I love speaking with bright young people. Tonight, a student at Yale-NUS College asked me a question — one that I don’t think anybody else has ever asked me in all my long years. She asked my opinion whether every young person should do art. I’m not sure if she meant art as a subject in school or as a hobby. Doesn’t matter though.
Without hesitation I said Yes. Very much a Yes.
In explaining myself, I said something I don’t think I have ever written about before — so thank you very much, young lady, for giving me this idea for a short blogpost.
The question came up in the context of a conversation about how we develop a knowledge economy and how we can be creators of knowledge. My answer should be seen in that context. More importantly, it should be seen in the context of how we normally think of a knowledge economy — often within the frame of engineering and technology, or maybe advertising or financial wizardry. What has art got to do with all these aspirations?
I said in reply to the question, there’s something unique about the various fields we know as arts: it is a striving to create something new. Everything that you do in the art that you have chosen is aimed at being able to imagine, and finally realising something no other human has conceived or created before. You are taught to test the limits and challenge convention, because unless you do that you can never create anything new.
Does it not stand to reason that if we want a society geared strongly towards producing new knowledge, acquiring the mindset — even the obsession — of an artist is the way to go?
Other students chimed in, agreeing with me, saying that indeed if nothing new is created, you’re only an imitator, not an artist. One has to strive to get past being an imitator.
That reminded me of another reason why art is important. You can’t get to create anything new unless you first master the technical ability, whether you’ve chosen to do pottery, dance, acapella, parkour or mime. That means years invested in honing the skills. This endeavour alone teaches one to value quality. We learn to recognise and have respect for excellence, and to appreciate the quest for perfection. A society that does not value technical mastery quickly sinks into shoddiness and mediocrity.
We can make new things, but some new things come with such beauty — and “beauty” can also mean the elegance of intuitive design, technological superiority, or seamless fit with human interaction — that they command market value. So, for a knowledge economy to be rewarded for the things that it creates, novelty is not enough, it must be novelty built upon a bedrock of technical excellence, imbued with beauty.
Take a look at the two main photographs on this page. They are works by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich. What he has done is to master traditional rattan and bamboo weaving skills, normally used to make baskets and other daily household items, and create large-scale sensuous forms in the modern idiom. From a distance, one appreciates the bold creativity from the imagination. Closer up, one sees his technical mastery — carefully selected and pre-treated strips woven with an extremely even, well-spaced and finely balanced craftsmanship.
Look at the work below. How does it keep its shape? Why haven’t the contours flattened out? It’s beautiful, but behind the beauty is also engineering excellence.
There was a third argument that I never got a chance to make with the students: art also teaches us about our human selves. It’s a very elusive thing, why some things move us and other things don’t; why some things are considered beautiful and others aren’t. Just as importantly, why some things move some people, but leave others cold. Or why is it that this object has meaning to only some people? What personal emotions and collective memories are evoked?
In the course of that enquiry, an art student learns about how people are different, how we are shaped by culture, time and countless other influences. We learn not to make lazy assumptions that everybody else is like us, and become acutely sensitive to what really moves people who are NOT like us. We are made aware of how the object or performance we make is perceived in unexpectedly different ways than we intended.
Read what Sopheap Pich says about the above work. But how many of us saw an old gramophone instead?
Through art we get to appreciate both the diversity and unity of us as humans, and through that knowledge, how to anticipate outcomes when communicating with different audiences.
These are very useful skills.
The pity is that in Singapore we can’t grasp the value of anything that isn’t literal, instrumental or tangible. We see little merit in the discursive. The trouble is that the literal, instrumental and direct are only good for travelling down the road where one is. It is the wanderer, refusing to be confined to the tried and trodden path, rambling over the brow of the hill, lifting the odd stone to see what’s underneath, climbing trees or fording streams for the fun of it, who will chance upon new vistas and discover new valleys.
There are very few things more discursive than art.
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To end, here are two videos. Each features a performance of Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D for three violins and basso ostinato, composed in the 1600s. Both are displays of art at numerous levels:
First the composition: What is a canon? It is a remarkably engineered piece of music with several voices (in this case, three violins) entering in succession, but they play the same sequences of notes, in this case starting two bars apart. The technical term is ‘polyphonic form’. Yet, even when the voices (violins) play exactly the same notes but non-synchronously, they remain harmonious. If you have a trained ear, you can distinguish the three violins as they play the same notes (nearly all the time) non-synchronously. If you don’t have a trained ear, watch the bowing of the violinists and you should be able to see how they follow each other.
For example, at 1 minute 20 seconds, the first violinist (at extreme left) starts a series of running notes. Nine seconds later (1:29) the second violinist repeats exactly the same notes, and then at 1:37, the third violinist makes the same run. Yet, they blend together beautifully.
At 1:53 (while the camera is still on the third violinist), you’ll hear the first violinist start a new, lightly melodious line. The second violinist does likewise at 2:02; the third at 2:11.
See whether you can catch another set: A sequence with a high note from the first violin starting around 3:27, repeated by the second violin from 3:37, and third violin from 3:47.
Throughout, the basso ostinato (comprising the other three musicians together) repeats the same notes (thus “ostinato” — obstinate or stubborn), and yet the work does not get bogged down with repetitiousness. The technical mastery by Pachelbel in this composition is wondrous.
Watch this performance on period instruments :
The next video (forgive the advertisement that may precede it) is a performance by Steven Sharp Nelson, better known as the cellist half of The Piano Guys. He does a completely new version of Pachelbel’s Canon. The first thing to note is Nelson’s sheer mastery of cello technique; the second thing is his updating of the old classic to a contemporary beat, a tour de force of re-composition. The third thing is the mastery of video technique — there are four Nelsons, distinguishable by the colour of the waistcoat. The fourth element is the injection of humour, which is also a comment on how this piece is a must-have and played to death nowadays at kitschy American weddings!
This is art at its creative best: technical mastery, inventiveness and evocative communication holding a mirror to ourselves.