The Arts: Refining The Voice Of A Displaced Industry
This is a Shortlisted entry in the Rice Media x DLS Op-Ed competition. This article represents the views of neither Rice Media nor Dialogic Learning Services, and is solely the opinion of the author. Authors’ names and schools have been hidden from readers and Rice Media’s judges so as to prevent bias during voting & judging. 

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“Which industry do you think society can do without?”

Like Jean Grey, I already knew what everyone was thinking.

Everyone’s answer hung in the air like post-P.E. sweat. “The Arts,” My teacher resounded. I unconsciously reminded myself to find a backup career. Everyone’s justification had nullified the true definition of the arts: There’s no future.” “No one wants to be a poor struggling artist.” and my personal favourite, “Artists are uneducated.”

It felt like my relatives were ganging up on me during family reunions whenever the dreaded question about my career was raised. “Artists do not do much to help Singapore’s development,” Announced one of my more eloquent classmates. Her tattered copy of Off Centre was haphazardly swallowed by the desk before our teacher could see. She had read it numerous times.

The mindset of art as “inferior” to occupations of higher economic value, like politics or engineering, existed even in pre-COVID times. Personally, artists are harshly deemed as “disposable” quite frequently. There is a certain myth that anyone can do an artist’s job. But like every other occupation, you need training and experience in order to sustain a professional arts career. An obvious example would be the difference between a trained dancer and a TikTok dancer.

On June 14th, 2020, the Sunday Times awarded artists a prestigious award based on a survey. Every industry was vying for it. Disappointedly, they moped when they learnt that 71% of Singaporeans did not vote them as the “most non-essential” industry in Singapore. The generalised term “Artists” was vague. Were they only targeting those in the performing arts? What about designers? What about content creators? Regardless of what the term in the survey meant, it was clear that they were targeting anyone whose livelihood depended on their creativity.

Singapore’s arts scene is recognised, but not as distinguished compared to our international counterparts. We needed two foreign architects* to design the Marina Bay Sands and Esplanade, two buildings synonymous with Singapore’s image. Yet Singaporeans feel a strong sense of pride whenever they are mentioned by foreigners. But we could not imagine Singaporeans designing such significant structures because parents simply do not encourage their children to become an artist of any form. The blatant suppression of the arts prevents our ability to show Singaporeans how meaningful the arts can really be.

We need to give artists a chance before assuming that artists are the least important members of society.

To simplify: Imagine not having Netflix, memes or mini art projects to add some sparkle to your life. It is quite difficult to imagine a Singapore without the arts. According to the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2019, the number of artists decreased from 26,500 artists in 2017 to 26,300 in 2018. Youths are especially afraid of pursuing the arts because the societal notion of “artists having the least important roles in society” has been drilled into them since childbirth.

Perhaps it is because an artist’s job is often uncertain. Artists have to constantly chase after open gigs or projects. Especially freelancers. They are not paid large amounts to sustain themselves for a long period of time, contrary to popular belief. Most freelance artists do not have a salary which contributes to their CPF or Workfare.

In an article on Channel News Asia last year, Ben Loong shared his experience with managing his polarising occupations. As a daytime Grab driver, he earns about $400 monthly to supplement his income from his art. It is sufficient for his rent and external expenses. When the country goes to sleep, he goes to various art galleries around Singapore to paint or partition walls. The LASALLE graduate shared that he was mesmerised by the artwork featured in art galleries and yearned for similar opportunities, which is why he continues to pursue visual arts.

Even established writers say the same thing. Pooja Nansi and Daryl Yam have previously shared that having multiple streams of income aids in sustaining oneself. In the same Today article, singer-songwriter Shak shared that “the arts are just like any other career” and “comes with its own set of troubles.”

This is not a plea to quit your current office job. These are reasons to show you that art is a highly necessary occupation that builds the foundation of a society. Here are a few ways that we could help our local arts industry:

1. Improve Singapore’s arts education. Schools provide the obligatory arts-related extra-curricular activities (CCAs) like Dance and Drama Club. But only a handful of students end up joining these CCAs. The number of students in arts related CCAs decreased from 113,878 students in 2017 to 112,201 students in 2018. This is based on the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2019. In secondary school, we were encouraged to attend arts enrichment programmes held post-examinations. The hands-on workshops included, “soap-making” and “VFX makeup”. Though the trainers were seniors, it definitely deepened our appreciation for the arts.

Artists could propose after-school workshops to schools through affordable “package deals” (E.g. bring 3 or more friends for X dollars). These workshop fees pay the artists for their time and materials. Students would be able to pick up a new skill and deepen their appreciation for the arts. Plus, they would have more fun if their friends joined! Schools could appeal to artists who are not commonly mentioned in schools. For example, ceramists, photojournalists and florists. By introducing these art forms which are rarely mentioned in school, their curiosity would be piqued and they would be more willing to participate to learn more about these art forms.

2. Pay artists and event helpers. Many event helpers are students or individuals who are passionate about that particular art form. Many of these gigs are unpaid or paid below industry standard. Like any other job, employees expect to get paid. Though funding may be difficult, it is the employer’s responsibility to ensure that their artists and crew get paid. 

According to the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2019, Government Funding has risen from $438.13 million in 2017 to $457.79 million in 2018. There has also been a $1.3 million increase in Patron contributions from 2017 to 2018. Though the increase in funding is small, it is a slow acceptance of art in our society. It is still progress because more people are becoming more aware of its importance.

Payment means that you are inviting them to continue working for the arts and that you are affirming them for their time and efforts. This enables them to build their skills and resume for future endeavours.

3. Empower artists. Most Singaporeans would prefer to not spend on art. We know that consuming art does not come cheap. But there are so many ticket subsidies by the Esplanade for a wide range of audiences. According to the Singapore Cultural Statistics 2019, the number of ticketed attendances at Performing Arts Events rose from 1,911,266 attendees in 2017 to 2,195,014 attendees in 2018. Similarly, the non-ticketed attendance at Arts and Cultural Events rose from 11,308,550 in 2017 to 11,435,517 in 2018.

You can empower artists by talking about a free Esplanade performance you watched or a local story you love. You could post your thoughts on your social medias and encourage your followers to view it. Not only does it empower artists, but it also makes your feeds look more dazzling as your followers would get to see an alternative, artsy side to our mundane world.

Appreciating and analysing the art which you consume helps you empathise better and form your own opinions about experiences in life. This is the first step in growing as an individual and as a society.

Alternatively, if you are an educator or parent reading this, do not shut down youths when they say that they want to pursue the arts. Encourage and empower them. The arts will help to process one’s feelings and trauma healthily.

It is not an “inferior” occupation.

Ultimately, our purpose converges to this: We just want to create stories that will resonate with our audience. Some use art to raise discourse about societal issues, like LGBTQIA+ rights and racism, which are generally censored in most Singaporean narratives.

The arts are essentially a form of social glue that wields a double-edged sword: to unite or to separate. Art can create discourse to help societal progression, change opinions and include those who are marginalized or forgotten. Despite its uncertainty, its core is built on emotion and experiences.

Art is cathartic. Art nourishes the soul. Art creates personal experiences which are freeing. Maybe in future, our arts scene would feel less displaced in our spiderweb of occupations. Maybe someday, Singapore would recognise the value of our voice and give us a chance to grow. Maybe someday, we could all find a place in our hearts to love the arts. After all, it’s heard and empathised with us when no one else could.

*The Esplanade has since clarified that Esplanade was in fact jointly designed by Singapore architecture firm DP Architects and UK firm Michael Wilford & Partners. More information can be found here.

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