The 'gut feel' approach to appreciating art

I first came to Singapore 68 years ago on my way to China; I paid a fleeting visit in 1946 on my way back to England, with my wife Khoan. My memories of these brief visits are few - Singapore in 1940 was the colonial city described so vividly in the novels and short stories of Somerset Maugham; six years later, it was recovering from the nightmare of the Japanese Occupation. A souvenir of that time, which I still possess somewhere (I think), is three books of sketches by local artist Liu Kang, depicting the sufferings of the people during that dreadful time. Art was barely alive, although the Singapore Art Society was founded in that year, 1946, which signalled the beginning of the slow recovery.

When I returned eight years later to take up a lectureship in what was then still called the University of Malaya, that artistic infant had grown into a healthy child, and things were moving forward.

By the mid-1950s, the Singapore Art Society was flourishing, as were the Society of Chinese Artists, founded in 1935 and formally registered in 1936, and the YMCA Art Club, while what was then the University of Malaya had opened its own little museum dedicated to the arts of South-east Asia, China and contemporary Singapore.

Exhibitions were being held of art from Thailand, Indonesia and India. The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), founded through the dedication of artist Lim Hak Tai, was struggling to keep going, supported by at least one major artist, while the Singapore Art Society showed 120 works by local artists at its 10th Anniversary Exhibition.

Who were the important artists then? Lim Hak Tai, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Wen Hsi, Liu Kang and Georgette Chen (both of whom trained in Paris), batik painter Chuah Thean Teng and the young Chia Yuchien, who later studied in Paris. Cheong Soo Pieng was undoubtedly the most talented.

  • EMINENT ART SCHOLAR

  • - Professor Michael Sullivan (1916-2013) was a British art historian and a major Western pioneer in modern Chinese art history and criticism.

    - His book, Chinese Art In The 20th Century (1959), was the first ever on the subject, while his Art And Artists Of 20th Century China (1996) is a primary reader for art history students at many universities. His work on Nanyang art privileged Singapore artists with an international voice. This essay is adapted from a paper presented at Nafa's 2008 New Asian Imaginations symposium.

    - Prof Sullivan was also a loving

    husband who missed his wife so much, he took a teaspoon of her ashes with his morning cereal until his doctor stopped him.

In 1959, government support for the arts received a big boost with the establishment of the Arts Council. We persuaded Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock that the job of the Government, as in Britain, was not to tell participating societies what to do, but to provide the funds to allow them to put on shows, concerts, recitals and exhibitions the likes of which Singapore had never seen.

The Arts Festival lasted a week, took place all over the city, and any seat for any event cost one dollar. The programme for the week was printed in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. The 36 events included concerts, Malay, Tamil, Chinese and European dramas, dance, photography and films. At the closing ceremony on the Padang, dragons and lions wove in and out under the glare of searchlights provided by the Royal Navy, before an audience of over 10,000.


Prof Sulllivan was devoted to his wife Khoan, seen here in a portrait done by Singapore artist Cheong Soo Pieng, whose talent he greatly admired. PHOTO: MIKE SULLIVAN

There was quite a lot going on in the 1950s. Still, as I wrote in the Catalogue of the 10th Annual Exhibition of the Singapore Art Society: "In spite of the vigour and talent of her local artists, Singapore still lacks many of those things that reinforce and consolidate the position of art in the community. The public needs a permanent art centre where at any time they can see the best works of local and foreign artists. The young painter is entitled to a first-class education in his (or her) craft and, when he is trained, to the patronage of the Government, schools, churches and other public bodies. ... The idea of the artist as free and unattached, living in a world of his own, is a romantic figment. As society needs his work, so does he need its encouragement and support."

Fifty years ago, the traditional idea of what one meant by "art" was still more or less intact. The work of the surrealists of the 1930s and the New York school of abstract expressionists in the 1950s could still be considered art, as it consisted chiefly of pictures of one sort or another to hang on the wall.

What about today? In the past 50 years, the idea of what constitutes art has changed more than at any other time in history. Today, installations, performances, multimedia art, conceptual art, body art and many other forms have extended the boundaries of art so wide that it embraces almost any object or activity, as long as the work is displayed or performed. This is not to say that more conventional forms of expression have been abandoned.

But the new forms tend to dominate. In addition to their range and novelty, they have another characteristic that is of great significance for our understanding of what is going on: They are transnational - we find essentially the same forms, in architecture as in art, in Beijing, London, Tokyo and Buenos Aires.

An extension to the National Gallery in Washington was designed by Chinese-born American I.M. Pei; the main terminal of the new Beijing airport by Englishman Norman Foster. Architects and artists are working worldwide, in what seems to be an international language.

So what is Chinese art today?

Is it ink painting, or something else? Wu Guanzhong works freely in Chinese brush and ink as well as in Western oil paints. When he was asked if his work was Chinese, he said: "When I take up a brush to paint, I paint a Chinese picture." By this, he meant, I think, that the essence of the work is not the style or the technique, but the experience and, above all, the feeling of the artist. If he or she expresses his or her feeling as a Chinese, then, whatever its style, the work is Chinese.

There remains the question of quality. In more conventional forms, that is not a problem. Although we have our individual preferences, a general consensus emerges about what is good and what is bad in art. But when forms are subverted, and accepted rules and principles abandoned, by what criteria are we to judge the work? Many critics today avoid this challenge by simply describing what the artist does, for a value judgment is thought to be purely subjective.

Express a critical opinion and you'll be told: "That's only what you think." The result is that, today, "anything goes", as long as it is exhibited or performed.

This is especially true of much of today's conceptual art, which is based on the notion of the importance of the "idea". But this is a fallacy, and a dangerous one.

To appreciate a Rembrandt self-portrait, or a Beethoven sonata, we do not need to look for the idea or the meaning behind it. The meaning is the work itself. When a journalist asked Picasso the meaning of his work, he turned on her in a fury and said: "Since when do you have to explain the language of painting? It's not meant to explain anything... but to foster emotion within the soul of the viewer. No work of art should leave people indifferent... they should be moved. ... The viewer must be dragged from his torpor... shaken and grabbed by the throat." If it doesn't do that, he seemed to say, it's not a work of art.

Few artists are profound critics, and if they are, they should be practising philosophy, not art. But in today's atmosphere of competitive commercial exposure, they are provoked, or bribed, into talking about their work, formulating ideas in words (when their natural language is paint), to give it respectability and seriousness in the eyes of the critics. In a poem, Goethe wrote: "Bilde, Kunstler! Rede nicht!" ("Paint, artist - don't talk!"). Artists should be left in peace to get on with their work, not be badgered by journalists to make, or make up, statements about it.

You might think I am taking an unwarrantably strong position on this issue - and indeed, there are notable exceptions. We have only to read the letters of van Gogh to his brother Theo, or the critical writings of Wu Guanzhong, to find artists who are deeply thoughtful and who articulate with both the brush and the pen. But they are rare. That still leaves us with the question - how do we evaluate a work that is expressed in a new language we haven't yet learnt and don't understand? Have we the right to express any views about it at all?

I do not have a general answer to this question, but rely on my own experience and "gut feeling" to tell me - and I might be wrong - if a work displays honesty or insincerity, feeling or lack of feeling; if it is something for a moment's surprise or amusement, or if it is something I could live with and contemplate again and again. This is of course a purely subjective reaction but, in the absence of an accepted set of criteria, what alternative is there?

Yet, I am reluctant to believe that all judgments - and this goes for moral as well as aesthetic judgments - are relative and subjective. I believe a consensus about what is good in art emerges over time. Art historian Ernst Gombrich once told me that a fellow art historian had made a great discovery while touring the art galleries of Europe, namely that the acknowledged masterpieces were, in fact, masterpieces. Have we reached a point where we can say that of contemporary art? Or are we still at the stage of saying that Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst are just as good, and as important, as Henry Moore or Wang Huaiqing - or, even, that we shouldn't make such judgments at all? If this is the case, then the sooner we move on, the better.

Of course, it takes time for new forms of expression to become accepted. How much time? The musicians asked to play Beethoven's late quartets protested that they were unplayable. French painter Paul Signac thought Matisse's Joy Of Life "disgusting", while Matisse called Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon "an outrage". American critic Leo Steinberg said it now takes only about seven years for a wild young artist to be accepted, because the shock value of his work is so quickly exhausted. Perhaps the time is getting even shorter.

Meanwhile, first impressions can be true ones, especially when the work is manifestly false, drawing attention to the artist or performer rather than to the work itself. We don't need much discrimination to see Damien Hirst's Shark In A Tank as a work totally lacking in feeling, or Zhang Huan crossing Broadway clad only in slabs of raw meat sewn together as mere exhibitionism.

There was a time when to do such a thing was daring and original. In 1980, a group of radicals at Peking University wrapped themselves in white cloth and poured ink all over it before an audience of puzzled and astonished students. I asked participant Kong Chang'an what the significance of that performance was. He replied: "The significance of it was that we did it." To do such a thing at that time, and in that context, was indeed significant. But today, when anything goes, it has lost its force, and is simply entertainment - for which, I suppose, we should be grateful.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 05, 2015, with the headline 'The 'gut feel' approach to appreciating art'. Print Edition | Subscribe