Culture Vulture

Making room for the arts in everyday life

If we believe the arts is integral to life, then we need to make time and space for it

The image of house slippers has been lurking in my mind for some time, left behind from a conversation I had with veteran potter Iskandar Jalil last year.

We were chatting about his latest solo exhibition at the Japan Creative Centre in Nassim Road, when he spoke about how his ceramic training in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s had profound influence on his view of art and life.

He was struck, he said, by the attention that the artisans, whom he trained under, paid to seemingly mundane things in life - the way tea is served, the manner in which house slippers are arranged when not worn.

The Japanese art of tea drinking I knew, but I never considered the careful arrangement of house slippers to have any significance until that moment. Seen as an expression of artful living, however, it opens up new possibilities for perceiving art and its place in everyday life. Art can be ingrained in the daily experience of the Everyman.

The image of house slippers came back to me recently when theatre practitioner and Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun, in his maiden parliamentary speech made during the Budget debate, spoke of the need for the country to make time and space for the arts because it is integral to the well-being of the individual, society and the country's economy. It encourages creative thinking and innovation, allows for communal examination of a people's identities and experiences and seeks to create room for different views to exist without destructive friction.

His call to make time and space for the arts is, in other words, a push for the arts to become a part of the everyday. This pursuit echoes the recommendation of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review, which charts the current phase of cultural development in Singapore until 2025.

A key focus of the review is to bring arts and culture to everyone, everywhere, and every day.

Indeed, arts and culture activities have increasingly invaded the everyday spaces of life in Singapore.

The National Arts Council's Arts In Your Neighbourhood initiative, for example, is a month-long series of arts events that takes place twice a year. Launched in 2014, it has since brought music, dance, plays and art installations to places in the heartland such as the Woodlands Civic Centre and Yew Tee Square, as well as the Central Business District.

Such public arts engagement efforts also seem to have taken off. In the latest figures from the 2015 Singapore Cultural Statistics, membership in performing arts interest groups in community clubs and residents' committees jumped by almost 50 per cent from 24,767 in 2013 to 36,766 last year. Among this, dance and vocal groups saw the greatest spike.

Still, I cannot help but wonder if this headway made by art in the heartland represents true inroads into the everyday. While it is an important achievement that arts events and activities are increasingly brought closer to the doorstep of the Everyman and in easily accessible forms, it may not necessarily translate into the arts being a part of a person's everyday consciousness - the way they talk and think about things.

Indeed, art continues to be considered and spoken of as a category on its own or as inhabiting limited spheres of influence in our lives. For one thing, we tend to talk about art education rather than art in education.

Also, the arts are often spoken about in relation to how it can help Singaporeans forge a sense of shared identity and belonging, and preserve heritage and tradition. Seldom is it mentioned in the same breath as, for instance, the wider push to develop a smart nation and a green country.

I am in no way advocating for arts creation to be forced to serve a narrative other than that of the artist's interest, or for it to function as a solution to wider social concerns - it shouldn't. Yet I do wonder about the creative outcomes that could be sparked if the arts were included organically in the way we think about and discuss issues such as Singapore's push to use info-communication technology to improve lives.

Could mixing up the tenants in arts centres and tech start-up incubators, for example, be one way of expanding our consciousness of art and its place in our everyday and, in turn, spur richer dialogue and more creative ideas on how our lives can be?

How we talk about the arts betrays how we think about the arts. If indeed, we believe that it is integral to our lives, then it needs to become a seamless part of wider conversations taking place here and involve all levels of society from individuals to industries and artists to policy-makers.

And for the conversation to be meaningful, all parties need to make time and space for each other, to listen when the other is speaking and to respond with constructive engagement, especially when views differ.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Making room for the arts in everyday life'. Print Edition | Subscribe