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The dying appreciation of fine arts in Malaysia

Malaysian art collector questions elitism in art & calls for improved national art scene.

Picture: Boggi Milano

Malaysian art collector questions elitism in art & calls for improved national art scene.

Question from Mr. P (real name is undisclosed):

Happy raya to GC,

I like to learn things about aristocracy and elitism. I have read some of your articles and you do mention a lot about those two terms. I am also an art collector myself, having been studying art, I always associate art with aristocracy and elitism because when you talk about fine art, there is always an involvement of the upper class. Only the upper class (elites) can digest art due to their sophistication and education.

Now, I recently visited the smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C., and i was amazed how well they maintain the gallery, how strict they were in terms of dress code (you need to be smart casual) or you won't be allowed to enter. They even hang the art work at a certain eye level for seamless viewing, there is also a breathing room between one art and another (there is a specific measurement for this) and even the spotlights surrounding the art are strategically placed.  Unfortunately, the same thing cannot be said for the art galleries in Malaysia. Our National Art Gallery of Malaysia is as dead as a graveyard. The arts displayed are full of dust which is a result of poor maintenance which eventually would destroy the value of the painting. Even the regular Malaysians are not aware of our own art gallery. You don't need to go far, even our Istana Budaya is almost non-existent with little to zero promotion. I attended one of the Istana Budaya events last year and cafeteria food was not tasty at all and this is coming from a Malaysian like myself. I cannot fathom how a foreigner would comment as there were plenty of foreigners who came to the cafe and went out with frustration as the food did not meet their expectations. To top it all off, I saw quite a number of Malaysians who attended the istana budaya event with attire like they were going to pasar malam! Thank God that there were foreigners (mostly europeans) who came in well-dressed (they seem to have respect towards art and culture) so it didn't look entirely bad but many of our locals seem to have a wardrobe malfunction. Why is our istana budaya not coming up with a proper dress code? Why is our national art gallery not promoting anything on the various art featured in their gallery? What are our ministers doing?

If you look back at history, fine art (painting, sculpture) was traditionally created for the ruling class (elites and aristocrats) that goes back to the early age of civilisation. I think fine art has now been replaced by digital photography which seems to be a more popular choice for the medium and lower classes to enjoy which explains the lack of publicity of fine art in many countries. Upper class and elitism are still strong in many Western worlds which is why they still can appreciate fine art unlike Asians.

So back to my question, do you think fine art would die if aristocracy or upper class never existed? How can we, Malaysians, instill awareness that fine art remains an important and valuable piece in society?

Answer by The Gentleman:

Hey there, Mr. P!

Thanks for the Raya wishes and for sharing your thoughts on art, elitism, and the state of Malaysian art institutions.

It's true, there's a long history of art being linked to the aristocracy. Think Renaissance popes commissioning Michelangelos, or Lorenzo De Medici commissioning the Brunelleschi's dome and you get the picture. But here's the thing: art doesn't have to be elitist.

Your experience at the Smithsonian sounds amazing. They clearly put a lot of care into creating a great visitor experience, from the dress code (keeps things respectful) to the lighting (gotta see those masterpieces!). It is sad that the National Art Gallery here isn't quite there yet. Dust bunnies are the enemy of art, and some promotion wouldn't hurt either!

Now, about Istana Budaya – cafeteria woes aside – the dress code is a tricky one. While looking sharp is nice, art appreciation shouldn't be about fashion shows. Maybe a "respectful attire" policy would be better?On the quality of events by Istana Budaya, we did reached out to them suggesting Istana Budaya to benchmark with other world's class cultural centre like The Kennedy Opera in Washington, and The Royal Albert Hall in London. Hey, we need to be world-class eventually right?

As for your point about digital art being more popular – absolutely! It's a fantastic, accessible medium. But fine art, like paintings and sculptures, isn't dead. It's just evolved. Look at contemporary artists – they're pushing boundaries and creating thought-provoking work that's just as relevant today as a Renaissance portrait.

So, would fine art have existed without the aristocracy? Maybe not in the same form, but the human urge to create and express ourselves has always been there.

Here's the real question: How can we make Malaysians appreciate our own art scene? Here are a few ideas:

  • Free / discounted entry days: Make art accessible to everyone!

  • Interactive exhibits: Get people engaged with the art, not just looking at it.

  • Social media campaigns: Highlight local artists and their work.

  • Community art events: Get people creating and appreciating art together.

We have a rich artistic heritage in Malaysia, and it deserves to be celebrated! Let's work on making our art institutions more engaging and show the world the amazing talent we have here.

And hey, maybe next Istana Budaya event, we can all start setting an example by dressing smart – however, art appreciation shouldn't come at the expense of ultra expensive outfit.

Let's keep the conversation going!

A Canvas Gathering Dust: Reviving Art Appreciation in Malaysia


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