The recent flap over the "golden staircase" in a Housing Board block in Balestier was useful in bringing to the fore issues of public art. How these are handled speak to the maturity of society. One facet that ignited opinion was the need for official approval before creating a work of art in commonly used public areas. The young artist behind the gold stairs, Ms Priyageetha Dia, did not think "everything needs to be licensed" and that her spontaneous act of creation served the purpose of spurring dialogue on "whether art should need a licence". Such questions should be asked and the means to that end were innocuous enough in this instance.
Ms Dia's broad artistic impulse should be supported. The effect of "the intervention of the gold finally reverberated against the ever lifeless and grey architecture", as she wrote, provoked thought about public spaces and private efforts to bring life to it.
At the same time, one cannot ignore considerations of public safety and hygiene, inconvenience to others, possible restoration of spaces at public cost, and content that could harm social relations or threaten public order. Woodlands resident Tan Koon Tat took a different tack and sought prior approval when building festive displays at a carpark over the past decade. He works with town council managers without interference in the artistic process, he said, noting that ultimately "they are in charge of the space, and they have to take responsibility if something bad happens".
What is problematic about the golden stairs episode is the idea that subversion is inherent in, or even essential to, the creative process, as reflected in Ms Dia's comment that she wouldn't have got a thrill had she sought permission: "I need that adrenaline rush in my art-making process". But that would not justify extreme cases in particular, like the repeated graffiti attacks on MRT trains at SMRT depots.
It would be ideal if art is defined broadly instead and if different forms appear responsibly in public. Naturally, it should be for the public to decide what is inspiring or thought provoking, and what is an eyesore or daft, or even offensive to public taste. Public authorities should certainly be involved when safety or health risks are posed, traffic could be obstructed, community relations jeopardised, or artistic expression might breach certain laws.
It is common for art to push boundaries and mature societies tolerate it to a certain extent, as did the authorities in this case; while, at the other end, only officially sanctioned public art is permitted to exist in repressive environments. Singaporeans as a whole must decide how much leeway should be given in the name of art, and the wisdom of allowing an artist to act as if public spaces were his or her grandfather's road.