A Horse for the Arts: Looking Back at the Future

Some time ago, I read a newspaper article about scientific research on optimism that began with the phrase 'now that the future is here.' Whenever I hear the words 'the future', I don’t think about THE FUTURE so much as imagine a certain class of people from the last century — white middle-class suburban Americans of the 1950s, for example — all chirpy and a little smug, beaming with hopelessly naive good cheer. I imagine them captivated by the latest advertisements in lifestyle magazines that illustrate 'the modern style of the future', or sitting in front of brand new black and white television sets, watching with mouths slightly parted as some clean-cut gentleman in a grey suit declares: 'in the future ... aeroplanes will be supersonic ... every home will be fully automated ... and families will be able to holiday in outer space.'

Which is to say that a certain desire for 'the future' — that characteristically modern fantasy of a distant tomorrow as a better if not outright utopian place — strikes me as a peculiar form of nostalgia. It is a dreaming for what is to come that belies a dreaming of what is to come back. We may recognise that the apparently relentless progress of modernisation has its social and ecological costs, but underlying our pact with modernity is a desire that some day in the future, there will be a time when the unity of life will be restored. This 'unity', however, is only conceivable to us now, in our epoch of speed and spectacle, as an idyllic longing. That is why the dystopian film by Terry Gilliam, Brazil, was so insightful in conjuring a retro-looking future: the twenty-first century with a dash of George Orwell’s 1948.

From an acoustic perspective, ‘the twenty-first century’ has a pleasant enough ring to it. But the peal of 'the new millennium' sounds incurably trite, fit solely for marketing campaign clichés. About the only thing I did especially to usher in the year 2000 — apart from being with a loved one when the clock struck midnight on December 31st — was read the late Stephen Jay Gould’s Questioning the Millennium. The author of popular books on evolution and natural history and well-respected professor of zoology and geology at Harvard University, he is among my favourite writers.
One of the tasks that art often claims for itself today is to re-introduce a sense of wonder into our intensely pragmatic and money-minded society. And if I remind myself that this task is one for the sciences as well — and Gould is one of most eloquent advocates for the ‘wonder of life’ — it is not to lessen the special place of the arts, but to converge art with something that is, or ought to be, fundamental to all meaningful human endeavour.

In my observations about the arts in Singapore and elsewhere, I find, however, that what prevails is less wonder than hype and hurry. If you can find the marketing video of the second Singapore Biennale, which was called ‘Wonder’ — watch it, and I bet it’ll make your skin crawl. My purpose here is not simply to demonise marketing per se. Today’s reality demands that even the best ideas need to be sold in order to get funded, and just waiting around for your pet project to be discovered by some benevolent benefactor, who just happens to have all the same values that you have, is like wishing for world peace — sure, that’s what we may all want, but we have to do something about it. Chasing the funding dollar is a part of the arts that I can accept.

Unfortunately, the predominance of marketing in all forms of life means that life and art are that much diminished; values become more and more determined by publicity than by artistic practices and processes. But I don’t want to rehearse those complaints, which have become like the truisms of our times. What worries me just as much is how working in the arts is fast becoming like any other job in the much touted knowledge-based economy, where one has to process an ever increasing amount of information, the faster the better; conversations have to fit into neatly designated appointment schedules; and one has to constantly negotiate opportunities, and live not in moments, but always in terms of the bureaucrat’s and entrepreneur’s two- or five-year plans.

The world of contemporary art may no longer be dominated by modern art’s ideology of the avant-garde, but ‘advance’ and ‘progress’ still define its metabolism. Certainly from now on, the history of art will no longer be told in terms of a central trajectory; we are in an age of pluralism, and art develops by branching outwards. Yet for all our multi- and inter-culturalist diversity, we in Asia are still subjected to the tyranny of the new, we are locked into an economy of producing and consuming arts and culture that reproduces the logics of global capitalism. These days to want art has become the same as wanting more art. It is as if the accent isn’t on the ‘art’, but on the ‘more’ — we have to see and have and make more art. Which is not unlike wishing for a future rooted in nostalgia. In such a future, every horizon is framed by the longing for arrival, but as one progresses towards the destination, one never gets there, one only accumulates newer and newer horizons. This is, of course, the very structure of advertising: a factory of broken dreams and incessant wishing. The purpose is not to give you what you want, but just to make you want.

Far too many of the imagined futures that I have encountered in the discourses on art in Asia are futures that hanker after ‘more’, futures conceived in terms of progress. Government rhetoric is an obvious example, as well as the language of grant applications and reports to funders. Moreover, just as telling is how inflected most writing on the arts is underpinned with the idea of such a development. It is as if the task of our art histories is not so much to document the changes in our respective local arts communities, but to call forth their arrivals and successes.

At the core of these aspirations for development, for the future and for ‘more’ is a presumption of ‘history’ as a history of progress, as a narrative where past events build up to more recent ones; where the lessons of history are learnt and thus societies and governments become more enlightened; where humanity becomes increasingly interconnected and increasingly wealthier. If I am suspicious of the desire for the future, it is because I would like to offer a challenge to this understanding of history as progress. The German critic Walter Benjamin argued that history is a reconstruction, not of the past, but of a present. It is the making of montage, where any moment may be juxtaposed, made suddenly adjacent with another.

Benjamin opposed the view that time flows continuously from past to present to future, that history is thus a cumulative and progressive narrative; he wanted to rupture the neat order of past, present, and future. History should be imagined, he suggests, not in terms of a linear sequence of events, but in terms of a constellation of stars. Two stars in the sky may be separated by millions of light years, one being that much older than the other, and yet still appear next to each other. So why shouldn’t historical moments can be drawn together, no matter how far apart in distance or in time? And the purpose of history? — to give us a flash of insight into our own time.

I would like to juxtapose this Benjaminian image of time as a radically open present with another image, which brings me back to Gould. In his book Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Gould begins with an anecdote about the founder of psychoanalysis: 'Sigmund Freud remarked that each major science has made one signal contribution to the reconstruction of human thought — and that each step in this painful progress had shattered yet another facet of an original hope for our own transcendent importance in the universe.' Gould goes on to quote Freud, who said that the first of 'two great outrages' upon humanity’s ‘naive self-love’ was when we realised our planet was not the centre of the universe. The second was when biological research ‘robbed man of his particular privilege of having been specially created’ and ‘relegated him to a descent from the animal world.’ Then, as Gould puts it, in ‘one of history’s least modest pronouncements’, Freud claims his own work in psychoanalysis ‘toppled the next, and perhaps last, pedestal of this unhappy retreat — the solace that, though evolved from a lowly ape, we at least possessed rational minds.’ But for Gould, ‘Freud omitted one of the greatest steps from his list, the bridge between the spatial limitation of human dominion (the Galilean revolution), and our physical union with all ‘lower’ creatures (the Darwinian revolution). He neglected the great temporal limitation imposed by geology upon human importance — the discovery of ‘deep time’ (in John McPhee’s beautifully apt phrase). What could be more comforting, what more convenient for human domination, than the traditional concept of a young earth, ruled by human will within days of its origin. How threatening by contrast, the notion of an almost incomprehensible immensity, with human habitation restricted to a millimicrosecond at the very end!'

With 'deep time', Gould proffers one of the most compelling counter-images to our presumption of progress. How can we humans so arrogantly celebrate our advance when in the bigger scheme of things we may mean next to nothing? In two other books, Full House and Wonderful Life, Gould asserts ‘the unpredictability and contingency of any particular event in evolution’, and ‘presents the general argument for denying that progress defines the history of life or even exists as a general trend at all.'

It is one thing to deny that progress characterises human or all of life’s history, it is another to criticise the very idea of progress. It should go without saying that a critique of progress is not a dismissal of the struggle for social justice, for a more equitable system of distributing and utilising resources, and a more sustainable relationship with our environment. If our ideal is to foster that especially productive tension between differences, namely, the encounter between individuals and communities and their specific histories, and if our hope is to promote a genuine diversity in the arts and culture, then I want to say that we are still not at a place where we can truly recognise difference.

The problem of course is that notions like diversity are so hard to grasp without being framed by the notion of progress. A case in point, our understanding of evolution. In Full House, Gould discusses one of the paradigmatic images of evolution: ‘The phyletic racecourse from small, many-toed protohorses with the charming name eohippus, to a big, single-toed Clydesdale hauling the Budweiser [beer] truck, or Man O’War [thoroughbred] thundering down the stretch, must be the most pervasive of all evolutionary icons.’ This horse story is told as follows: as the evolution of the horse 'progresses', there is a reduction in number of toes — from four in the front leg and three in the back in the earliest animals to a single toe in today’s creature. There is also a steady increase in the height of the molar teeth, and in the third and most evident trend, there is a marked increase in bulk and size. Thus we explain the existence of the modern horse as a connect-the-dots sequence from the ancient, small, short-toothed and many-toed, forest-dwelling Hyracotherium to the big, fast, single-toed, tall-toothed and elegant king of the plains, Equus.

'So far, so good — but ... so very limited, and so misleading. The lineage of Hyracotherium to Equus represents only one pathway through a very elaborate bush of evolution that waxed and waned in a remarkably complex pattern through the last 55 million years. This particular pathway cannot be interpreted as a summary of the bush; or as an epitome of the larger story; or, in any legitimate sense, as a central tendency in equine evolution. We have chosen this little sample of a totality for one reason alone: Equus is the only living genus of horses, and therefore the only modern animal that can serve as an endpoint for a series.'

Throughout the history of horses there was a great diversity, but now there is only one genus. The moral of Gould’s horse story is that what we have done is retold this history of an evolutionary bush — with all its complex branching of species into different species (and not all branches evolved towards less toes, taller teeth and bigger bodies) — we have taken up a former profusion that has since been diminished by extinction into but one twig, and then championed this 'tiny remnant as a unique culmination.' 'We either forget that other pathways to extinct lineages once existed, or we scorn them as "dead ends" ... We then bring forth our conceptual steamroller to straighten out the little path from the surviving twig to the ancestral stock — and, finally, with the positive spin of a consummate evolutionary trendmaker, we praise the progress of horses.'

Gould debunks the 'progress of horses' in a chapter called ‘Life’s Little Joke’; which brings me to my own little joke — my admittedly odd title. As noted, I used to work at The Substation — for nearly ten years, in fact. The organisation’s logo is simply the words 'The Substation — A Home for the Arts' rendered in artist Tan Swie Hian’s calligraphy. The word ‘home’, however, looks a lot like ‘horse.' The thought of having a little pony out in the back, and offering children free rides round and round our garden was not quite what I had in mind when I used to talk about bringing the public and contemporary art together at The Substation. When I used to work there, what I had hoped for art, and what I still want from it now, is not THE FUTURE. What I mean is that I’m less interested in any particular future than I am in the reclaiming of our present. The sense of wonder that I made reference to at the beginning of the essay is not a yearning for childhood innocence nor is it predicated on progress; it is not a passion for what was before or what’s next or what’s better. It is about opening up what is here and now, about multiplying the temporal and experiential dimensions of our present moments. A good part of art’s job is, I believe, to help us see these moments more critically and clearly and, at the same time, to help us see them with wonder.


Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p 1.
Stephen Jay Gould, Life’s Grandeur: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (London: Vintage, 1997), p 4. Life’s Grandeur is the British edition of Full House.


A version of this essay was first published in Selves: the State of the Arts in Singapore, eds. Kwok Kian Woon, et. al., Singapore: National Arts Council, 2001.





LEE Wengchoy, 李永財

Tue, 1 Nov 2011

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