Letter | I Am an Artist and I Believe That Art Is Not Essential

The following letter was sent to the editor by Christine Tan, a Singapore based designer. The views in this article are expressions of the author’s beliefs and not representative of Kopi’s editorial stance. Kopi is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here’s our email: hello@thekopi.co

I am an artist. 

Like other fledgling creatives, I still struggle with labelling myself as an artist. To use an extremely tacky example, as Seth Macfarlane says through his animated Stewie Griffin: “Every hot girl who can aim a camera thinks she’s a photographer. Ooh, you took a black and white picture of a lawn chair and its shadow. You must be so brooding and deep.” The definition of art has been, for decades, contentious – what one considers as artistic excellence may very well be seen as nothing but pretentious or foolish to another. 

Is the work of Family Guy art? Some may say yes, others a resounding no, while some may begrudgingly concede it is, but perhaps go on to say that it is bad art. At the end of the day, societies globally cannot even agree on what art is – and now we’re contending if it is essential? Even debating if art is necessary is a privilege – and yes, that would mean that I am privileged. 

Here’s my answer, as someone who enjoys viewing and creating (what she considers) art, and works in the industry: no, art is not essential. To have art in your life is a bonus, not a necessity. The infographic in our national newspaper is painful and may not even reflect accurate statistics (‘artist’ as a job is much too broad), but it does bear its truths. 

Art has always been for the privileged.

This is not, however, equal to saying only the privileged can enjoy or create art. 

What it is saying is that only the privileged can actively pursue the arts – be it as a career or hobby – with significantly less concern for their livelihood. If you’re able to pay to study the arts, you are fortunate – even if you struggled to do so. If you can survive, without drastically affecting the subsistence of your loved ones and yourself, while building up a name for yourself in the arts, you are fortunate. Art has no direct effect on survival. It affects the quality of life, yes – although for many that’s arguable – but not survival.

Nobody has ever died from a specific lack of art. Many have died penniless pursuing the arts, however, because historically it was, and continues to be, an impractical dream for many people, for good reason. 

Art can put food on the table, but only when you already have some food on the table. Art can bring meaning, joy, and warmth. Art raises questions, brings communities together, and can incite useful debate or solve problems. It is a career worth pursuing. But it would be arrogant to deny that for many, paying for art is a luxury – be it for entertainment, collection, or business. 

Art is important, but it is not essential. 

The oft-quoted dialogue from 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society says, “…We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” 

This is true, but the intangible concepts of poetry, beauty, romance and love are not jobs. Poetry cannot be simplistically defined as one that is written only by an artist, because not only is there poetry in every aspect of our lives, the very nature of poetry itself is also subjective. Similarly, much like beauty, romance, and love, as the quote itself affirms, one simply needs to be a part of the human race to experience them in everyday life. 

It is indeed ironic that without an artist, the infographic wouldn’t have been made the way it was. What’s important to note, however, is that it could still have been done. It wouldn’t look as aesthetically pleasing, or as easy to read, but being nicer or easier to look at is not essential. Again, it is a bonus. 

It is entirely understandable that people with the arts as a career, or who actively partake in the arts, are displeased or even outraged by the infographic. It implies that the majority of Singaporeans still don’t view art as a viable career, and may also greatly discourage creatives searching for another job after being let go, as well as graduates seeking a job in the arts industry for the first time. 

During the circumstances of a global health crisis, are we really going to lay blame on society for not deeming art as something worth paying for? Is it so inconceivable that the average person would prioritise paying for medical care, food, shelter, convenience, and basic amenities, over the beauty of art? 

Is it not understandable that businesses in those categories would thus have more need and resources to hire job seekers, and that the willingness to pay for creative output, across all varieties of businesses, would dramatically decline? This is not to say art doesn’t help the human condition during a crisis, but not everyone has the time and means to tirelessly create it, or pay for it. 

It is definitely upsetting that even in economically healthy times, a career in the arts is already subject to rockiness, and that freelance artists often struggle with unethical clients due to the legitimacy of their work being called into question. This is a battle that artists have long fought – for the right to be respected and taken seriously. 

I am not calling for us to abandon the fight, and neither am I shrugging my shoulders dismissing that this is how it has always been. For those of us who can, for those of us who are able, for those of us who are just fortunate enough; the fight will continue on, but we cannot fault those who are forced to refocus their priorities during dire times. 

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