By Yuki Koh
La La Land is a musical film that sings of tragedy and happiness, the ups and downs, and the real struggles of artists today. The story mainly focuses on Mia and Sebastian who pursue their passions in acting and music respectively, yet find themselves getting rejected at almost every turn. And if you compare America to Singapore, you suddenly realise this profound truth: if it’s hard over there, one can’t imagine how hard it will be here. Is pursuing a career in the Arts worth the while, and is it viable?
The answer to that is hard to gauge – so it’s both a yes and no.
‘Worth’ is subjective
To most artists, it means pursuing something you love and excel at because you want to, and because it will add value to your life. Many artists choose to freelance because life would otherwise be meaningless or unbearable. Even if some do recognise that they are running on unstable income, art has become such an integral part of their lives that income becomes secondary. As such, whether art is a worthwhile career depends on what the person values and prioritises. If someone values a steady income, they may simply go for a safe degree.
In Singapore, you will find that many Singaporeans opt for safe and stable jobs that can feed themselves, mainly because of their ‘kiasu’ spirit and pragmatic mentality. Many consider income as their first priority, and find it hard to venture down dangerous paths like being a dancer, artist, designer, or singer. This is in line with the “doctor” and “engineer” prospects that many parents project on their children.
This is probably why when Straits Times did a poll recently, it found that “Artists” were in the top 5 for non-essential jobs.
In spite of all this, the Arts can be a potentially safe job if one can find a steady job at a firm or entity – such as a marketing firm, design firm, or a dance company. However, beyond securing a job, many other factors come into play, such as sustaining creative rigour, having to handle bureaucratic limitations, and dealing with physical exhaustion, especially for those in the performing arts.
For instance, the lifespan of a ballerina’s career is around two decades before she will have to transition to a different career. Those who choose to stay find themselves losing passion for the very thing they pursued, which is both frustrating and self-defeating. Regardless, whether the Arts is worth the while, will always depend on the individual themselves, and in particular, their outlook.
Viable or not?
Despite all these, we cannot deny that pursuing the Arts is in every practical, rational, and realistic sense, impractical, irrational and unrealistic, especially in a scientifically- and technologically-inclined Singapore. As Eugenio Montale romantically put it: “you can’t eat poetry”.
As much as the Arts nourishes the soul and feeds our minds, it cannot feed our body and sustain us in the real sense. While some artists do achieve fame or recognition and are able to sustain themselves, most of the time, many artists find themselves slipping through the cracks and struggling to make a living. This frustrating outcome probably lies in the fact that Singaporeans remain largely unexposed and therefore, unappreciative of the Arts. Thus, while the value of an Arts career is subjective, in an economy and society like Singapore, an Arts career is definitely not the most viable option.
Building towards an appreciation of the Arts
In Singapore, the government has implemented programmes like Arts in Your Neighbourhood, free Esplanade programmes, Singapore Art Week, and more. However, this isn’t increasing the number of people interested in the Arts. In many ways, the government is approaching the Arts the way it approaches Science; it isn’t the best way to go about achieving an increase in appreciation of the Arts.
We may not see much change with today’s measures, but maybe decades from now, we might see a Singapore that treasures, sponsors, and feverishly adores the Arts. Even if the road ahead is foggy, we can only hope that we will achieve that someday, and build a La La Land of enchanting music, wondrous dancing and dramatic acting.
Particularly in this time of adversity, the Arts can be the flame that guides us in uncertain times, become the connection between one another even when we’re socially distanced, and inspire the belief that we can pull through this crisis.