Culture Vulture

Why arts and culture is like vegetables

Getting Singaporeans interested in arts and culture is akin to asking children to eat their greens

The results of the 2015 National Population Survey on the Arts have got me thinking about vegetables.

Just like eating greens - which many shy away from despite knowing the health benefits - people seem to agree that arts and culture is good for them, but remain uninterested.

A key finding of the survey, released last week, is that more Singaporeans recognise the value of arts and culture than ever before. The National Arts Council study found that 78 per cent of the population agree that arts and culture helps to foster a sense of community and identity and inspire creativity and innovation. This is up 15 percentage points from the last survey finding in 2013.

Yet, in spite of the positive attitude and the record-high arts attendance last year, with eight in 10 Singaporeans having been to at least one arts activity, only four in 10 Singaporeans say they are actually interested in arts and culture.

In spite of the positive attitude and the record-high arts attendance last year... only four in 10 Singaporeans say they are actually interested in arts and culture.

This gap between recognising the good that arts and culture bring and the desire to engage in it, calls to mind people who know that vegetables are good for them, but who could not care less about including it in their diet.

This seeming indifference towards arts and culture becomes more disquieting when one considers the portion of the public that is blase about it. Since 2009, that percentage has hovered around 35 per cent and, last year, it rose by 4 percentage points to 37 per cent, even as attitudes to arts and culture made strong gains.

A lack of interest was also the most common reason (34 per cent) cited by those who stayed away from arts and culture events last year. This is a 30 percentage point spike, compared to 2013.

This apathy stands apart from other reasons cited in the survey, such as the arts being difficult to understand - only 11 per cent said they did not attend arts events last year for this reason, down from 16 per cent in 2013.

This lack of interest does not seem to be influenced either by the perception that arts events are irrelevant to one's life (13 per cent, down from 26 per cent in 2013), or that Singaporeans prefer to spend their time doing something else (14 per cent, down from 28 per cent in 2013).

So, what might explain Singaporeans' lukewarm attitude towards arts and culture?

It is hard to tell with their current reply - akin to a cryptic shrug of the shoulders.

One would hope that the full set of results from the survey, to be released at the end of this month by the arts council, will hold more nuanced answers and point to specific factors for the lag between the public's attitudes to arts and culture and their consumption of it.

This would help the arts council and arts groups plan targeted and sustained engagement efforts, as well as programme events that stir up and maintain the public's interest in the arts.

And it would be timely for this to happen now, allowing arts advocates to ride the wave of positive public perception and growing arts exposure to reach a tipping point.

The way that interest in the arts is cultivated should also shift from spurring arts consumption through mere attendance to stoking a deeper and sustained participation from the public, who will then reap the value and benefits of arts and culture.

However, as anyone who has tried to get a child, or adult, to eat his greens knows, fighting inertia is not easy. The struggle ceases only when the individual becomes aware of his appetite for vegetables and seeks it on his own.

It could be that those who see themselves as being neutral towards arts and culture are actually underestimating themselves, held back by a limited view of how their interest should be expressed, for example, by attending ticketed shows at conventional arts venues or taking formal art lessons through a school.

Indeed, if Singaporeans see arts and culture as existing in myriad forms and know that they are free to express their interest in it in various ways, they might perhaps identify as being art aficionados and in turn be more open towards attending and participating in more arts and culture events.

Along with this, the power of arts and culture to bring about a sense of community and identity, and inspire creativity and innovation, will progress from tacit acknowledgement to a vibrant flourishing in people's lives.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'Why arts and culture is like vegetables'. Print Edition | Subscribe