CityNews Article Archive:
Is Our Society becoming too Mechanical?

May 14, 2012 - Cindy Ritpunja

CityNews – It seems we have forgotten the importance of being truly human. With the almost omnipotence of computers and machines you might wonder if machines will finally one day replace people. We now see how humanity, creativity relies so much on machines rather than human ingenuity. 

Naovarat Pongpaiboon 

More and more people are now choosing to study the sciences, rather than choosing a field they might love in the faculty of arts. The reason for this is often the same: “It’s easier to find a good-paying job in the field of science.” Others often haughtily ask art students: “What you gonna do with a degree in art?” 

It seems that in today’s society it is best to be attached to the careers such as ‘engineer,’ ‘chemist,’ or ‘physician’, the connotation is of luxury, intelligence and success. Careers such as ‘artist,’ ‘writer’ or ‘musician’ offer an image of a person who doesn’t know what to do with his or her life and has resorted to a field that ‘does not require much brains.’

Is art not needed anymore? Is science the only field we need for development and progress? Is art doomed? Are machines and money managing our feeelings? Are we forgetting to be human?

In attempt to answer these questions, I was honored to interview Naovarat Pongpaiboon (? ?), a Thai poet and National Artist in literature, born March 26, 1940 in Kanchanaburi Province. His poem “Mere Movement (?)” won the Southeast Asian Writers Award in 1980. He has inspired Thais all over the country across all generations with his poetic words that tell stories and paint pictures in our minds, and that express opinions about society, culture, politics, life, nature, and religion.

“You can be a competent scientist, but if you have not been taught to be human, you can be an evil scientist,” argues Naovarat. “Modern education should teach people to be human. This is the most important aspect of education, and it is art that will educate people on being human. We live in a world overflowing with facts and information from institutions and organisations. Nowadays, you can just go and search on Google whatever you want to know. Some students know even more facts and information than the teachers!”

Naovarat explains that the weakness of Thai education is that too much emphasis is put on studying. Each day, students sit in the classroom as the teacher drones on, stuffing into their heads more and more of these facts. It is great that students are learning all the facts, but they will all just go to waste if schools and institutions do not teach students to manage and organise the facts and information they know, but more importantly, if they do not teach students to be human. In other words, in order for a truly effective education, people need to learn information management and how to be human, the education that only subjects in the field of art offers.

But before we ask why art could educate people on being human, we need to know what the word ‘art’ really means. English is not the lingua franca. It is art!

“Art is a language of feelings and emotions,” says Naovarat, “Feelings and emotions are universal, far beyond the languages we speak and learn like English, Chinese, and Thai. We don’t even need language to express emotions and feelings such as hunger, pain, sadness, and love, right? They’re our emotions. They go beyond race and ethnicity. It doesn’t matter who your ancestors are, we all have experienced the same feelings and emotions countless times during our lifetime, every day. Art goes beyond time and space. Whether we live in the cave or we live on planet Mars in the future, we will still feel pain and sadness, we will laugh with the same voice, and cry with the same tear drops. Thus emotions are universal, beyond language, beyond race and ethnicity, beyond space and time. Art, then, in whichever form it takes, whether it is poetry, music, painting, drama, or dancing, is just an expression of the emotions we human beings feel, which are universal. Thus, art is an expression of emotions and feelings.”

Naovarat goes on to explain that good art is art that can preserve the emotions and feelings of human beings, while other works are records of events and happenings. Good art can preserve emotions.

He points out in a cheerful tone, “Look at Mona Lisa! She has been smiling like that for hundreds of years. Hundreds of years have passed, and she has never stopped smiling. We can still see and sense that emotion just by looking at her. Good music, when we listen to it, we feel emotion. Thus, good art is art that can preserve emotions and feelings of human beings. This is what makes art so valuable.”

Directly linking with art, the lingua franca that preserves human emotions is beauty.

“Beauty is the delicacy of people’s hearts,” explains Naovarat, “people who are filled with emotions, feelings, and thoughts, leading to intellect and wisdom. Like when the Japanese say that when people engage in the craft of arranging flowers, the flowers will arrange their hearts – same thing. Beauty is a product of delicacy and attention to detail. Delicacy, attention to detail, full of intellect and wisdom – that is beauty.”

Naovarat says that in this world, there are three big aspects: reality, beauty, and goodness. This all depends on the intellect and wisdom of the individual what one perceives as beautiful or not beautiful. But with beauty that is universal, one does not even need wisdom or intellect to see and feel that something is beautiful. The clear, blue sky is beautiful. You do not need wisdom or intellect to see that the sky is beautiful and that it makes your mind calm, peaceful, and refreshed. That is one type of beauty. Beauty and delicacy, therefore, should open the hearts of people and allow them to reach wisdom and intellect. Wisdom and intellect creates consciousness and mindfulness. This is what we call beauty, goodness, and reality.

But the biggest problem in society is that the beauty of art is gradually fading away. Now, it is all about machines and money.

“We human beings will have to face globalisation,” Naovarat said in a grave voice. “While we really have to be putting emphasis on becoming human and working on finding resolutions to the ongoing conflicts in the world today, instead, society nowadays uses money as the basis of life. The growth of the economy is now seen as more important than personal growth and development and being human. Society becomes a slave to money. Society becomes a slave to companies scrambling to become giants. We use labour from neighbouring countries. They become our slaves. War results. I call it nefarious money – using capital or money as a basis, and having society become the slaves to them. The other way around applies too – using money as slaves of society. That’s the biggest problem of society today – life becomes a slave to money, and money becomes a slave to life.” 

This is not to say that we all hate art, though. Art is everywhere, we see it and we engage in it every day, but most of the time, we may not even be aware that we engage in art all day! The point is that we need to see more the importance of art.

“Everyone has an art of their own: the art of speaking, the art of expressing their feelings and emotions, the art of casting the spell of art with art. Everyone on earth, every race and ethnicity have their own way of using art to express their feelings and emotions for others to see and admire,” says Naovarat, “but it’s not just feelings and emotions,” he went on, “thoughts and imagination are equally important. Thus, the weight put on art in some areas of the world may look somewhat weak, but that does not mean that the people in those places are poor at feeling. It is just that the way of which each country educates its people on art is different. This is where Thailand is still quite lacking. The encouragement and support to educate Thais on arts and culture and the importance of art is still very lacking when compared to other countries. This is a real pity because the ancient arts of Thailand are nowhere near lacking.”

Naovarat talked about the making of the Buddha image, which, according to Naovarat, is ideal beauty. When we say ‘Buddha image,’ we are not talking about a person. We’re talking about beauty. We do not know whether a Buddha image is male or female by looking at it. What we know is that the Buddha image sits there, calm, clean, and content, and we can also feel that when observing the Buddha image, which, Naovarat says, is beauty.

“The Buddha image has been around for a long time, the same way as art in Europe, probably even before,” adds Naovarat, “one thing to observe is that Thai art does not come with the name of the creator, unlike, say Da Vinci. In other countries, when someone creates a piece of art, they’d put their name on it, but not in Thailand, which is what creates an identity for Thai art, making it unique. It is a pity that in modern education Thailand does not educate people seriously on this. I’ve gone to other countries, and I see that they would encourage students to engage in art, from playing musical instruments, sculpting, to painting, and many more. In the afternoons the children would go out and create art, but in Thailand, all everyone wants to do is study, study, and study. This is one thing that Thailand really lacks – more support on the education in art.”

Whether you are Thai or foreigner, every person is a human being – humans who all have thoughts and can feel emotions. What makes us different is the environment, surroundings and lifestyles we grew up with. Even with the differences, everyone feels hunger, love, hate, pain. We differ in nationality, race, and ethnicity, but we are human alike. Whichever nationality you are, whether you are rich, whether you are poor, whether you hold a prestigious position in society, everyone must first understand what it is to be human. Once understood, communication will result, using art, which is an expression and preservation of feelings and emotions. These feelings and emotions are universal, and make us human. Technological advances and hunger for convenience today are changing society into one that revolves around money and material objects. It is sad that today the importance of art, the importance of being human is now being overlooked more and more.

Albert Einstein came up with the atomic formula, but he did not fail to appreciate art. “Logic can take you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere,” was what Einstein said. We need science to take you from A to B, but we need art to remain human. Art and science, we need them both.

“Every person should be a new pair of eyes for every other person in society,” says Naovarat.

“Art,” concludes Naovarat, “is everlasting. No matter what shape it takes, the most important thing isn’t the art itself. It is not on any screen, it is not on the pages of books. It exists in our hearts and our minds. As long as human beings are still capable of feeling and thinking and expressing them, they are granted immortality with art. Treasure them. Your heart is of the utmost importance for our society.”

Feverish Agitated Earth

Sick with a fever is our Earth
With no one to look after,
Sad, angry, and abandoned
Into red-hot lava
Sublimates the scorching heat
Is Earth’s feverish wish to avenge
In anger roaring and growling,
Threatening misfortunes,
Forever shaking the island of Phuket,
Rattling hearts to mere fragments
In desperation to seize hope,
To destroy.
Crashing down comes the land
Crashing down comes the universe,
The rope of time torn and worn
Disease plaguing worms
From Black Holes frantically scramble,
Devouring rotten trash of humankind
Agitated Earth ails a deadly disease,
Forever churning and jolting,
Quivering and vomiting.
Oceans suck and haul land,
Casting evil spells
Begone humankind and war
Begone nirvana and hell
Begone protective spirits
Begone evil spirits
The gang of devils invites all,
Gobbles all into new abyss of hell.

Composed by Naovarat Pongpaiboon April 27, 2012
Translated by Cindy Ritpunja

Naovarat Pongpaiboon has traveled to various countries in Asia and written poems, sketching into pictures using words to describe the countries he had visited. He has gone to all provinces of Thailand and written four poems per province. For Chiang Mai, he has written four poems on Doi Suthep, Ping River, and Lanna instruments. He has also been to Laos and there he wrote many poems on every province of Laos. Vietnam is his next destination, aiming to visit all of ASEAN. This big, ongoing project of writing poetry on countries visited is aired in his television program “Writing the Land of Suwannabhumi (?)” every Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 p.m. on Thai television Channel 11 (NBT11), where he will occasionally be reading his poems in Thai.

His poems are also published in the Dailynews Newspaper every Sunday, Oknation Blog, Matichon Newspaper on weekends, and occasionally the Matichon magazine. He is also occasionally invited as guest to do poetry readings at events. Some of his poems have been translated into English, and many into Japanese. 

Cindy Ritpunja is an intern at Citylife, CityNow! and CityNews.