Crediting Art

10 November 2022 | Journal

Sasi speech Harvard Club of Singapore Annual Dinner

Harvard Club of Singapore Fellow 2022 Lecture by ITI Co-Founder and Director T. Sasitharan (Sasi) at the Harvard Club of Singapore Annual Dinner, 10 November 2022

(Sasi was awarded the Harvard Club of Singapore Fellow Award in March. More info here.)


When I was informed in November last year the Harvard Club had selected me as the third Harvard Fellow, I thought it was a prank. KC Chew (Chew Kheng Chuan) assured me it was not, and the two previous recipients of this award were Dr Noeleen Heyzer and Prof Wang Gungwu. At that time, such an outcome was not just beyond expectation: it was simply beyond conception.  

DPM Lawrence Wong, Members of the Harvard Club of Singapore, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a privilege to be here tonight. I am honoured to receive this award. In the time granted to me, sandwiched between the appetiser and main course, I want to Credit Art.

Art satisfies the highest human needs. After the satisfaction of our material needs, after we’ve acquired the Mercedes-Benz and the Magic Beans. What kicks in is the need to make meaning of our lives, to tell stories that will build communities. Communities that will save our children.

All through recorded time, art has given Form to human experience. Form begets Order. Art creates Order as true to the impact of external reality and as sensitive to the inner laws of the human heart; delicate as a web shimmering in the moonlight.

It engenders voice and line, depth and resonance, to human desires and dreams; dispensing harmony and concord, and the milk of the sweetest pleasure. This is wonderful and wondrous amidst war, climate disaster and death. Art provides secular succour and a glimpse of the subtlety of mind and nobility of heart that humans are capable of.

Being an artist means learning many lessons. The first is to be unafraid to work without limitations to the imagination. Art is impossible when the mind is manacled, and the heart is unfeeling.

We have been told, time and again, there is no such thing as complete freedom. That we must be practical and pragmatic, be compliant and compromise, cultivate the art of the possible. For the artist these are lies; damned lies to be rejected out of hand. There can be no art without freedom.

The history of art is filled with artists who have fought to be free. From Shostakovich, Akhmatova and Mandelstam to Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Kuo Pao Kun. Hear their Music, read their Poetry and watch their Plays. Art cannot abide subjugation.

William Faulkner said: 

“[The artist] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labours under a curse. […] His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”

(William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Speech, 1949) 

What is art? As soon as you've figured out the answer, the next work of art you see will confound it. Do not be vexed by such questions. You will know art when you find it or, more likely, when it finds you.

Behold art. You will be moved, touched, shaken and shook. The truth you behold, or discover, or learn will be palpable and undeniable no matter how plain, painful, pathetic or unpalatable it may seem to you.

Art transforms you. It is the grammar of what the mind knows and the heart feels — necessarily. As necessarily as the Laws of Physics and Logic. Art fuses reality and fantasy and everything else in between, through all time and all places, for all people. People you love and people you loathe. Art shows us the world sub specie aeternitatis – from the perspective of eternity.

For TS Eliot it is:

Datta – Charity
Dayadhvam – Compassion
Dhamyatta – Control

(TS Eliot, The Wasteland, 1922. Quoting The Bbrihadaranyaka Upanishad

For Kawabata, it is Time:

“[…] time flows in many streams.
Like a river, an inner stream of time
Will flow rapidly at some places and  
Sluggishly at others, or perhaps even stand  
Hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the  
same for everyone, but human time differs 
with each person. Time flows in the same 
way for all human beings; every human  
being flows through time in a different way.” 

(Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness, 1965) 

A community without artists is not a true community. Only a group of people living in a vicinity. Culture binds communities and art is the flower of culture, its finest expression.

Even so, each individual artist must be prepared to fail. And fail again, and fail better. There can be no art if artists cannot fail. If they are not prepared to be stupid. Stupid enough to trust the process of making art. A process that will always be unproven, inefficient and messy. Impossible to engineer. For at the heart of this process, nestled inside supreme skill and craftsmanship and technique and acute observation of life and compassion, is Ethical Will and Moral Agency.

How good art is partly depends upon what you judge is appropriate to say about what art says. For example, one of the reasons why Goya’s disasters of war sketches is so highly regarded, is not just because of the technical artistry, but because the technical artistry is in the service of something we take to be important and true. Namely there is something horrific about the degradation involved in warfare and brutality.

When a work is morally problematic, it should affect how we think of its value as art. Take a famous film; Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Leni Riefenstahl was a German filmmaker. She used brilliant filmic techniques long before people in Hollywood even thought of them. Her imagery is amazing. And in Triumph of the Will, in a very short opening sequence, we see a plane coming down from the clouds, the shadow, the light behind it. We have a demigod descending onto the crowd and it’s Hitler. It’s a glorification of Hitler in person and Naziism. The film tries to get us to admire something that we should condemn. This is bad art.

You cannot be a good artist, unless you are a good person. A good person in the sense that you assume full responsibility as a Moral Being and in making art you are prepared to be “irresponsible”. To swim against the current, to question, to criticise and to challenge the status quo. This is the artist as iconoclast, the shatter of conventions. This aspect of the artist stands opposed to the notion of the artist as the flighty, slightly wacko weirdo or the romantic fool, or mad genius. 

The arts have been part of Singapore life for as long as anyone can remember. As indigenous Malay communities thrived, tilling the land, fishing the waters, and were conjoined with imperialists from Europe, immigrant labourers and merchants from China, India, Arabia and the rest of the seafaring world, the arts were already here.

As we settled on this noisy island to make a life, to work and to love, the arts were already here. Theatre, dance, song, music, literature, puppetry, opera and painting mingled and melded with life. Lives connected to civilizations far away and beyond. The past was but a dream, echoes of forgotten songs, ditties heard in the first flush of life and lingering flavours seeped on our tongues. The arts were already here. These our forefathers carried and passed on.

Yet today the arts are rarely acknowledged, much less celebrated, as vital to our lives. We think of the arts as an extension of the State, or the Economy or Education or Therapy; as needing sanction from a Central Organising Authority. As instruments of command planning; corporatisation and the KPIs of cultural industries. Lest we forget, it was not so long ago when the arts in Singapore were but the icing on the economic cake, and poetry was a luxury we could not afford.  

To make art is to first look to life and ultimately to return to life. In those unfortunate places where people are afraid to speak, where only the anointed few may be heard, there art must speak loudest. For these are the places where art is most urgently needed.

Athol Fugard was a playwright who wrote in English in apartheid South Africa, where a white minority oppressed a vast Black majority. His 1974 play, The Island is set in Robben Island, the penal colony where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The play is about two black men, political prisoners, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, incarcerated without trial.

After a long day of back-breaking toil, digging  holes on the beach, and then filling them up again and again, in a futile Sisyphean loop, they return to their cell knackered. The lights come up on stage and John and Winston are  sprawled on the floor. John picks up a mug and using it as a telephone receiver dials the number for his neighbourhood shop in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth:

[Read from The Island, end of Scene 1] 

It is a magical moment that breaks down all prisons and addresses all prisoners who are unjustly imprisoned in the world, in all time. All the impediments to freedom that the Whites had put up against Blacks, come crashing down. This is the art of Theatre at its best. Breaking through barriers and challenging us to imagine what might be, and never to yield. To ask: What If? What If? What If? The clarion call of art.

Enabling dreams we dare not dream and giving voice to the voiceless. Showing us infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour. Disturbing the comfortable and comforting the disturbed.

However, a note of caution is in order here. This is not always so because the art object, qua object, carries no moral or spiritual imperative.

Never forget that Germany was the pinnacle of European Civilisation, when Fascism devastated it. The men who conceived the Final Solution were the elite of German learning and society. Concentration camp commandants listened to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven before donning their uniforms and gassing Jewish children. Never forget.

The art object per se is inadequate and so the artist must question art itself. What can art not say? What more should it say? How can it bridge the divide, resolve the contradictions; calm the clamouring voices? How can art keep the dread at bay?

Looking back at the commercialisation of the telegraph in United States in 1844, the media philosopher Marshall McLuhan sees the new technology as a harbinger of terror:

“With the telegraph Western man began a process of putting his nerves outside his body. Previous technologies had been extensions of physical organs: the wheel is a putting-outside-ourselves of the feet; the city wall is a collective outering of the skin. But electronic media are, instead, extensions of the central nervous system, an inclusive and simultaneous field. Since the telegraph we have extended the brains and nerves of man around the globe. As a result, the electronic age endures a total uneasiness, as of a man wearing his skull inside and his brain outside. We have become peculiarly vulnerable.”

(Marshall McLuhan, The Agenbite of Outwit, 1963)

1844 was also the year Soren Kierkegaard published The Concept of Dread

Today we are far more vulnerable and our dread is much worse. Only by listening to the echoes of the past and feeling the ripples of waters that slaked our thirst; hearing the cadence, the metre, the rhythm and rhyme of our tongues, may we find calm. 

Li Bai, drinks alone and sees the selfsame moon we see today: 

“A jug of wine among the flowers, 
I drink alone, I think. 
I tip my cup to the bright moon. 
The moon, my shadow, and I make three. 
The moon does not care to drink. 
My shadow only trails along. 
Fleeting friends we three, the moon, my shadow and I. 
Still, let us make merry ’til the end of Spring. 
The moon swaying as I sing. 
My shadow dancing in step along with me. 
Sober, we happily honor the hour. 
Drunk, we part. 
Our meeting beyond the heavens, 
Until we gather again, these two and I, 
Beneath the Heavenly River” 

(Li Bai, Drinking Alone Under the Moon, Circa 743) 

And still on the theme of wine and drunkenness, this is Omar Khayyam of Persia: 

“With me along some Strip of Herbage strown 
That just divides the desert from the sown, 
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known, 
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne. 

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough, 
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou 
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —  
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.” 

(Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat, Circa 12th Century) 

W.B Yeats, the Irish nationalist poet, wrote in English. Despite the terror of war and English oppression his poetry has the innocence and delicacy of an adolescent falling in love for the first time:   

“Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”  

(WB Yeats, Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, 1899) 

But Yeats was also a hard-nosed realist, who prophetically saw the Black Hole Europe was hurtling towards:   

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre 
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere 
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst 
Are full of passionate intensity.” 

(WB Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919) 

Art transforms the valency of perception and creates possibilities where none had existed before. It creates new worlds and new realities. No one understood this better than Kuo Pao Kun. This is the coda from his Descendants of The Eunuch Admiral

I have no home 
My home is across the ocean on the seas 
I have no home 
My home is in the alien countries 
On far away waters 
I have no name 
I have no sex 
Departing is my arriving 
Wandering is my residence 
Stop asking, stop 
Ma He, Zheng He 
Sampoh Gong 
Cut and dried 
Plugged and exiled 
Orphaned and wanderer 
Eunuch, Admiral 
Yesterday from Liu Jia He 
To the Western Oceans 
Today from Longyamen 
To the Suzhou Park 
Tomorrow the Earth, the Moon, Mars and the Sun 
Nameless, Sexless, Rootless, Homeless 
Everyone is parent to the orphan 
Every God is a protector to the wanderer. 
Every land and sky and water is home 
It is forever “Zai Jian”, “Selamat”, “Vanakam”, “Farewell” 
I cannot tarry 
I must hurry 
The sea, the land, the sky is waiting 
The market is calling me. 

(Kuo Pao Kun, Descendants of The Eunuch Admiral, 1995) 

I stand before you here as one man, but I am not one thing. I am not singular, and if my life has meant anything at all it has been a proclamation of plurality. The “I” that I speak of, the “I” that speaks, is contested, vexed and confused, a co-mingling of contingencies and necessities. This “I” is a confluence of histories and landscapes and choices and chances. I stand before you as an artist, a father, a son, a husband, a worker, a Hindu, a Singaporean, a Tamilan, a pro-lifer who is for abortion, a fan of football, and a lover of philosophy with a weakness for wine. 

I am all these things at once, and none. I crave to be more. More than the sum of my parts. I am plural and diverse, and the two are not the same. 

I am a whole and a fragment, connected and disjointed, in place and displaced. I am part of one of the oldest living, classical civilizations on earth and nothing more than a washed-up immigrant on a dot of an island at the tip of the Malaysian peninsular, the farthest point south that Asia extends. Flotsam and jetsam of a diasporic dispersion from long ago. 

If I am certain of anything it is this; art enables me, it makes me whole. And my daughters will be far more plural and diverse than me and will be much more than I can begin to imagine. This is what it is to be alive. We are many, many things and many things are within us. Art makes us whole.

Thank you! 




Sasi speech Harvard Club of Singapore Annual Dinner 2

From L to R: Arun Mahizhnan, Chairman of ITI Board of Directors; Andrew Nai, board member; Rebecca Woo, President of the Harvard Club of Singapore; T. Sasitharan; Chew Kheng Chuan, board member