Slogans and silent crusades

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to lay No Art Day to rest.

Do we pursue showy, acrimonious circuses?

Or do we throw our weight behind the quiet road-builders & bricklayers?

This poor, misunderstood beast was born of good intentions, but fell prey to that most human of sins - overweening ambition and sheer dumb miscalculation.

Throughout its brief existence, there was constant confusion over whether it looked angry, sombre, contemplative or just indecisive.

Despite a long-standing dream to spark off and lead a national pro-arts movement, this sad entity was largely vilified, misrepresented and ignored in its brief public life.

Few marked its passing on Dec 29, except for some loyal followers and pundits in the wings.

But I urge all you artists and arts-lovers alike not to mock this poor misshapen creature that few appreciated and fewer understood.

Never mind that most artists, including us writers, were never quite introduced to NAD and what it stood for, even though it purported to speak for all of us.

From the start, NAD's appeal was probably more the charisma of its organisers and supporters than the quality of its ideas.

Was it about irony? Contemplation of Art by denying Art? Navel-gazing? We were in the dark.

No Art Day was spawned in seclusion, to a faction of an arts community too cosy for its own good. Too small, perhaps, for anyone to broach effective dissent when they see a bad idea coming?

Like Shakespeare's Prospero, we must acknowledge this thing of darkness, is ours in the end.

After all, despite the outcome, it was conceived as an act of arts activism, reacting to a system which places the perpetual hurdles of censorship and funding in the way of its struggling artists.

Even NAD's detractors concede that the hurdles are real. Look at what happened to Talaq.

Its aims, at least, were in the service of artistic development.

But the way it worked out, NAD did as much good as a sulking child holding its own breath when denied a favourite toy.

To artists like fellow poet Felix Cheong, 35, NAD is more a symbol of grand petulance than real, roll-up-your-sleeves activism.

He should know - he's got a five-year-old kid.

And on Dec 20 he won a grant from the Singapore International Foundation, to promote local writing in major universities worldwide.

Believing that prophets (and artists) are seldom first recognised in their own home town, he hopes to carve a place for our writers on the world stage by stocking academic libraries abroad and organising writers' trips (a la concert tours) overseas.

It's a long-haul process, as glamorous, flashy - and necessary - as bricklaying.

And it's worked before. After all, local talents like singer Kit Chan, actor Ivan Heng and violinist Lee Huei Min have had to cut their teeth elsewhere before their talent was embraced back home.

For sure, Singaporean artists are constrained by economics, policy and cultural factors.

But the point Felix and other arts activists make by virtue of their unsung efforts is this: There's a constructive way forward, even in an adverse environment.

One could even argue that censorship can bring out the best in an artist, forcing him to clarify and stretch his craft to accommodate or go around imposed barriers.

As acclaimed Indonesian dissident writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer has shown, nothing helps to break the barrier of silence more than genuine artistic merit attracting international attention.

Of course, more can be done to market artists abroad, mentor young talent, and educate audiences.

Writers like Felix, Paul Tan and I, who review books for the press, see it as a great way to introduce good, serious works to the reader.

''I'm only throwing in a small pebble, but I hope it will help build up the momentum,'' says Felix, who won the Young Artist Award last year for his work as a literary marketeer, mentor, book reviewer and writer.

He disagrees that the environment here is all that hostile to the committed artist.

Admittedly, writers in Singapore face relatively few problems with censorship. But then again, they also lack the generous attention, support and funding that has been poured into the performing arts, in which NAD, ironically, had its roots.

Still, the failure of NAD by no means signals the death of ''active artisanship'' here.

The folks who quietly received those Singapore Internationale grants a week before NAD, stood testimony to the gumption, creativity and entrepreneurship of our local artists, without making a song and dance about it.

And they are far from alone.

So it would seem that in December we saw two alternative models of arts activism.

Sure, we've got a long way to go as an arts hub. That's why experiments like NAD and Felix Cheong's export project are being tried out by committed artists here.

Question is, do we continue to pursue and harp on showy, acrimonious circuses?

Or do we throw our weight behind the quiet road-builders and bricklayers of our Renaissance city in the making?

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl