TL;DR – SOTA also not exactly very artsy.
Ms Calleen Koh is a student who is attending a performance art masterclass at SOTA. That’s when she carried out an impromptu art installation with paper planes. On each of the paper planes, she wrote the name of a teacher who has left the school. She then stuck paper planes in the crevices between the concrete slabs. The art installation was located just outside the general office, near where the Vice-Principals’ offices are.
A teacher from SOTA explained that the work was Calleen’s personal expression of loss and as a form of catharsis. Calleen didn’t intend to offend. Nevertheless, the work was swiftly taken down. The reason? Calleen had not asked for permission.
Want to do art? Must seek permission first
In their defence, the school said this:
“At SOTA, we encourage our students to express themselves creatively, and our school grounds form part of our students’ canvas and performance platform.”
But to use the school grounds, the students had to get permission and follow guidelines that the school has. The school elaborated:
“For instance, to provide the description for the artwork, the display period and safety considerations.”
A bit bureaucratic, no?
SOTA is a place whose very reason for existence is to nurture artistic creativity. Artistic creativity often, if not always, doesn’t follow rules. In fact, the best or most creative form of Arts challenges conventions and pushes boundaries. In many ways, the Arts is quite the opposite of rigid bureaucracy.
To nurture such artistic creativity, there needs to be space for people to bend, and sometimes, break rules. But if SOTA, a school whose mission is to nurture artistic creativity, isn’t willing to provide that space, then how can we possibly hope to nurture such artistic creativity? If even SOTA rigidly follows rules, then what hope is there for the development of the Arts in Singapore?
But there are rules!
So? What are the rules there for? Is it more important to follow the letter of the rules, or the spirit of the rules? Do we have rules just so that we have rules to follow? Surely not, right? The rules must be there to serve a higher purpose.
Perhaps the are rules are there to ensure safety and order. We certainly don’t want students to be putting up “works of art” that might hurt end up hurting people. Like… if they put up sharp metal spikes in the middle of a main thoroughfare. Or the rules are there to ensure that our social fabric isn’t torn apart. We definitely won’t want “works of art” that deliberately cause one group of Singaporeans to distrust another group.
But did the paper planes do any of those? No. In fact, some would say it’s quite a heartwarming piece of art that reflected a student’s sentiments for her teachers. Calleen herself said:
“As I was part of the Teachers’ Day planning committee for half my SOTA life, it saddened me whenever a teacher has to leave for whatever reasons they had as I felt that these educators played an integral part of nurturing the students in SOTA”
It sure sounds like Calleen was driven to create that work of art of her respect for and gratitude to her teachers. Surely that’s something we want to nurture, right?
We need the Arts, but can we really develop it in Singapore?
In fact, PM Lee himself said something about nurturing a gracious society, when he opened the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre:
“We certainly don’t wish Singapore to be a first-world economy but a third-rate society, with a people who are well off but uncouth. We want to be a society rich in spirit, a gracious society where people are considerate and kind to one another, and as Mencius said, where we treat all elders as we treat our own parents, and other children as our own.”
PM Lee also highlighted that we need the Arts and culture to “nourish our souls”.
So why isn’t SOTA celebrating what Calleen did? Instead, it acted in a blindly and rigidly manner. For what? What harm was there in leaving the work where it was? Couldn’t SOTA turn what Calleen did into a bigger teachable moment for its students? Wouldn’t it have been better if SOTA took what Calleen did, extended it, and got other students to think of ways to express their respect for and gratitude to their teachers?
Unfortunately, this incident suggests that we still have our work cut out for us when it comes to developing the Arts in Singapore. And that, beyond the fact that most of SOTA’s students don’t go on to pursue arts related university courses after graduating from SOTA, is the reason why SOTA is a failure.