There is that long-drawn debate on “What is Art?” that has left many bewildered. It is easy to point out that a water colour painting of Singapore’s river scene – soothing hues of blue painted placidly over canvas and realistic portrayals of bumboats and people that reflect the buzzing river life – as a great piece of art.
But is it?
Should art exist only to be aesthetically pleasing?
A recent trip to 8Qsam (Singapore Art Museum’s contemporary art wing) with my mother further dawned upon me how misguided we are when it comes to art.
Art should, in my opinion, provoke. It should effectively leave you questioning – vitalized by the stream of ideas you take home with you. Whatever medium the artist chose to convey his/her message, looking at art is an experience that only you can solely keep.
I once read “Whatever You Think, Think Opposite” by Paul Arden. In the book, Arden recounts how a man travelled to an art exhibition and ended up hating every single moment of it.He lamented how terrible the art was and the exhibition wasted his time.
However, one could put it across that because the art affected him so greatly, it was proof that the work was powerful enough to leave such a lasting impression on him.
But back to my mother. She has an unquestionably good sense of aesthetics and can testify that to her 20-odd years in the fashion industry. However, I did not anticipate the puzzled look, which was perpetually plastered on her face, throughout my entire journey at 8Qsam.
Upon walking into the At Home Abroad exhibition, she was greeted by Jason Lim’s installation ‘Last Drop’. She stared at the videos quizzically, studied the installation scattered with broken glass and a chair propped up on stacks of wine glasses, and asked almost nonchalantly…
“Like this is art meh?”
To be honest, I was stumped. How was I to define what was art, or what isn’t?
It reminded me of Marcel Duchamp’s famous work Fountain. Signed off with a simple R.Mutt on a urinal, this work by Duchamp was the epitomy of post-modern, conceptual art. It signified a change in the art world and Fountain was voted by 500 British art world professionals as the most influential artwork of the 20th century.
Of course I tried explaining Duchamp to mummy dearest only to be met by, “Wah, like this, also can”.
With a little bit of explanation, “Like this is art, meh” still made its special appearance at least five times that afternoon. But I was not so bothered by that, or that I could not convince her to comprehend conceptual art. Instead I appreciated how my mother willingly walked through the galleries with me despite her lack of understanding. She enjoyed the Wu Guanzhong exhibition at SAM much better, possibly because its message was more apparent and closer to the heart.
Art does not have to be aesthetically correct. Neither does it have a standard look and feel. Art should have the ephemeral quality that’s surely fleeting. If we open our minds (and our hearts) and begin to accept that there isn’t anything that can’t be art – that even life, as painful and dogmatic as it is, can be art – then we can begin to “see”.
(The writer is no expert in the fantastic world of art, but will admit wholeheartedly that she lives and breathes for it.)