be criticised and accused of censorship. But if it agrees to fund the project, other groups and taxpayers who don’t believe in the arts will censure it regardless – in other words, it will be in an “impossible situation”.
Literary critic, poet and frontrunner of local literature Gwee Li Sui thinks “it’s great to have provocateurs like Cheng to encourage discussion”. He reckons, in theory, that it’s possible to axe government funding for the arts if there are enough private funders willing to contribute. But it’s not something that will happen overnight.
Melissa Lim, general manager of The Necessary Stage, agreed. “Our situation is different from the US and some European countries, for example, where there is a longstanding tradition of private philanthropy for the arts. We also have a relatively limited audience pool willing to spend on arts consumption. So, while I think it’s difficult to remove our dependence on government funding for now, that doesn’t mean we don’t try.”
Members of veteran string ensemble T’ang Quartet, however, were not entirely in harmony. Cellist Leslie Tan was firm in his opinion that the government should lead by example and fulfil what he calls its “duty” of funding the arts, whereas first violin Ng Yu-Ying was more neutral – noting that artists would always need the support of various organisations at different times, which should come in the form of government funding, private sponsorships, and even media coverage.
But private funding won’t be a free lunch…
“I think it’s fair to say that funding from any entity will come with conditions to some degree,” said Lim. “And as people are generally drawn to consumer-friendly ‘blockbuster’ type of works, there is a high chance that artists who challenge boundaries will be at the losing end. In that sense, government funding still matters,” she added.
Calling the National Arts Council (NAC) “as close to open-handed giving as you can get”, Gwee – whose poetry books did not receive NAC funding – acknowledged that it does still play a key role in supporting worthy projects that might not have seen the light of day if they hadn’t received government funding.
But award-winning artist Ruben Pang was more optimistic. He preferred to think that private funding allows artists to retain some independence in their work. “It’s not necessarily better than government funding, but rather, it gives us options to choose from and allows us to link up with donors who are enthusiastic about what we do.”
People don’t give to the arts because…
“Art has the potential to turn into political minefields,” said Gwee. “Our government, on occasion, stepped in when a work had political content. So, private donors or sponsors wouldn’t want to be held accountable for what an artist they support might do,” he pointed out.
Furthermore, he added, there isn’t enough media attention on the arts, which doesn’t help foster or sustain public interest. “You can’t only do a big report on the arts once a year when you need to publicise a major event such as the Singapore Writers Festival. To keep community engagement alive, there needs to be consistent discussion on the arts. Otherwise you will never get people to see its value.”
Pang, who said he has been lucky to have benefited from private donations, concurred: “The arts isn’t something people can see a tangible return-on-investment on; it requires a lot of belief in it. So, it’s heartening when private patrons express interest in supporting artists they feel a personal connection to.”
So, most people don’t care for the arts…
That’s debatable, mused Gwee, but what works against it is our “bread-and-butter first” mentality. “It’s all about work, work, work with us. And when we finally take a break to enjoy life, the first thing most people do is go on a vacation. Why do we not take time to appreciate the arts and culture, or realise that it can improve our quality of life, too?”
T’ang Quartet’s violist Lionel Tan added: “The arts is multi-layered – it can be entertaining, enriching, transformative, and it can also engage the imagination. Unfortunately, this is often something that’s lost amid the pressing practicalities of daily life.”
I don’t know anything about the arts and see no value in it
You don’t need to know how to appreciate it. All you need is the desire to be informed, Gwee emphasised. “If art’s your thing, for instance, we have very capable docents to take you around our museums, talk you through the exhibits, and encourage your understanding of them.”
Or, simply start with something you’re genuinely interested in – a concert, a play, an exhibition. “Enjoy the sounds, the words and the set, or just bask in the experience of a world that exists in your imagination. Dreams and aspirations have led to great discoveries and progress. How is this something that won’t benefit you?” asked Lionel.
And in order for us to be a world-class city, we’d need world-class art and artists, concluded the T’ang Quartet’s second violin Ang Chek Meng. “By taking that away, Singapore would be a rather dull place – perhaps with only world-class gastronomy to fill the void.”
So how can the arts change one’s life?
According to Gwee, it has made life more complicated and interesting. “I feel like I understand people more; I can appreciate the mysteries of life more. To some people, these things are useless. But then, is life only about work or earning money?”
We can start caring more about the arts by…
Having consistent and open conversation about it – because when there’s lively talk in the public space about the arts, people naturally want to be part of it. The conversation would keep interest in the arts alive long after people have left school, said Gwee.
“Teaching literature or art in schools isn’t going to guarantee that people will continue to have an interest in it when they grow up. Education merely plays an early supporting role in how you view cultural knowledge later,” he said.
“Ideally, our media and government should be discussing art more. Minimal buzz about it is a signal that it’s not important enough to talk about. Let’s go back to the SWF example – rather than just doing event-day highlights, why not feature the most thought-provoking issues of that day, or tap into an exciting idea that came out of the talks, and let these discussions explode organically?”
Pang also shared: “Make use of social media – and how viral it can be – to reach out to people. And when they express curiosity about your work, take the time to talk to them and encourage their questions. This will help maximise their experience with you and, hopefully, spark a genuine interest in the arts.”
Helping Singaporeans recognise their local heroes would help, too, said Lim.
“We do have cultural heroes throughout our history and in our midst – like our very own Eisner award-winning Sonny Liew – today. And in generations to come, we might see people being more supportive of the arts,” she said.
Like this novice, who is already looking forward to her next trip to the museum.