How to kill visual literacy among the masses


One of Joel Yuen’s winning artworks in the latest UOB Painting of The Year. Photo extracted from


From Merriam-Webster dictionary:


1 a: of, relating to, or dealing with aesthetics or the beautiful <aesthetic theories> b: artistic <a work of aesthetic value> c: pleasing in appearance : attractive <easy-to-use keyboards, clear graphics, and other ergonomic and aesthetic features — Mark Mehler>2: appreciative of, responsive to, or zealous about the beautiful; also : responsive to or appreciative of what is pleasurable to the senses.

From the ST article on the winning works:

In his comments for the award-giving ceremony last Saturday, chief judge Choo Thiam Siew, president of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, said: ‘The judges see the re-interpretation of the traditional Western still-life painting of the Italian 16th century and Dutch 18th century, but superbly executed in the medium of photography. It has drama and power, it has a strong message.

‘Yet it leaves the viewer room for imagination. The objects are arranged effectively and artistically. The message was very well-conveyed without the artwork being bloody or gruesome.’

Architect and art collector Tan Kay Ngee, 51, who was one of the five judges, tells Life! that Yuen’s entry elevated photography to the level of classical painting with its lighting and composition.

He says: ‘When we were judging, we were not looking for good-looking work. We were looking for something creative which breaks the mould and carries on a certain tradition. The set of photos has all these qualities.’

Say what you will about the image above, but personally I think all these so-called art critics and judges (ie. the judges of this contest) should strive to promote aesthetic appreciation among the masses, not just praise someone’s work for its lighting, composition and seemingly vague agenda. Give me a studio with lights and a flash transmitter and I’ll show you it’s not a stretch to create such lighting composition.

To paint with oils/watercolor to create such an effect, however, IS a real stretch beyond the abilities of most young artists today. Paintings should be regarded as paintings, and photographs ARE not paintings. Otherwise, one day we’ll have digital art proclaimed as analogue art just because the JPG was printed on paper.

Actually, if you see Joel Yuen’s website, he does have some really nice images there. These BnW works do not hint at his painting ability, which is actually really good (hopefully his paintings are not done with Corel Painter).

An artist should be free to produce whatever his heart and mind desires, but the onus is on those who judge the work in  public competition, to increase the level of visual literacy in the public.

We need more aesthetic works in the public sphere to inspire, to motivate future artists and to promote the love of human ability. There is a part of our human condition – the aesthetic – which needs to be stoked and massaged to relieve us from our daily stresses. I remember the long hours I spent in Rome’s art galleries, and letting my mind unwind and relax just staring at works of beauty. Singapore doesn’t have enough of that.

It’s a vicious cycle – due the lack of beautiful works around us, people don’t think the fine arts are worth a career in, and hence there are even less aesthetic work being done.

Personally I dislike these winning works and I don’t agree with the judges’ decision (oh yeah, please don’t diss the classical masters), but hey, at least they provoke a reaction. For that, the artist has accomplished half of his mission.

The other half – for me to appreciate and understand his work – ain’t going to happen. I prefer to eat my trotters and chicken feet, not hang them up on a wall. Ter Kar anyone?

But congratulations to the winner anyway, all’s fair in love and art.

I would tell the judges to go fly a kite though. You guys are doing Singapore a real disservice.

6 Replies to “How to kill visual literacy among the masses”

  1. I highly agree to this article especially with this sentence

    “It’s a vicious cycle – due the lack of beautiful works around us, people don’t think the fine arts are worth a career in, and hence there are even less aesthetic work being done.”

    I think much more could be done to encourage the growth of Arts in Singapore.

  2. Hi Mr Ian! (: I’m currently doing a proposal to start some research on the topic of Visual Literacy, and yeah I just happened to stumble on your website 😀
    Hmm I would really really appreciate it if you could leave me a comment about my research question: Through Singaporeans’ choices in design and architecture, can we come up with a set of uniquely Singaporean visual literacy principals and guidelines? (as you have mentioned different cultures have different principals) at my email .
    Or if you don’t think this question is feasible or anything just throw all the flak at me! 😀 Sorry to take up your time, and thank you in advance! (:

  3. Hi Kelly

    Through Singaporeans’ choices in design and architecture, can we come up with a set of uniquely Singaporean visual literacy principals and guidelines?

    Sorry, don’t think your proposal question is feasible. The level of visual literacy in SG is still pretty low. To have some guidelines, one must have some consistent history of visual design awareness and application, and as you’ve probably observed, SG is a rojak of ideas and design, with no particular theme in mind. Generally, this is tied in to the lack of national identity too.

    Perhaps you can tell me the scope of your research and what is it for, I might be able to give more useful feedback.



  4. Hi Mr Tan,

    Thanks for your reply, I do understand what you’re driving at – Singapore is a young and too diverse country after all, and there’s nothing much to talk about of our ‘national identity’.

    I’m doing this proposal to try and gain entry into HSSRP (Humanities & Social Sciences Research Programme) under the topic of ‘Visual Literacy and design’, but there is no particular scope defined by the mentor. I would however like to venture into something about the principals of visual literacy, such as colour combinations, fonts, proportion etc. possibly in the context of Singapore or SEA.

    I was considering doing something about how culture and environment affects visual literacy principals, such as “Why do visual literacy principals differ across different cultures and societies?” However, the focus of this question would be more about cultural differences rather than the main topic, Visual Literacy and Design.

    Thank you again for your reply!

    Kelly (:

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