Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
I was a little shaken upon hearing about a new solo art exhibition of a woman I know who took art classes only a couple of years back, before COVID. It was even a bigger surprise to discover that the solo exhibition was about to take place at the venerable Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts.
Featuring painters who picked up painting as a hobby, studying for a few years, and without a degree, their works have become numerable in size, volume and subject to fill up the white walls of the current exhibition space at the museum.
Well-known critics won't utter a word. They either turned their heads away or did not show up at the opening, probably a sign of disapproval.
Many painters won't say anything. Those who worked hard to pass tough exams for art schools studied at college for four more years and likely know their friend's strengths and weaknesses. The names of these newcomers will not push them to raise their eyebrows.
As Việt Nam is doing better economically, more people find it within reach to learn how to paint. Canvases, oils and brushes are available at every price range.
It is aching to think about the scarcity of art supplies in the war years when master painters like Bùi Xuân Phái resorted to drawing on print newspapers, the lining of cigarette packets, and discarded cardboard. But the images he created were vivid, beautiful and unprecedented.
The good side of overflowing art supplies is that it provides art lovers with material to put their ideas into sketches right then and there. Those who cannot afford art classes when they were small can make their childhood dream come true and learn how to draw or paint what they want.
The downside is, which can be devastating in the long run, that you find yourself running out of complimentary words and praise to be polite and encouraging. "Wonderful, marvellous and magnificent" are words that can be found every time some new so-called artist posts their new painting on social media.
We all know it's just words, and those who easily throw down lavish compliments can harm good artists. Being supportive is good in daily life, but easy accomplishments can spoil and kill small buds of talent.
Not just in fine arts, this process has been taking place in all genres of the artistic world.
A mediocre musician can now hire an opera stage to make their own music video. It's not a public concert, but the video goes online, and when people watch it, the image of that musician playing on the famous stage sticks in their minds.
While not everyone is qualified to perform on that stage, in the public's mind, they are already there, and the moment when that particular musician performs on the stage for real arrives sooner or later.
A film was made about how money can let you pay your way to become a singer. Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep, depicts a New York socialite in the 1920s who names herself as a coloratura soprano despite not having any talent. She even becomes the musical director of various women's clubs.
She made several recordings that we can still listen to today, but the notes are all wrong. It is not even worth critics considering it, and the view of the audience is, "how could she not know?"
Believe it or not, with some help from her friends and a devoted and jobless lover (played by Hugh Grant), who bought all the newspapers covering the paucity of her performance, and she ended up performing at the venerable Carnegie Hall.
Now it seems that this insane moment from 100 years ago that we may have read, heard about or watched in a movie is currently taking place here in Việt Nam.
It doesn't matter if I find it sad, ironic or devastating. More exhibitions or shows will continue to be held in places that are unsuitable and not befitting of those with a lack of true artistic talent.
"What are you going to do? Call the police to seize the karaoke-obsessed neighbour getting the notes off-key?" said a painter, trying to put things in context.
If that karaoke neighbour sings for his own or his family's pleasure, then he has the right to do so. But if he sings at a famed opera house, it will be a complete catastrophe.
Nevertheless, Jenkins did this 100 years ago, and even the most creative soul would never have imagined that her life would become the stuff of a documentary, a Broadway play, and two new movies a century later.
The more we read about it, the more ridiculous it becomes.
All these years later a trained singer, famed movie star Streep, had to train to sing off-tune and off-key to perform the role. In the case of Jenkins, it didn't matter how much talent she had, but simply that she had the guts to put it out there.
The only positive effect of this vanity was that she made wounded soldiers, who had felt pain and sadness for a long time, break out in unstoppable laughter, so comedic was her pathetic attempt at singing. It proved wonderful entertainment for the soldiers who deserved a good laugh for all they had been through.
Maybe in 100 years, if you have got the guts today, people will be talking about your art. We can be sarcastic now, but maybe in a century this will be the reality.
But with all respect to the arts and artists, these shows need to go somewhere else. Leave the Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts in peace. VNS