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A composer, music lecturer’s beautiful storytelling is proof that Non-essential ≠ Unimportant

By June 17, 2020Current

TL;DR – Have artists been too quick to feel butthurt?

The Sunday Times published the findings of a survey on which jobs they think are the most crucial in keeping Singapore going, and also how much more money they will pay for essential services so that workers in the sector may get a wage boost.

Here are some key points:

  1. Around eight in 10 Singaporeans are willing to pay more for essential services such as cleaning or security if the extra amount goes to the workers themselves.
  2. They would pay up to 10 per cent or 20 per cent more for such services.
  3. The online survey of some 1,000 respondents aged 16 and above was carried out by Milieu Insight, a Singapore-based consumer research firm.
  4. Survey was done from June 5 to 8 with a nationally representative sampling across age, gender and income groups to capture how people’s perceptions of essential workers have changed, if at all, against the backdrop of Covid-19, and whether they would be willing to pay these workers more.

The article is behind a paywall, but the kind souls behind Newsgowhere SG has put up the article in full, so you can go read.

But… Lo and behold!

Some people zoomed in on the part of the accompanying infographics showing what the 1,000 respondents have chosen as Top 5 non-essential jobs:

  1. Artist (71%)
  2. Telemarketer (69%)
  3. Social media manager / PR specialist (61%)
  4. Business consultant (55%)
  5. Human Resource manager (43%)

 

And oh boy, the arts community was practically up in arms. So mannnnny angry people. Perhaps cos those in arts are so expressive, cos I don’t see the telemarketers, social media managers, PR practitioners, business consultants and HR managers kicking up as big a fuss as the artists.

Like what this article here said, so butthurt.

I have a few points to make and then I’m gonna share with you one solid Facebook post on this, from composer, music lecturer Wang Chenwei.

But first, my points:

  1. Geez, the number of Singaporeans who don’t understand how sampling works is some kind of amazing. You can read Milieu’s full disclosure on the survey design and methodology here.
  2. Aren’t the people who are mad at ST barking up the wrong angry tree? Hello, it was Singaporeans who responded to that poll. Like what netizen Joshua Chiang said, “Being mad at ST for the opinions of 700 out of 1000 people who think that artists are non-essentials is like being mad at Yam Ah Mee for announcing the GE results that 70% of Singaporeans voted PAP.”
  3. Some Singaporeans don’t know the difference between artist and artiste.
  4. Nobody’s saying the arts are not important or not valuable, what this 70% of respondents said was in rank-ordering professions in a COVID environment, they see jobs that save people, jobs that keep our world clean and jobs that send food and necessities to us as more essential. How is this so unacceptable or unthinkable?
  5. I think their kicking up a ruckus is distracting an important agenda – that the low-wage essential workers are not getting paid enough. So many of them are either lowly-skilled or lowly-educated or both, so they don’t really have as many options when it comes to job choices. And yet they do work that is so important, I say we pay them more.
  6. If I don’t turn up for work for a month, I don’t think anyone would miss me or my contribution that much versus, say, our office cleaning lady who doesn’t turn up for a month. Do I really do much more important work than she does that I deserve to be paid more? Think about it.
  7. If I were asked to do that survey, I would pick doctors, nurses, cleaners, garbage collectors, hawkers, deliverymen as essentials too.
  8. If I were asked to do that survey, I would say YES to paying them more if I know that that extra goes to them.

And now, for that solid Facebook post that I promised to share. I love the storytelling, so read!

Thanks, Chenwei, for the permission for me to republish this.

Posted by Wang Chenwei on Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The importance accorded to “non-essential” artists reflects the advancement of a society

Art has mostly been “non-essential” to the survival of the society that created it, yet art would essentially become what survives of that society. “Non-essential” does not mean “unimportant”. The importance accorded to “non-essential” artists is precisely the hallmark of advanced societies, the hallmark of societies which want to, and have the resources to transcend the mundanity of everyday existence. ||

Caveman Asak went hunting daily with a spear. His primary concerns were what to eat, and how to avoid being eaten. He couldn’t care less about how he or his loincloth looked.

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Farmer Betty grew crops and stored them in pots. With her food supply and shelter secured, she started thinking of how to make pots with floral patterns, dress up more beautifully, and decorate her house.

Painter Charles was employed by a king to produce oil paintings. He did not have to produce food, because enough food was being produced by other people in his society. The king, having secured the kingdom’s food supply and borders, hired the best artists to create fine paintings, sculptures and concerts for the enjoyment of the royal family, and of course, to show off his kingdom’s wealth.

Human resource manager Doris walked past Caveman Asak’s spear, Farmer Betty’s pot, and Painter Charles’ painting in a museum exhibition entitled “The Advancement of Mankind”.

It’s interesting, Doris thought, that the further civilisation advanced, the more non-essential objects were created. The spear was essential for the caveman’s survival. The pot was essential for storing the farmer’s grains, but its floral designs were not. The painting wasn’t essential for anybody’s survival. This makes sense, however, because people could only engage in non-essential activities if their society had all essential needs secured. In fact, the amount and quality of non-essential products from a society reflects how far that society is able to cover its essential needs.

Humans have always strived for better. With their essential needs secured, people naturally sought to improve their quality of life, leading to the flourishing of art. As their desire for higher quality art gradually increased, they realised that such quality can no long be achieved by practising art as a hobby. They produced essential goods in surplus to take off the burden of survival from artists like painters, musicians and actors, so that these could dedicate their time entirely to the creation and development of art.

The next room in the museum was an exhibition on Qing Dynasty China. Doris learnt that after the Manchu people conquered China, they increasingly adopted Han-Chinese culture, and took pride in hiring the best teachers in China to educate their children in Chinese literature, calligraphy and customs. Eventually, the culture of the conqueror became assimilated by the culture of the conquered. It was fortunate that the king whom Painter Charles worked for loved the arts, Doris thought. The king might not have realised it at that time, but the arts play an important role in a country’s influence and soft power.

Speaking of Chinese culture, Doris does have some acquaintance with it. She played the Erhu – the Chinese counterpart to the violin – in her secondary school’s Chinese orchestra. She didn’t even choose to join the orchestra – she was probably assigned there just to fulfil a quota. Despite her initial protests, it didn’t turn out badly after all. She grew to love playing and listening to music, and made a lot of friends who are still connected to her on social media.

Like many Singaporeans, Doris never enjoyed Chinese language classes, but her Chinese-speaking music instructors at least exposed her constantly to a Chinese-speaking environment. It wasn’t just about the language – the Chinese culture highly emphasises respect and courtesy towards teachers, and Doris realised that what might be an acceptable way to speak to a Western-educated teacher might sound rude to a Chinese-educated teacher. That was good to know, because recently Doris has been meeting more and more business clients from China. At least she now has the sensitivity to recognise whether her choice of words in an email to a Chinese client matched the required courtesy level.

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Starting off as a clerk, Doris was highly appreciated by her boss for her meticulousness, and got promoted up the ranks quickly. She would edit her work over and over again until she was satisfied, even though she was never paid extra for it. Perhaps she had been subconsciously influenced by her Erhu training? Whenever she thought she was about to master a piece of music, her teacher would point out more details that could be finetuned, and explain more in-depth ways to interpret the music. The better she played, the further perfection seemed to be. Eventually, she realised that perfection was unattainable, yet it was the pursuit of perfection that made her grow as a person.

Perhaps arts education does shape the work ethic of a society, Doris thought. She had been posted to Germany for a year, and she was impressed by the artistic hobbies of many German friends. The Germans don’t seem to have tiger mums, neither do they work as long hours as Asians, but yet some of the best workmanship and innovation in the world come from there. The arts certainly seem to cultivate pride in quality and creativity.

At some point, Doris did consider studying Erhu at a conservatory to become a full-time musician, to which her parents strongly objected. “You will have difficulty making a living, and when there’s any economic crisis, you are the first to lose your job!” Doris wasn’t quite convinced – she recalled that during the 2008 financial crisis, all the Chinese orchestra instructors in Singapore seemed to be as busy as ever. Even if people could afford to pay less for the arts, the budget for education would not be severely cut during a crisis, would it? She had the impression that more bankers lost their jobs than music teachers. However, she couldn’t present any convincing argument to change her parents’ minds, and thus headed for a management degree.

Doris doesn’t have time to play Erhu nowadays anyway. Just yesterday, she conducted a long day of interviews for a public relations manager position. There was one guy with an outstanding CV, who she thought would get the job, until he showed up for the interview. Although he was dressed in a suit and tie, he came across as rather unrefined and shallow. “Nope, this guy wouldn’t make a good impression on our clients if he were the public face of our company”, Doris told her colleagues. The way he talked, walked, laughed, just felt lacking in culture to Doris, even though she couldn’t logically pinpoint the reason.

Maybe that guy’s demeanour would have appeared more “cultured” if he had played music, watched theatre shows and visited art galleries as much as Doris did? Such a cause-effect relationship would be subconscious and hard to prove. Of course, one wouldn’t suddenly be more “cultured” after a visit to an art gallery. Maybe observing the speech, expressions and actions of theatre actors influenced Doris to carry herself more like an elegant lady? Maybe as Doris often admired achievements by others that she wouldn’t be able to achieve in a lifetime, she became humbler, and learnt to respect others’ opinions as potentially more valuable than her own?

Exiting the museum, Doris checked her phone. Her social media feed was abuzz with activity, and it turned out that many of her friends were commenting on a news article, which presented the results of a poll that ranked the five most and least “essential” jobs in keeping Singapore going. “Doctor/nurse” was ranked first in the “essential” column, while “artist” was ranked first in the “non-essential” column.

If “essential” meant making a difference between life and death, or fulfil an urgent necessity, Doris thought, then surely medical personnel would be the most essential in this COVID crisis. On the other hand, people indeed usually don’t have any urgent necessity for an artist.

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Still, Doris was disturbed by the term “non-essential”. When she played in the Chinese orchestra, it never came across her mind whether anybody was more or less “essential”. Everybody in the orchestra had their own role to play, and in a piece of music, the “essentialness” of each instrument varied during different segments of the piece according to the composer’s design. Sometimes, she would be playing the main melody, sometimes the accompaniment – and not that the accompaniment was any less “essential” than the melody anyway. Sometimes she would stop playing to let other instruments take over the limelight. This would be similar to how an organisation or a society works.

In a pandemic, medical personnel are most essential. In a war, soldiers would be most essential. In a famine, farmers would be most essential. But is there ever a time when artists would be most essential?

“As an orchestra member, your job is to make everybody else sound better”, her conductor always said. Likewise, the job of artists in a society is to make everybody else live better.

Behind the music playing over the car radio of a doctor driving home after his gruelling shift, there are artists.

Behind the film playing on the phone of a cleaner taking a break, there are artists.

Behind the storybook that evokes the imagination of the daughter of a hawker, there are artists.

Behind these artists, there are other artists whose works may be too complex for the lay audience to comprehend, but which expand the boundaries of their field and inspire others in their profession.

Doris thought about what she saw at the museum. In any exhibition presenting the achievements of a society, art is sure to be featured. Art has mostly been “non-essential” to the survival of the society that created it, yet art would essentially become what survives of that society.

“Non-essential” does not mean “unimportant”. The importance accorded to “non-essential” artists is precisely the hallmark of advanced societies, the hallmark of societies which want to, and have the resources to transcend the mundanity of everyday existence.

Addendum (2020-06-18)

“Non-essential” can be defined in many ways. Milieu, the company which conducted the poll, clarified the definition provided to the respondents one day after the article’s publication: “By ‘essential workers’ we mean someone who is engaged in work deemed necessary to meet basic needs of human survival and well-being, such as food, health, safety and cleaning.”

In other words, “essential” implies that the interruption of the said job would lead to catastrophic consequences. Relative to death, the consequences are of course less severe if artists were to cease their work for a period. I do acknowledge that song/poetry etc. have often been essential to psychological coping during dire situations (war, persecution, imprisonment etc.), as evident through numerous historical examples. In the context of this essay, the artist as a full-time job is highlighted, yet this does not discount the fact that art as an activity can bring solace to people even in the absence of professional artists.

The bigger picture I’m trying to present is that “essentialness” (as defined above) should not be a judge of “importance”. Throughout history, societies which have valued arts and artists have reaped the rewards in multiple forms, e.g. in terms of mental fortitude, sophistication, innovation, quality of work output, motivation for improvement, interpersonal relations, social cohesiveness, cultural influence, intercultural understanding etc., which one may collectively call the “soul” of the society. For pragmatists who think that art is just meant to look or sound nice, these are some of the tangible benefits. For pragmatists who think that art doesn’t deserve funding, in a few years the arts scene won’t be the only thing going down.

 

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Maggie O

Author Maggie O

Digital extrovert. Social introvert (warning: 93% introverted!) In the day, I work to put cai-png on the table and ice-cream in the fridge. In the night, I read a lot and write a little. Also, all views expressed in my contribution pieces here are based on my personal opinions, and they do not reflect the ideas, ideologies, or points of view of my employer (past, current and future).

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