Knowledge economy? Then value art

Cycle - rattan/bamboo weave sculpture by Sopheap Pich, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013

Cycle – rattan/bamboo weave sculpture by Sopheap Pich, exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013

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.

Morning Glory - by Sopheap Pich

Morning Glory – by Sopheap Pich

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?

pic_201310_32In 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.

* * * * *

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.

31 Responses to “Knowledge economy? Then value art”

  1. 1 Mark Mills 24 October 2013 at 01:28

    The PianoGuys Wedding Video was pretty cool! I enjoy your blog~

  2. 2 lobo76 24 October 2013 at 10:53

    I think having Art as a subject in school is going to make more people become cynics. I took Eng Lit as a subject in secondary school, and now I am convinced it is all hogwash. Looking for things that authors may or may not even intended to be there, interpreting all the little bits of details which the author may have simply used without too much though…

    DOING Art will probably be worth it, but that won’t stop ‘students’ from simply splashing paint onto a canvas and interpreting the shades, drips and spatters to be more than they are though.

    Blue paint? represents the sky. The ‘explosion’ of paint on the canvas represents limitless sky, and thus I call it ‘Freedom’.

    Green paint? represent plants, and life. The ‘explosion’ of paint on the canvas represent the vibrant growth, and thus I call it ‘Life’.

    Red paint? Something about blood, and sacrifice. Black on white canvas, monochrome and simple. and yet the unstructured lines of paint splash contrast with simplicity and blah blah blah.

    That, in a nutshell, is what I think will happen if Art is a subject in school.

    Now, if we had Philosophy as a subject instead…? That’d probably be worth having.

    • 3 yawningbread 24 October 2013 at 15:05

      > Now, if we had Philosophy as a subject instead…? That’d probably be worth having.

      Why? And in what way will it escape the fate you have described for art as a school subject (you only seem to mean painting) in your comment?

      • 4 lobo76 25 October 2013 at 11:09

        I choose philosophy because it promotes ‘thinking’. You literally study on ways of thinking. Even if you treated it as exam bait, you can’t help but learn something. And ‘thinking’ is closely related to ‘knowledge economy’ if was the aim.

        Art is different. It has to be self motivated, or else people will just ‘cheat’ their way across, and learn nothing (and in the process, turn people into cynics).

        I choose painting just as an example. I can do ‘solid’ art too… by blasting a piece of metal of out shape, and interpret that too if you want; or take a solid cube of plastic and do a light scratch in one corner and say something inane about that nick.

        (note that it is all ‘easy’ to do. As easy as splashing paint on canvas. Having done eng.lit before, it was easier to play with colors and their ‘meanings’, than other forms of ‘art’. Easy was what I was going for…)

      • 5 lobo76 25 October 2013 at 11:12

        To clarify, I am not saying there should be no ‘Art’. Just that as a ‘subject in school’ is a bad idea. That is all.

    • 6 Janet C 25 October 2013 at 10:12

      Art History–the interpretation and understanding of paintings, and art movements–is NOT Art (making), just as a Literature class would not be the same one as Creative Writing. I feel you’ve got the two confused. Having studied Art in my Singapore schooling experience (up to ‘A’-levels) then beyond, overseas, the statement “what I think will happen if Art is a subject in school” is amusing.

      What art-making gives a person is a huge tool for self-expression, and if it’s the splashing of colours on canvas, so be it. Yet what will become apparent in any class, even one on paint-splashing, is that everyone splashes paint differently; makes different choices in movement, colour, size, density, texture, pattern, scale, and the relationships between all I just mentioned, and every one of the paintings can and will reveal something about the artist. At the very least, one sees and appreciates diversity, if not beauty, if everyone tried to make art. And these kinds of exercises can open a lot of mental doors–definitely something Singaporeans can benefit from.

      The right art class, taught well, won’t just teach its students to paint. It will teach students to SEE.

  3. 8 yuen 24 October 2013 at 11:29

    maybe next time you would speak to groups of hawkers, taxi drivers, factory technicians (factory workers are probably all foreigners here for a short time so you probably wont need their opinions) etc, and see what questions they like to ask as well as ask them for their opinions of Yale NUS college

      • 10 yuen 24 October 2013 at 16:38

        taxi drivers, hawkers, factory technicians etc are more representative of Singaporeans; Yale NUS college graduates are likely to be highly ambitious and would want well paid jobs, and most would make their accommodation with Singapore Inc (like the sons of some famous dissenters did); they would ask questions and express opinions carefully, both to avoid blotting their records and to win praises from the people that count; but some of them might, like Tan Jee Say and Hazel Poa, take up radicalism later in life

        as a matter of curiosity: you expect how many % of your audience to take up your advice and do art?

      • 11 yawningbread 24 October 2013 at 23:52

        You mean only a question asked by someone who is “representative” of Singapore (as defined in a way that effectively dumps the 50% or more who are middle-class or better off) is legitimate? Any question asked by a member of the “elite” can’t possibly be a worthwhile question, and food for thought? Are we becoming an anti-intellectual place? What makes you think this student was not a child of a hawker?

        Actually I don’t even know whether the student who asked the question was Singaporean, 3/4 Singaporean, 1/2 Singaporean, 1/4 Singapore or non-Singaporean. And I don’t care. A good question is a good question whoever asks it.

        This is what’s beginning to get me: the way discourse about so many things in Singapore is being infected/corrupted by populist framing.

      • 12 yuen 25 October 2013 at 00:38

        > You mean only a question asked by someone who is “representative” of Singapore is legitimate?

        I did not say you should -not- talk to ambitious future elite members, only that you should -also- talk to some non-elites

        > the 50% or more who are middle-class or better off

        I have no information on the background of Yale NUS College students, but would guess 50% sounds low and most are from the top 10% income groups, Singaporean or foreign

        > discourse about so many things in Singapore is being infected/ corrupted by populist framing

        I happen to agree with you here, but this is quite separate from the suggestion of hearing both non-elites and elites

  4. 13 ape@kinjioleaf 24 October 2013 at 13:27

    Arts (including music) to me is another form of communication, of expressions, without using words. To express something without words, something that a common layperson can relate or feel, is the work of a true master. A master who can say the same thing in many different non conventional forms.

    Also, one does not need to be an ‘artist’ or ‘musician’ or ‘playwrite’ to be a master of ‘art’. An architect’s design can express a message for the building. A surgeon can express his commitment to care for his patients health by the methods he performs his surgery. The simple act of an electrician changing light bulb can reveal how much or little thoughts he put in to brighten your home. A master is in the making when one dares to challenge the norms, take on risks of failure, improve what has been tested and proven.. without these, one is just an imitator.

    But, sadly, art has been portrayed as a frivolous endeavour and leisure only to be ‘appreciated’ by the ‘atas’.

    Thanks, Alex.

    • 14 Winking Doll 25 October 2013 at 02:21

      I agree with your views. As with “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, art is in the eyes of the appreciator. There is so much art daily stuff, e.g. neatly stitched surgical site, ergonomics, the (hopefully) clockwork of trains running on schedule, etc. To limit art to the “fine arts” also limits the audience who can afford (and thus access) art.

      One major problem with the way art is taught in Singapore schools (based on my experience at one of those elite secondary school about 2 decades ago) is that grading of art work is highly subjective. It does not help the budding student artist to practice art if in order to gain good grades (for O or A levels), one simply has to “discover” the teacher’s artistic preferences and produce art pieces based on their preferences, rather that one’s best ideas. E.g. In Secondary 1, I had an art teacher who loves colour contrasts, so she gave better grades to pieces with contrasting colours, regardless of their originality and/or artistic merit. In Secondary 2, I had an art teacher who loves the cute stuff (think “kawai”) and pastel shades, so she consistently gave higher grades to the cartoon-like pieces. In reality, there are enough variety in artistic tastes that artists with leaning in both preferences may be able to carve out their own niche. But in a competitive school system, a student who aim to do well academically would be putting undue risk by pursuing art as a subject.

    • 15 ape@kinjioleaf 25 October 2013 at 13:17

      Also, let’s not forget an important point Alex made. One has to be fairly competent in his respective field before he embarks on untested grounds. If I don’t even know how to mix colours can I be a painter?

      Winking doll, your experience in art class relates somewhat to the shortcomings of our education system and Alex post. In short, we trained to know the ‘how’ but seldom the ‘why’. I also wonder if your sec 1 arts teacher can appreciate Chinese ink painting – don’t you think it’s amazing that a simple black ink and brush can create landscape, still life, running horses, willows and many more?

  5. 16 artemov 24 October 2013 at 15:23

    Nice, but 50 years down the road, no one will remember the funkier version.

  6. 17 Clear eyed 24 October 2013 at 16:08

    Thanks for speaking so cogently for the place of art in society. Life would be just mind-numbing existence or brutish struggle without art.

  7. 18 henry 24 October 2013 at 18:49

    Thanks Alex. Beautiful music… and art is missing in Singapore’s psyche.
    No thanks to the very utilitarian, pragmatic thought processes of our “leaders”

    Just like the planting of instant trees, the method is also being applied to planting artists from overseas. It is seldom done for the sake of arts… but always for the sake of the ROI.

  8. 19 Annoyed Anon 24 October 2013 at 23:20

    I’m an artist who doesn’t fit into any of the traditional category like fine art painting, sculpture and etc.

    Every artist has his/her own definition of art, so what you think generally describes what’s art is just scratching the surface.

    Here is the big problem about Singapore art; the government wants artists to be economically useful. You get grants, you better hit a target or out the door you go.

    Do you realize ‘high-class’ art is more likely to be patronized more than those on the lower hierarchy?

    • 20 yawningbread 24 October 2013 at 23:58

      Did you notice I included parkour as an example of art? I’m not as exclusionary as you may think.

      “Every artist has his/her own definition of art”

      I find this a problematic statement. It sounds awfully self-indulgent; a refusal to submit to peer and popular criticism.

      “so what you think generally describes what’s art is just scratching the surface.”

      I argued that creativity is a defining characteristic of art whatever its form. Are you saying that an endeavour can be art if no creativity is involved so long as the practitioner wants to call it art?

      • 21 Annoyed Anon 25 October 2013 at 00:48

        It isn’t “awfully self-indulgent”, every artist has an unique identity, and everyone has a definition of what is art is to the artist.

        If every artist has to submit to “peer and popular criticism”, then what about those artists who are very provocative in generating their works? Should they bow their heads and submit to popular opinions?

        What I meant is that art is more than what you describe the points in the article. There is more than just techniques and creativity.

      • 22 Anon pxB7 25 October 2013 at 10:06

        Alex, if all creative events are art as you seem to indicate, doesn’t that leave for an enormous continuum of activities that qualify as art?

        Pop quiz – is anything done with a crayon, pencil, ukulele or snare drum “art” regardless of whether it pleases anyone’s senses other than the originator? Or does it have to be “high” art – landscapes in oils, water colours and sonorous notes teased from a viola that we can all nod at and clap to politely?

  9. 23 Sasitharan 25 October 2013 at 08:50

    Thank you Alex such a delight to see art considered in your august pages. I’ll be sharing this as I couldn’t agree more. T. Sasitharan.

  10. 24 Kai 25 October 2013 at 09:11

    I am not an artist, but I’m a fan of both the Canon and the Piano Guys. To date, the most versatile and talented player of the Canon I have come across is Kyle Landry. He has so many styles and improvisations of the Canon to satisfy a true.Canon connoisseur. I haven’t finished listening to his entire Canon repertoire yet because I want to take time to savor each piece. Two of my personal favorites so far are “Shirtless Johann” and the “Jumpy Johann Variations”. Now this is one imaginative and creative artist, and a humorous one to boot! I post the two videos below, and interested readers can search for other Canon pieces in his channel:

    Shirtless Johann:

    Jumpy Johann Variations:


    • 25 yawningbread 25 October 2013 at 11:40

      Sorry, your links seem to be lost in transit. Try again please?

      • 26 Kai 25 October 2013 at 12:24


        It’s fine on my side — I can see my own comment and the two YouTube videos embedded in it on your page after having been approved by you. Just in case, I include the two video links in full again:

  11. 27 jd 25 October 2013 at 21:32

    i had goosebumps watching the videos, thanks for the beautiful article and educating me on the importance of art

  12. 28 ult88 25 October 2013 at 22:30

    coincidentally, kent ridge common published an article on freeing spaces for performing arts in singapore today:

    i’d agree that art is important. it is valuable, wonderful, great. it opens our eyes to hitherto unseen truths.

    however, being professional artists may not be easy in singapore. other than the lukewarm support from the government and our society in general, our country is too small and doesn’t have the critical mass to support artists.

  13. 29 George 26 October 2013 at 22:45

    To all those who seem to ‘de-value’ art or the arts, tell me which and which age of human civilization are remembered, measured or revered without reference to their achievement and attainment in art or art forms of one form or another? For example, what is architecture, if it is not art?
    What was the ‘Golden Age’ of the Tang Dynasty all about? The acme of human achievements is invariably intimately tied to artistic accomplishment. Even the very laws of physics and mother nature are artistic and beautiful. Just think of an the arrangement in an atom and the plumage of a peacock or the colourful bottom of a male baboon! Think also of the colours of autumn and the majestic peak of the Himalayas Art is science and science is art don’t you think?

  14. 30 Tan Tai Wei 27 October 2013 at 23:32

    “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, said John Keats. But as there are many forms of truth, so not all beauty is “arts”. There can be the beauty of science or maths, just as there are the beauties of the art forms. So, a beautiful, elegant scientific or mathematical proof isn’t “art”, just as a beautiful painting isn’t science, etc. What basically distinguishes art from science, say, is that, while science captures the universal or general principles underlying things, art seek insights into particulars. And in both cases, one must be careful not to confuse forms with truth. The temptation is greater and easier with the arts. A clever verse-writer can come out with something for a newspaper “poetry” competition and yet not produce real poetry, because what he wrote lacks the “beauty” of “truth”. Indeed, where there isn’t insight, “forms” too are somewhat lacking, as means and ends have something about them that aren’t separable. But it’s possible to fake something in verse-form that the Straits Times art editor can’t detect.

  15. 31 mike 28 October 2013 at 07:59

    Everyone is inclusive of some form of art if they wish to admit it or not, overyone whith ear buds stuck in there years for the morning and evening commute. When you paint your walls and trim so that it pleases the eyes are you not inclusive?
    How many times has artist been at the fore front of a quite proteset agaainst an unjust society, and a heavy price.
    For me a least art is what gives some balance to ones life.

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