I am an Arts person. I live for the arts and it is upsetting when I see artists not get the recognition or respect they deserve. I believe that the arts is vital to living a holistic life. It acts as a medium not only for self-expression but for entertainment, enrichment and even education.
What many people fail to realise is that art is everywhere. Artists produce the music you hear on your way to work, they write, direct and produce the TV shows and films you binge on your days off. Sculptors and painters fill museums with art from which we learn about history and culture. Writers author the books you read for leisure and read to your children when you put them to bed. Be it performance, visual or literary, art is everywhere.
Art brings people together. Dancers mostly dance in troupes, musicians play in bands and art therapy helps many through tough times. The theatre can only survive when the actors, directors, stage managers, crew all come together to put on a show and visual artists can only make more paintings, photographs and portraits when there are others to appreciate their work.
Even during the pandemic, we can see that people have been creating online communities that revolve around the arts in efforts to have social interaction while being stuck at home. Dancers hold classes through Zoom or Instagram live, musicians come together to do virtual choirs or covers. People have bonded over Netflix parties; they are coming together to do crafts, hold book clubs and host virtual get-togethers. The arts is as alive as it has ever been despite moving online.
For me, a life without the arts would be dull. I would be surviving but not living.
When The Sunday Times published the infographic with survey results that deemed “Artist” as the most non-essential job, my initial reaction was to get upset. Here we go again, let’s all continue to look down on the arts. Artists are, once again, given the disrespect that we are all so familiar with. Then I took a look at the rest of the survey and realised that there were much bigger things for me to be concerned about.
The day after the report came out, I noticed many people jumping on the bandwagon to make fun of the infographic. People were creating passive-aggressive memes and attacking others for not understanding how the arts is important. While there is a point to be made about not overlooking the arts, respectfully, I think many naysayers may be missing the main thrust of the survey, which was done in the specific context of a pandemic.
The survey company, Milieu, and The Straits Times and even Professor Tommy Koh have since responded to the furore over the initial infographic.
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Let me add my opinion to the mix. I feel that the arts is vital to living a full and rich life but I do not think that the arts are essential to survival, or in this case, surviving a pandemic.
I think people have taken the survey out of context and have missed the meaning of the word “essential”. The definition of essential, according to Oxford Dictionary is “absolutely necessary, extremely important.”
Due to Covid-19, museums are closed, productions of all sorts, be it dance, music or theatre, have been postponed and while painful, no one has died from a lack of consumption of the arts. I have friends from the art industry that have been jobless since the circuit breaker breaker and the impact on society of them not working has been little. Of course, they have been suffering from the lack of income and have had to come up with new innovative ways of staying solvent, but that is a separate, albeit touchy, issue.
Being “non-essential” to survival does not equate to being worthless. There is a whole lot of value that the arts bring, it is just not the most essential to fighting a virus.
Yes, the arts have kept spirits up and people sane but it has not directly helped combat Covid-19 like how doctors, nurses, cleaners, delivery drivers and other essential workers have. We need to respect that and give these essential workers the recognition, respect and even the pay they deserve.
Instead of spending the time and effort to create content that pokes fun at the survey results, we should channel that energy into educating others on how the arts matter.
More urgently, we should focus on the pressing issues that are presented in the infographic.
For example, despite knowing the conditions migrant workers live in and the low pay they receive, 44% of survey respondents are not willing to pay more for renovations even if that means a higher pay for these workers. Did you notice in the infographic that even though cleaners are deemed as the second most essential job, they are being paid only $1,200 a month? Did you know that even if being offered triple the pay, the majority of survey respondents still did not want to take up the job?
We need to ask ourselves why jobs that are deemed the most essential, such as cleaners, garbage collectors and construction workers, are jobs that are low paying and even frowned upon. Even the job of a hawker is included in the list of “Jobs that I don’t want to do” even though they provide affordable, delicious and extremely hard to replicate meals that preserve part of our Singaporean culture.
It is perceptions like these that prevent the younger generation seeking out these careers as they are seen as “low skilled” and low in status.
This survey shows us the perceptions Singaporeans have of certain jobs and how we should not judge professions which result in these people earning poorly and being disrespected by the public, artists included. Covid, and even this survey, has revealed many issues that are deeply rooted and hidden in our society and it is time to address these together to come out of this situation as a better, kinder society.
I believe that all Singaporeans, artists and non-artists, essential and non-essential workers alike, have a part to play in the physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual well-being of the country.
In times like this, we should be finding ways of coming together, to support each other, rather than finding ways of complaining or pulling each other apart.
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