Sunday 17 June 2012

What is art? (And the meaning of the movie Prometheus?)

Since today is Father’s Day, I should mention my father, who died in 1993.

He was an artist (spelled without an “e”) and not, say, a MediaCorp “artiste” (spelled with an “e”).

Although he was best known as a cartoonist, he also painted, held exhibitions of his work, taught art, wrote books about art and was the president of the Pachui Art Society. (Never heard of it? Don’t worry. No one has.)

He was friends with Cultural Medallion-winning artist Tan Swie Hian, who described my father as “a significant political cartoonist and probably the only one” in Singapore during the 1950s and 1960s.

If he were alive today, my father would probably be really good at Draw Something.

While I don’t care about art as much he did, I was interested enough in the subject that as an undergrad in the US in the late 80s, I took a philosophy course called Social Problems Of Contemporary Art.

Naturally, before going into the social problems of contemporary art, the class had to first address the eternal question: “What exactly is this ‘art’ thingy anyway?”

And just my luck, it was one of those classes where if you asked the long-haired bearded professor anything, the old hippy's likely reply was: “What do you think?

Hey! The professor could be a deputy prime minister of Singapore - that is, if he cuts his hair.

And shaves. And becomes a Singapore citizen. And is a former Chief of Navy.

Anyway, regarding the “what is art?” question, I think I may have finally found the definitive answer last week – after over 20 long years!

Last Tuesday, at the “town hall” meeting to discuss the impact of Sticker Lady's arrest on the local art community, the director of the Intercultural Theatre Institute, Mr T Sasitharan, said:

“The whole issue then becomes some kind of cognitive dispute: ‘Is this art?’ That’s not the point. The point is, we think it is art.

And there you have it: Art is whatever “we” think is art.

I assume “we” refers to the art community, represented by the people at the meeting, whoever they were.

Next, I’m asking Mr Sasitharan about the meaning of life and to explain the movie Prometheus to me. (Why didn’t Charlize Theron just run perpendicular to the direction the alien ship was falling? Hello!)

Is it just me or did anyone else detect the odd mix of self-aggrandising, siege mentality and everyone-is-against-us-because-no-one-understands-us paranoid pity party at the meeting?

It kind of reminds me of my father. What is an artist without a little persecution complex?

I wonder what he would think of all this Sticker Lady stuff. Probably not much, since he’s been dead for almost two decades.

A few years after his death, my mother organised a posthumous exhibition of his work to get rid of... I mean to sell the art pieces he left behind.

I berated her for printing too many invitations. Think of the planet!

Afraid no one would attend the exhibition, my mother desperately handed a bunch of invitations to my wife to give out to her friends.

My wife dutifully gave out the invitations to her colleagues in her IT company and even told them there would be free food at the exhibition, but secretly hoped they wouldn't go because she was afraid they would see how much my father's art sucked.

But like me, her colleagues were suckers for gratis grub. My wife was shocked by the number of colleagues who turned up at the exhibition.

And while they were chewing, they took the opportunity to view my father’s works but decided not to buy any.

Some time later, one of my wife's colleagues finally found the courage to tell her how much they thought my father's art sucked.

Some time after that, my wife finally found the courage to tell me how much her colleagues thought my father’s art sucked.

I just shrugged.

Having grown up with my father’s art, I don’t have an objective perspective of whether it sucks or not.

It was just there.

My father’s art was part of the furniture in my home (although some may argue that furniture design is also an art form, but that’s not my point).

So while the art community during my father’s time might have determined that his work was art, the community of IT workers in my wife’s company determined that it was sucky art.

So the issue for me is not whether something is art, but if the art sucks, is it still art? In other words, is sucky art an oxymoron?

If I asked my philosophy professor this question, he would probably say: “What do you think?” I would then curse him in my blog and later apologise.

I got a B for the course.

I better be getting fantastic Father’s Day presents from my kids today or I’m forcing them to watch Prometheus.

By the way, anyone wants to buy some sucky art?

I can give you my mother’s number.

- Published in The New Paper, 17 June 2012