I think I can attest for most that free visits to museums are nothing short of delightful. It is rather inconceivable that one could be greatly displeased by the free experience of appreciating modern masterpieces at the Singapore Art Museum, or learning about Singapore’s heritage at the National Museum of Singapore. Yet, I have observed that many- my friends and I included- avoid paying to enter exclusive temporary exhibitions. In fact, when I finally decided to visit the “NASA – a Human Adventure” exhibition recently, I only did so on its last day, when the tickets were discounted. I stopped short of paying the 8 dollars’ entrance fee several times, hesitant of sacrificing other options that the 8 dollars could get me: a movie ticket or a value meal at McDonalds, etc.
One might instinctively attribute this to an unimaginative society ignorant about art. However, I would like to offer an alternative explanation. Perhaps, we avoid paying seemingly “exorbitant” prices to enjoy something that we perceive is already present in our daily lives. Living in an urban city surrounded by artistic architecture may have normalized our appreciation for the exquisite uniqueness of art. With art becoming so readily available to us all, maybe the issue lies not in our failure to appreciate art but rather how we have conflated all forms of refined visual art together.
Yet, there is a drastic difference in our willingness to pay for “mainstream art” such as movies. Having anticipated the release of “Beauty and the Beast” for months, I purchased movie tickets without a moment’s hesitation. In the case of movies, there are few legal alternatives to experiencing them in their cinematic magnificence. This experience is not as easily replicated outside of the distinct environment of plush chairs, pitch black darkness, proximity to the action displayed and feelings evoked. Thus, this reveals a certain irony in our perceptions, that our access to conventional art seems to be limited, by movie ticket prices for example. In comparison, refined art seems to be more attainable, more present and more integrated into our daily environment through architecture, art festivals and the like.
In fact, the more mainstream art is promoted, via advertisements, trailers, and themed events, the more we crave them. On the contrary, with more art festivals and scenic architecture, our appetites for refined art seem to be satisfied. Perhaps, we are not as aware of the further enjoyment we can attain from a greater exposure to refined art. More specifically, we are confronted by this practical question of how much better can ‘paid exhibitions’ be than what I can enjoy for free? This comparison proves to be difficult to quantify.
Therefore, an important consideration is for the balance struck between free and paid art. There is inherently much complexity in pricing and recognising art as a tradable commodity as any other, in a capitalist environment. Unfortunately, I do not have the answers pertaining to the economic position we should take towards art. In the current societal context, should we pay for special art events such as the M1 Fringe Festival?
To be fair, we should first understand why some exhibitions are free, and why others are not. The government subsidizes certain art exhibitions to promote cultural appreciation- this allows us to enjoy them for free, regardless of our financial standings. However, exhibitions hosted by external organisations that require some form of financial turnover would have to involve us paying to enter. Is a paid exhibition better than a free exhibition then? Not necessarily so, but it is also gives us a distinctly different experience from our day-to-day activities. The highly-defined replicas of rockets and preserved artifacts in the “NASA – a Human Adventure” paid exhibition were truly out of the ordinary. As I entered the Dreamers gallery of visionaries, I was transported back to a time when what we now consider common knowledge was unimaginable. Being in this baroque chamber of radical and limitless thought induced in me a new level awe and admiration.
Surely, some may prefer learning about such information from online sources. However, we then miss out on the non-physical, experiential aspect that mere facts fail to convey. In a paper by Philosopher Michael Tye entitled “Visual Qualia and Visual Content Revisited”, he expounds upon the “intrinsic, nonintentional features” that visual experiences present us with, that grant us a more conducive mental state for introspection. What we take away goes beyond the visualized geometry and colours: we gain a further glimpse of an “inner picture”.
So, to answer the question on our minds, is it worth the money? I myself hesitate when I see a price tag attached to entries into exhibitions. The additional attainment of satisfaction may not be easy to reconcile with the financial cost of it, when the boundaries between the accessible and the inaccessible seem to blur. Understandably, we all have personal priorities concerning our financial budgets. But, what I am sure about, is that I have no regrets about my paid experience. Hence, I ask myself a different question: why not give it another go? And to those who have never tried, and would rather spend on a ticket to golden village: your uncertainty may never be alleviated, but the experience may surprise you pleasantly.