High culture in heartland

Last night, I finally became a fan of the Arts Fest.

Maybe we will one day come to expect the arts as part of the local landscape and our cultural birthright.

Hang on - you'd think I would already be one of its evangelists and vocal champions.

Shouldn't I be passionately expounding the lyric grace of The Rite Of Spring, the pulsating masculinity of Ultima Vez, the genius of Philip Glass - never mind that most Singaporeans have never heard of the minimalist composer, much less pronounce Koyaanisqatsi?

Truth is, I've never been avidly interested in Singapore's biggest annual arts bash.

And I haven't got plans to attend any of the main acts this year.

I'm not alone: Many of my friends - 20-something, well-travelled professionals most likely to be the Arts Fest's core target audience - share the same lack of enthusiasm.

Perhaps, being busy busy people, we simply have no time to catch up with a month's worth of shows.

Some complain that tickets are a bit pricey.

But the same bunch of people have no hesitation forking out plenty of time and money on marathon events like the recent Film Festival.

It could be all the hype.

Some, like netizen Artanic, thinks there's a problem with the Arts Fest programming: ''Everyone tries so hard to impress,'' he posted on an online forum.

Indeed, with its $6.1-million budget and multiple TV, print and Web ads, it's hard not to see the Arts Fest as a hardsell publicity blitz for our Renaissance City ambitions.

Uncles folded their newspapers to listen and children became quiet as Philharmonia Wind played at Holland Avenue, part of the Arts On The Move programme at Arts Fest 2001.

Photos © ALVIN PANG : June 2001

I'll be the first to admit that such cynicism is unfair.

But just look at the Festival programme brochures - thin on show details, heavy on glowing blurbs from The New York Times and gushy phrases like ''legendary'' and ''stunning''.

Add to that the dressy, high-society openings, and the whole glitzy affair seemed less about art than about touting ''world-class'' names and flashy avant-garde acts, enticing the cosmo crowd to see and be seen.

It's all well and good to fill our senses, but the glut of high-falutin', esoteric stuff can seem a bit overwhelming to the casual concert goer or opera buff, I think.

Plus, an appreciation of the arts isn't acquired overnight, especially with the cutting-edge fare the Arts Fest tends to favour.

Apart from a narrow band of elites and hardcore artsy types, who's got the patience to take it all in?

Like I said, all that changed last night after I attended an Arts On The Move concert.

It was a festival fringe event, one of the National Arts Council's (NAC) free outreach attempts.

A little-known but passionate local group Philharmonia Wind set up shop in front of Block 2, Holland Avenue and started playing its best brass favourites to heartlander housewives, screaming kids and curious families sticking their heads out of their HDB flats.

Then the crowd kept growing as passers-by stopped to listen.

Children became quiet.

An elderly auntie brought her own stool down to sit and watch.

Middle-aged men in singlets and sandals folded their evening tabloids and paid full attention.

When the magical hour was over, I was applauding not just the musicians, but the NAC for making it impossible to ignore the fact that there's something happening in the arts, right here and now.

Hype it may be, but the Arts Fest approach of saturating the island with artforms of all colours, persuasions and price tags, even for just a month, indicates a relentless determination to make the arts matter.

Sure, I still think some of the shows are a bit wonky. But there's no need to like every show.

The sheer diversity of acts - some of the best ones are free and playing on an HDB grass patch near you - is a reflection of the choice we can now afford in the arts.

If there's a deeper value to the Arts Fest, it's in this exuberant cornucopia of activity.

After all, it gives Singaporeans a chance to see esoteric acts they wouldn't otherwise think of trying.

And if folks who'd never buy an opera ticket or understand Noh theatre can still experience a free act or two at an MRT station, a mall, or on an HDB playground, maybe we will one day come to expect the arts as part of the local landscape and our cultural birthright.

Now that would really spark off a renaissance.

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl