Don't write off Net effect on art


IT PROMISED a magical new era of instant gratification and world peace, made - and later broke - fortunes, wrecked reputations, riled authorities and brought strangers together.

Simply going online is no substitute for the human qualities that make art: passion, intellectual rigour, creativity & compassion

I'm talking about the Internet, of course.

Freeloading, independent-minded Netizens have thumbed their collective noses at attempts to exploit the Internet for commercial gain.

Now that the suits and salesmen have backed off, the Net looks set to once again become the happy hunting ground of those who believe in a non-profit, uncensored, bohemian cyberspace.

Artists, of all people, should be pleased.

Take writers, for instance.

The global book industry is a shark-infested pool of publishing houses, agents and distribution cartels based largely in the US and Europe, whose blessings decree a writer's career.

Potentially, the Net could allow unknown writers - even in a literary backwater like Singapore - to reach global audiences, leapfrogging the extravagant costs of publication, promotion and distribution and the risk of censorship. Seems like the idea behind homegrown, edgy e-zine The 2nd Rule (''Well versed in e-mail'', Mar 5).

I encountered the power of the Net when putting together No Other City, an anthology of Singapore city poems, last year.

A solid 80 per cent of the submissions solicited from the public came via e-mail.

We're talking hundreds of poems from as many closet poets here.

This year, submissions for a book of love poems started coming in minutes (yes, minutes) after I sent out an e-mail request.

Many were from writers overseas who were not even addressees of the e-mail.

The same process might have taken months or years with snail mail.

So there's truth to the claim that the Internet is more efficient and has wider reach.

But why aren't writers putting their novels or poems on the Net for free instead of publishing books?

Fellow writers cite the usual reasons: copyright violations, and not getting paid.

To writer/lawyer Daren Shiau, ''interfacing with art on a computer screen'' just doesn't match the careful attention readers pay to hard copy.

Poet and former Straits Times literary editor Koh Buck Song even feels that the Internet has ''cheapened'' information by making it too easily available, to the point where swamped readers can no longer distinguish pulp trash from quality literature.

Still, the writers concur that the Net has potential as a means to reach out and build communities online.

It remains unclear, however, just what kind of clout these virtual groupings have.

Case in point: Last year's No Art Day movement, the failed brainchild of a 300-strong ''arts community'' e-group.

So making it easier to communicate or publish doesn't necessarily improve the level of thinking or participation. The medium does not guarantee the message.

It's not just an issue of whether the Net promotes ''convenient consumerism more than public education'', as fiction writer Jeffrey Lim puts it.

Surely, there's room for both.

Lim agrees that artists could do much more with the Net.

The way to go? Treat the Net as a tool like any other, to be wielded with skill and wisdom.

There's still a place for the Web as online brochure, marketplace and ticketing booth, as theatre companies here have shown.

It can also be a credible forum for dissenting views, independent critical reviews, an invaluable research archive, even a platform for new kinds of hypermedia art.

But simply going online is no substitute for the human qualities that make art - passion, intellectual rigour, creativity and compassion.

Still, it'd be a shame if artists here and elsewhere neglected the Internet as a powerful medium to engage a new generation of net-savvy Singaporeans.

Great art - like the best dotcoms - will find its niche in cyberspace, which is still in its formative years after all.

Time will tell the soul food from mere eye candy.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl