The sale of Damien Hirst’s “The Core of God” – a diamond encrusted skull, which fetched a hefty price of US$100 million seemed to be nothing short of exuberant excess, landing many critics of it being an ‘unnecessary’ and ‘irrelevant’ waste of money. The man-on-the-street simply cannot understand the material value of a decorative piece of art reserved for the ultra rich while he is struggling to feed his family. Indeed, to the pragmatist, the Arts are simply something inherently useless and irrelevant with little value, and nothing more than an enjoyable pastime and a luxury to the rich. However, as modern world progresses far beyond seeking only economic pursuits, the Arts are increasingly relevant to people across the world as it helps to forge a strong social fabric in our diverse nation, is an increasingly powerful driver of our economy and, most importantly, inculcates important social values in our society.
The Arts have huge economic weight and have become increasingly relevant in society, especially given the rising bourgeois class in Asia and the increasing demand for intellectual discourse. The building of the esplanade has been a prudent investment as the booming arts industry has given Singapore greater international recognition. The arts scene is thus predicted to be the “Holy Grail” of the richer market that Singapore is incessantly in search of, while opening art institutes have boosted our economy as well, with up and coming local fashion designers and singers such as J. J. Lin, and even film maker Royston Tan, further enhancing our image and adding to our value as an attractive tourist hotspot, adding to its relevance as it further enhances our nation’s economic performance.
In our pragmatic and success-driven society, the Arts are also extremely relevant as one of the most powerful mediums to drive across important social values due to its ability to provoke thought and connect deeply with the raw emotions of each individual. The Arts, by portraying human nature and society, have taught us about who we are and what others are like, helping us to understand each other. Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture lying in wait of a starving child in Sudan received much media attention because it brought to attention the desolate situation in third-world countries. This is evidenced by how over hundreds of readers from countries all across the globe, including Singapore, called The New York Times, which published the photograph, after seeing it, to enquire about the fate of the poor child. Their concern thus shows how the photograph was able to speak to people all across the globe in a relevant manner, including Singapore, and propagate important social values such as empathy and compassion towards the less fortunate. Clearly, the Arts force us to think, to question and reflect. Furthermore, literature such as Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and Elizabeth George Speare’s ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’ have placed societal issues such as racial discrimination and minority persecution under the spotlight, enabling our understanding of the persecuted, and causing us to question our prejudices, thereby increasing empathy for others who may appear different from ourselves and suffer as a result, while teaching us basic kindness for other human beings. The ability of Arts to criticise, to touch us in places most raw and hidden, has enabled us to understand ourselves and our treatment of others, and in the process, led us to feel and empathise, making it extremely relevant to the masses.
As the cosmopolitan city Singaporeans live in become increasingly diverse, the Arts can serve as an important platform for all to better understand each other and build a more cohesive society. In Singapore, although we enjoy relative harmony amongst the races, our collective memory as a young nation-state requires much more building. The “Mosaic model” the government adopted to serve the national interests of maintaining peace and stability after the 1960s ring hollow when the theory is not backed up with concrete action, such as promotion of cultural interaction of the diverse races through the Arts. Through celebrating the richness of unique art forms, for example, Malay dance and Indian folklore, citizens would gain a better understanding and emerge more unified over time. Our social fabric can only be kept intact if we appreciate and not just tolerate, the beauty of other cultures, through none other than the panoply of activities and products that best express the essence of our heritage – the Arts. The Arts has definitely increased in relevance, as it is one of the most effective means of maintaining our delicate social fabric, with our vibrant Arts scene promoting harmony amongst the melting pot of society.
Undoubtedly, the arts market in recent years has witnessed an exponential growth in profits, with major art auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s churning out exorbitant revenues of more than billions each year – equivalent to or even greater than the GDP of many impoverished countries. The investment placed in developing the arts, such as constructing theatres and paying for formal artistic training in all fields has spawned critics who view the Arts as nothing more than a luxury reserved for the upper echelons of society, irrelevant to the masses. Technocrats would argue that it is definitely more prudent to focus on developing the economy and putting more money into scientific research so as to increase our competitiveness in the global arena. Areas such as biotechnology have been pinpointed as the ‘next big thing’ that will affirm Singapore’s status on the world stage and generate substantial employment, eventually trickling down to improve the wellbeing of everyone. On the other hand, the Arts are but a strain on the nation’s financial resources and are merely an additional form of entertainment and luxury to the rich, whatever benefits it has to offer unattainable and thus, irrelevant to the masses.
However, the Arts cannot be merely seen through the tinted lenses of the obstinate pragmatist who view the Arts as nothing more than a preserve of the rich. In the distant past, the Arts were the special province of the aristocrats and high society, however, in today’s egalitarian world, the Arts have descended from their ivory tower to the masses. For example, many people can walk into Golden Village or The Cathay and afford a movie for an affordable price of $13. The government has taken advantage of the growing popularity of the Arts by making it more accessible to the masses through means such as affordable dance performances or movie screenings at neighbourhood community centres. The Arts have evidently become increasingly democratized and thus, more relevant to the masses.
The Arts are certainly relevant and effective in reaching out to the masses. Singapore can seek to become an ‘artistic hub’, instead of a mere financial centre labelled by critics as a ‘cultural desert’. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong aptly commented, ”Men do not live by bread alone.” Indeed, it is the Arts that endow us with many perceptive insights and teaches us to find meaning in life hence it should definitely be democratized and made more accessible to the masses.