The Singapore Writers Festival panel discussion, titled All Art Is Quite Useless, drew a full house at the Salon of the National Museum of Singapore last Sunday.
Perhaps it was the star power of the four-member panel, comprising celebrated South Korean novelist Kim Young Ha, well-known Singapore theatre director Kuo Jian Hong, award-winning local film-maker Anthony Chen and home-grown artist Heman Chong, that drew the crowd.
Or it might have been that the timing of the provocative claim, made by author Oscar Wilde and raised during the run of two major cultural events here, the literary festival and the Singapore Biennale art show, that piqued the curiosity of festivalgoers.
Either way, the lively dialogue moderated by the new Singapore International Festival of Arts chief Lee Chor Lin, 50, did not disappoint; it was peppered with personal anecdotes from the panellists, which reaffirmed the artistic value of such a discussion.
Three of the panellists, in tackling the question, shared how society and family had made such comments about their profession. For Kuo, 46, an American bank rejected her application for a student credit card because she was an art major.
With Chen, 29, it was parents who wanted to change his Chinese name Zhe Yi, because he was living up to its roots of "philosophy and art", he says. "I was very active in children's theatre and my parents were worried I was going down the wrong path," he said to laughs in the room.
For Kim, 45, his father wanted him to be an accountant or banker, not a writer, while his school teachers snubbed his writings because of their violent and sexual content.
But all of them persevered against naysayers, adamant that art has a value, even though it cannot always be quantified. They were unanimous in attributing its intangible worth to the self-fulfilment of an artist's need to be creative and the importance of communicating ideas and sharing them with others.
Chen, who confessed to an addiction to art, said: "Art will not change the world, but it changes the way you see the world."
Kuo, however, raised a warning that balance needs to be struck between the uselessness and usefulness of art. She said: "The question of the usefulness of art has changed over the last 20 years... now, art is seen as a generator of wealth and GDP (gross domestic product).
"But there is the danger that one day, we can no longer see its uselessness. Then, we would've abandoned the whole reason for doing art, to share things on a level that is not about the rational."
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