With success reports all round, from Singapore’s own Straits Times paper to the Wall Street Journal; the recently concluded Art Stage Singapore held in the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre seemed to have come a mile from last year’s event. The annual art fair brings together international galleries with a focus on Asian art, a move that is only natural in response to the shift in economic clout towards the East. As it is, Asia already represents 45% of the contemporary art auction revenues worldwide. And contrary to the default perspective towards the art market, cities like Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, and Seoul have greater sales than the old guns: Milan, Paris, and Berlin. I could go on quoting statistics, but really, the point is clear and supported: the Asian markets are opening up to art, and they are doing it fast.

The history of the art trade pulls us back to 17th Century Amsterdam, where it all began with painter Rembrandt van Rijn. Prior to this, art and commodity were two words that were strictly mutually exclusive, and owning art was something that the bourgeois could not come close to fathoming, much less the proletariat. With the establishment of an art economy in Amsterdam, its success rapidly brought about a change in the concepts and philosophies of art in Europe.

We do not need to study art history to understand the canonical power of European art. While many may argue that the canon is all but a bias in history, this is not a debate that I wish to enter today (in fears of it never ending). Rather, by accepting with fair logic that Europe indeed had all the artistic foundation that it accumulated, the emergence of the art market and the commodification of art is thus a move that did not seem to hurt its base of artists. Instead, it might even be arguable that it encouraged more artists to join the movement.

My issue here is simple: while Europe, with all that history and support for art in pre-trade times, has managed to cope well with its entrance into the commodification; what then lies ahead for Singapore, a nation that is very much a pubertal adolescent in the art world? If we don’t begin to comprehend our own local markets and support it, how do we move on to supporting an international art trade fair that extends itself to over 40,000 people? Will we then become a nation whose purpose solely lies in the trade, the middleman between artists and buyers? What would that mean for our local artists?

I refer to an eloquent piece by Professor Tommy Koh just published February 6th in our local Straits Times paper on this. He speaks of our accomplishments thus far, and of the key elements in the rest of our fight towards becoming the arts hub we dream to be. Professor Koh, with his wealth of knowledge and experience in the Singapore arts scene, noted three issues: the working relations between our government and the artist community on the ground, the role of money and recognition in the sustenance of an artist’s life and lastly, the debatable existence of a slant in our cultural policy toward the avant-garde. While I am largely on board with the compelling cases he makes for all three points, I would just like to point out a recent statement made regarding our music industry in Singapore, and how that serves to set Professor Koh’s proposition for betterment back by a distance.

This aforementioned statement was made by Ken Lim just recently, an old gun in Singapore’s music arena, declaring that Singapore’s music scene is on the verge of extinction. From what I see and gather, the ground support for local emerging artists, such as The Sam Willows is growing and it’s growing fast. Support aside, let’s speak achievements on paper since we are speaking of Singapore; the band is moving on to play in some of the biggest North American music festivals alongside some of the music world’s biggest names. The same was achieved by local musician Inch Chua a few years back as well. Of course, this is but an example in a single genre. We can look toward the recently concluded Laneway Festival, and the responses to previous and upcoming Mosaic Music Festivals for the growth in the populace’s love for music. But really, if moving away from the traditional pop/Mandarin tunes cries out extinction; then, perhaps, we need to recalibrate what our industry really includes. If our local mentors can’t seem to be able to grasp the fast-moving underground current, the emerging Singaporean artists would have to look elsewhere for guidance, or perhaps navigate the playing field on their own. Extending this to Professor Koh’s article, this scenario serves to topple his second and third points on money and support, as well as the balance on cultural policy. Both points speak of betterment in funding and recognition from relevant authorities and from the ground, and in extension, economic opportunities. While we attempt to improve the opportunities for our own artists, the vital assumption we are making is that there exists true grasp and percipience of the very state the artist is in. It is salient and with simple logic that we must know the situation before we can attempt to improve it. The recent statement made by Ken Lim makes me question this with regards to the music industry, and in extension question the authorities at work.

If our very own homegrown connoisseurs do not begin to understand the ground and its dynamics, what does it reveal about our efforts to move forward?

This mirrors all that we fear, for the talk of government, money and policy will turn futile, and perhaps even hurtful the moment we think we understand, but are actually far from comprehension.

It is disappointing for a nation, which speaks of investing both time and money into the arts to make Singapore a global art hub, to be one that isn’t in touch with the ground and the art that it produces. Money can pour into the organization of an Art Stage year after year, or the invitation of international galleries and auction houses to be set up here. But to be known as an arts hub to the world, and most importantly, to your own people, there has to be deep understanding, grasp, and attempts at the very least, to know all that is going on with your own.

This is not to say that efforts haven’t been made or that systems haven’t been put in place. They have. Scholarships have been set up to encourage the pursuit of the arts, and grants established to support those in the industry. Schools have been built and opportunities rendered.

Perhaps the fine balance between moving the local market and the international art frontier of Singapore lies in tilting slightly towards the local market.

My analysis is this: if we tilt toward the less glamorous act of breeding the underground, foundation will be built much faster and the local (and regional) market will grow to become vibrant in itself. If the international big wigs haven’t been coming in, they would have a good reason to come by then to see what has come forth of this nation sitting in between cultures, languages, and times. On the other hand, if we tilt toward the glamour and the money, we risk losing day by day the opportunity to build what needs to be built back home. Exacerbated, we will become nothing but a transient art dealer, albeit a strong one. We will only facilitate and coordinate events and sales, with remnants of our artists struggling where we do not even bother to look.

Such is my opinion that I do wish for those in positions to look harder, and to go down further to the ground. Superficial beauty can only stay beautiful for a moment. The tide eventually washes away all that does not grow roots.




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