"It's about time." That was closer of the declaration of principles sounded by cultural medallion winner, Intercultural Theatre Institute director and veteran actor, Sasitharan Thirunalan, when he was quizzed on why the Singaporean art community had chosen this particular moment in Singapore's history to present a Manifesto for the Arts.
The unveiling of the Manifesto for the arts was a quiet affair that took place on the evening of April 11th 2013 at Drama Box Singapore's Terengganu Street premises. The Manifesto was penned by a gathering of eminent members of the local arts scene who took turns to speak with reporters present on why it was important to "reclaim the arts".
"If you look at the manifesto (link), it seems like the most obvious thing...It's not an ideological statement. It's about a statement of about the arts and the place of the arts in Singapore. And it's about people, not just artists, reclaiming the arts for themselves and trying to work out a relationship...trying to work out what it means and trying to live with the arts as citizens of Singapore." articulated Mr. Thirunalan as he explained the purpose of the document. "This is not just about the arts for artists...The considerations are going to impact life generally in Singapore."
Mr. Thirunalan also elucidated that the ongoing national soul searching exercise, the Singapore conversation, had presented the public with the opportunity to rethink and realign their relationship to the arts.
"Over the last 50 years artists and arts in Singapore have been growing continuously. The practice, the engagements, the commitments, the professionalization, the interests of government agencies and government, everything has over the years have become deeper, the commitments have become more serious, the investments have become greater, but what's the place of the arts in our lives? What does it mean to our lives? There are primary schools, secondary schools and junior colleges getting an education in the arts but are they getting a literacy? Are they learning how to read pictures and sounds and images. How deep, how serious is this? Do the arts educators know what they are trying to do? And how is this going to impact our identity as a people?" were some of the questions posed by Mr. Thirunalan to the public during the press conference.
Mr. Thirunalan rounded out his address by stating that the manifesto was intended as an outreach exercise that was designed to encourage people to talk about the arts. "Let's engage in debate and let's think about what the arts mean because in 2 years time, this country will be 50 years old. Politicians and bureaucrats, people who run the arts will come and go, but the artists have been around...Some of them who've made the most important contributions to the arts are not with us, but its their work that we are seeing today. This is not just about artists. It's about people and their fundamental relationship that arts has with people."
Playwright and cosignatory, Tan Tarn How, chimed in by explaining that the arts is what makes us more human and enriches our lives by giving our lives meaning. He added: "The centrality of the arts and culture in our lives has been lost and that is why we're saying even though this is a statement which talks so much about the arts, it is about life. It is about what has been lost to us...we want to reclaim the position of arts and culture as central to what it means to be a citizen and what it means to be human."
Mr. Thirunalan continued on Mr. Tan's point by explaining why there should not be a line drawn between art and politics. "For the longest time, we were told administratively by bureaucrats and politicians that art is not supposed to be political. That you cannot indulge in politics through your art. That is not true. Singapore is the only country where if art is political, its a problem. No other society even bats an eye lid if an artist makes work which has political implications. Of course art is political. It's about life! It's about who we are! It questions the status quo!"
Cosignatory and director of the Necessary Stage, Mr. Alvin Tan, had this to say when asked if the Manifesto for the arts was too abstract and therefore too difficult for non artists to understand and buy into: "I feel that this is only the beginning of a journey. We want this to be a platform where rich discussions can begin. We don't want it to be simplified because when I was teaching I was told not to talk down to your students. Just talk to them like you talk to an adult and they will raise to your expectation of them. We don't have to dumb it down, we can put it out there with all its paradoxes and contradictions...with all its contestations and imperfections in there then people will be provoked into discussing it and talking about it. That was the point of it."
Mr. Thirunalan closed by saying that it is impossible for individuals within a society to question the status quo while divorcing themselves of any political implications. "Well if it happens to be political and it happens to be art then its fine. What Pao Kun did, what Pao Kun was writing was political. There's no question about it. But that doesn't disqualify it as art. The question is it artistic? Does it have artistic merit? Those are the things we need to ask and we will never be able to do it if somebody in office defines certain things as not art. We're not going to have politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats tell us what is and what is not art. But that's not to say that art is not contestable...Art cannot be challenged...Art cannot questioned. We can do all of those things but we do that as a community...Its not something that comes down from the leaders. That doesn't cut it anymore. We're not going to have that anymore. We can't accept that anymore as people. That's why we're making the statement that art is political. It's a ridiculous statement to make in any other society but in Singapore its relevant."
Editor's Note: For those curious to see what the manifesto is about you can read it and watch the video at (link).