Educate, don't exterminate


SURE, we'd like a thriving Renaissance city and a burgeoning arts scene. We also want it safe, well-defined, non-contentious, socially responsible.

If we stick only to tried and tested norms, we will never be a Renaissance culture, merely a Recycled one

But even corporate management gurus would say that you can't draw neat lines around creative ideas. Innovations, by definition, don't come in neat packages.

After all, in the hierarchy of ideas, how ''socially responsible'' is the Internet? Or rock music, cheap books, mass education?

Artists everywhere and throughout history have always been entrepreneurs - they produce and try out ideas on their market audience, and against the test of time. Many of these ideas fail. Then again, so do IT startups.

Sure, artistic expression - including what is permissible and what is not - is the result of dynamic negotiations taking place between the artist, his work, his intended audience, and society at large.

The real issue is not whether there should be regulation, but how it should be expressed and implemented, by whom, and to what ends.

You don't send in a civil servant to tell a technopreneur how to run his business. You allow him to try, fail and try again. Why should the Arts be any different?

Unless (a flattering thought) the Arts is considered more socially influential than big business?

Becoming a Renaissance city means that we must have a thriving pool of creative talent, constantly pushing the limits of the known in the fields of culture, technology and human endeavour.

It means having a discerning public which is able and willing to put their money where they see fit, or leave if they think they're getting crap - just like investors, who are expected to live with their own decisions, not have choices made for them.

Art often operates at the hairy frontiers of human expression.

In a society where the most intimate human choices - from fertility and sexuality to language use - are subject to public scrutiny and intervention, those frontiers are close at hand indeed.

If every art form stays within safe boundaries and bides its time, if we stick only to tried and tested norms, we will never be a Renaissance culture, merely a Recycled one.

Sure, social consciousness on a broad level is a key ingredient of artistic expression. And understanding how to communicate with your audience is simply part of good craft.

But what if the truth turns out to be ugly?

Should our writers, dramatists and artists now watch their every word and brush stroke? I believe they should not, nor are they being asked to.

Instead, I'd like to see artists continue to produce honest work to the best of their wisdom and abilities, and let open debate and honest criticism rage over the end-products, good or otherwise.

Audiences will vote with their feet, and artists should expect no less.

I'd like to see more intelligent, objective sources of commentary and criticism, so that the burden of judgement need not fall on well-meaning but ill-equipped public officers.

After all, would you ask a mechanical engineer to evaluate your life-sciences start-up venture?

I'd like regulators to understand the fallacy of trying to regulate expression in the age of the Internet, and seek instead to cultivate broad awareness of contentious issues.

Educate, not exterminate.

Finally, someone somewhere has a checklist of what is considered artistically responsible, who has fallen short, and why. I'd like the public to see what's on that list.

Have a good chat about it now before the next Singlish play gets rejected for ''socially irresponsible'' linguistic practices.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl