The Straits Times today has a biographical report about the Singapore Art Museum’s director, Tan Boon Hui (Man in the hot seat, page C4). It says ” To him, contemporary art is not a foreign language to regular folks…. There is a fallacy that contemporary art is inaccessible… But to me, that kind of art is bad or not explained properly”.
1. Art that is ‘bad’ because its meaning is inaccessible? Art has come a long way from the days when ‘realistic’ and ‘aesthetically-pleasing’ paintings/sculptures were deemed ‘pretty’ and therefore easy to ‘understand’. Some of the art today is still pleasing to the eye, but much of them appear to go against this wallflower-tag deliberately.
My point is that even if a curator writes a 2000-word text panel explaining an abstract painting (and translating that into 10 languages, and putting these comments all around that painting), it does NOT make that painting more accessible or easier to understand. What it does is that it pushes across that curator’s interpretation of that painting onto its viewers, which could be a bad thing as it narrows the way of ‘seeing’ that painting. While it is important to be able to read the ‘art-historical’ jargon about the painting, it is just as important to allow ‘mental space’ for viewers to be able to look at the painting and make up their own minds about it. There is never a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to interpreting ‘art’, whatever snooty art curators tell you.
So with Tan advocating that contemporary art needs to be ‘explained properly’ so as to make them accessible, he is only right from the art historical point of view (where art has to be compartmentalised and fitted into a continuum of art works/movements spanning centuries; much of art history is very Euro-centric). However, our Singapore art institutions have tonnes to do to make contemporary art accessible to ordinary folk beyond just ‘explaining’ what it is in multiple languages.
2. Which brings me to my 2nd point: For a nation of Singaporeans where many have not been raised on a diet of ‘art’, their first stumbling block with their encounters with art is – to borrow a word used by Tan but focusing on its alternative meaning – their LACK of ‘access’ to art.
School students are more likely to be herded by their schools to visit a museum of history (as it is an ‘O’ level subject taken by many) than one of art (where very few study it as an examinable subject).With so few opportunities for excursions, you can’t blame teachers for choosing the more practical history and science museums, zoo/bird park etc. over the art museum.
Art museums/galleries in Singapore have a rarefied air about them. From the outside, they look like a Louis Vuitton showroom where the snootiness is intentional so that the riff-raff keep out. While most of them do have open-house days where free entry and goodie bags entice new visitors (which is one day every few months), much of these institutions’ opening hours are dedicated to fee-paying visitors. The fee-barrier of $10/adult may be low considering the millions of dollars of art on show, but consider also that this $10 outlay on a museum-ticket can buy 2hrs of highly stimulating visual-entertainment at cinemas showing Hollywood fare (compared to sedate, quiet art exhibitions). So, it seems that museums do seem to try to be as ‘exclusive’ as they can, for most of the time anyway.
And back to another accessibility issue as exemplified by the current Singapore Art Museum’s Biennale. Such a splash of money should make it possible for this multiple-sited art festival to become ‘accessible’ for the non-art inclined by exhibiting in HDB heartlands across the island, correct?? But that’s not the case. This public art festival has decided to be located in the city centre and even then some of these venues (like Kallang airport) are hard to access.With so many well-serviced regional centres in Singapore (egs Tampines, Jurong East etc), many Singaporeans go into the CDB area only once in a blue moon. Holding the Biennale in the city centre is a direct snub to these suburbanites.
My general beef is that it is very easy for public-art administrators to say that there is nothing scary about ‘art’, and then propose cliched solutions (eg. Tan saying that he want to make Singapore Art Museum ‘sexy’ again) that mean nothing to those who are truly afraid of art. The recurring truths are plain for all to see: Public art institutions may ‘say’ the right things about making art accessible, but in action, most of them are simply not trying hard enough to change the perception that contemporary art is indeed ‘scary’ and unimportant to our daily lives.