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Are Artists Non-Essential?

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Question:

“A recent Sunday Times poll asked people in Singapore what the top five essential as well as non-essential jobs are, during the pandemic. ‘Artist’ was number one in the non-essential category, with 71 percent of responses. Many in the arts community were upset by this result. But isn’t this group just a minority in the whole population? Doesn’t the poll show that, as important as art may be to this group, the majority thinks otherwise?”

Answer:

Imagine a future where the earth has been devastated by climate catastrophe. Somehow, we manage to survive, albeit with modern civilisation in tatters. Nutrition, obviously, remains a necessity. Scientists have created a high-fibre, highly nutritious and thoroughly bland, lab-fermented gruel, which feeds most of what’s left of humanity. “Food” has become a luxury. It’s only the privileged few who get to consume meals with any texture and taste. (Snowpiercer, anyone? The 2013 Bong Joon-Ho film, not the 2020 TV show, which I haven’t watched yet.)

Coming back to our current time and situation, couldn’t we argue the same? That even today, it is only nutrition that is indispensable – the pleasure of food isn’t, not really. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking Singaporeans to contemplate hypothetically giving up on their national past-time of enjoying eating. Rather, I’m wondering if they could be persuaded to admit that this constitutive satisfaction is not, strictly speaking, essential.

Of course, life doesn’t work that way. A flower doesn’t “need” to be a certain colour, but if it weren’t, then that specific bee wouldn’t pollinate it. Life is chance, contingency and context. Not a bifurcated list of essentials and non-essentials. In some circumstances, what might seem to us as a random or trivial feature can make all the difference for natural selection and evolution.

As for our own subset of the planet, pleasure is, and always has been, inextricably part of human life, in all its various manifestations. And human society has never developed without arts, culture and entertainment. Tragically, neither need, nor reason, nor justice, are what make our world go round. Our markets and economies belie no wisdom in rewarding, for instance, certain celebrities with great excess, while leaving teachers, nurses and social workers to scramble for a living.

One critical response to the poll, then, is to question and unpack the very notion of “essential”, and to show how limited the concept is with regards not only to the arts, but life itself.

Many artists, like Dahlia Osman, changed their social media profile pics to mimic the icon used in the Sunday Times poll, down to the red beret and curly moustache.

On the other hand, many in the arts community have responded vigorously by embracing the position that art is, indeed, essential. In the wake of the poll, they’ve posted witty and articulate defences on social media –  from assertions that art nourishes our spirits, to reminders that it heightens our awareness of diversity and difference.

Some posts have criticised the flawed presumptions of the survey, while others have lamented that so many Singaporeans think art is so unimportant. Then there are those that see it as a wake up call for the local arts community, not to react with outrage, but to mobilise a broader base of support.

We know that surveys and statistics can be misleading or biased, and, sadly, too often simply badly conducted and researched. Data in itself is meaningless without context.

So let’s insist on context. Honestly, I’m not particularly bothered by the results or surprised by them. I don’t begrudge anybody for thinking that art isn’t essential in the midst of the greatest global health crisis of the century.

Yet, like most in the arts community, I’d argue that, in the long run – and the virus isn’t going away any time soon – everyone will, eventually, want to think more about art and culture during the course of the pandemic.

Like many people, whether part of the arts or not, I’ve struggled with motivation, distraction and despair during the lockdown – in my case, in Malaysia. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have an almost endless stream movies and TV to watch, even if it’s often only been in fits and starts. There are times when I’ve emphasised distinctions between “art” and “entertainment”. This time, it’s useful to see the two as part of the same continuum of cultural activity and practice.

A frame from @pn_superhero’s comic strip in response to the issue.

I think the Times poll tells us very little about public opinion on artists. So, if we want to know what the larger “we” thinks about the arts in the age of the coronavirus, then perhaps we should ask. What about a survey on what makes the arts important, or not? That would be timely.

The question is how – how should we devise, for instance, a poll that asks about arts funding during this crisis? Countries like Germany have made significant allocations. One doesn’t expect much from the Malaysian government, but you’d think Singapore can and should have the foresight to invest for the long term. Would we get a better result, with more than 29 percent in favour?

What if such polls first presented respondents with prefatory remarks, discussing how art may be different things to different people, but, as a society, one of art’s larger functions is as a public or common good. Like higher education, or a free and independent press. You may not like art, but maybe your children will. You may not want a Phd in astrophysics, but it’s good when universities support research into a vast array of subjects, and without these investments being tied to profit-making enterprises. Some have argued that we should view the arts as a contribution to cultural research and heritage, as well as knowledge production.

Interestingly, almost all commentary has been about “artist” being the number one non-essential job; what’s overlooked is how it’s lumped together with this odd assortment of other professions on the list: telemarketer; social media manager/PR specialist; business consultant; and human resource manager.

The reason, I believe, that the poll is so vexing for the Singapore arts community is that they’ve heard routine dismissals of the arts countless times, and it’s frustrating.

You could even say that modern Singapore is predicated on a denigration of the arts. An exhibition curated by a Singaporean in Hong Kong explored precisely such a question.

Lim Qinyi, who now works at National Gallery Singapore, was the curator at Para Site Art Space in Hong Kong, from 2012 to 2016. The germ for her exhibition was a 2014 anthology of Singapore poetry, edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip. The book, and the exhibition, in turn, took their titles from a famous speech that Lee Kuan Yew made in 1968.

A Luxury We Cannot Afford,
edited by Christine Chia and Joshua Ip,
published by Math Paper Press. Image credit; Books Actually

“Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”

… the late Prime Minister claimed. Poetry and similar pursuits had to be postponed until the nation achieved economic progress. As Lim explains in the catalogue, this agenda would define the first decades of the country, but “shifted in the 1990s when cultural development was viewed as a necessity […] in gaining status as a developed nation”.

The fact is the Singapore state now spends a lot of money on the arts. Because they’re deemed essential for the economy. For the financial year 2018/2019, the National Arts Council had a budget of $120 million.

Although, as acclaimed architect Tay Kheng Soon once noted, the problem is that the arts may have government support, but not its sympathy. And we might add, a lack of understanding from the Times as well.

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