Essentially, no one is saying that painters, actors, singers and writers contribute nothing

SINGAPORE - Judging by what artists have been saying about The Sunday Times survey that found their jobs classed as "non-essential" to keeping Singapore going, they are upset, to put it mildly.

What's forgotten in all this is that "non-essential" is not the same as "having no value at all".

The survey was asking about barest-minimum conditions of the kind that might exist in a pandemic lockdown. In such a world, what is essential and what is not?

So, yes, in that situation, I dare say I would value a delivery rider more than, say, a YouTuber or a playwright or someone who interprets current events through the medium of modern dance.

So don't ignore that context of the question, and don't make a strawman of the results - no one is saying that dancers are a complete waste of time (only certain local podcast and TikTok comedians are - I'm kidding. Maybe not).

No one, least of all Singaporeans who did the survey, is saying that painters, sculptors, actors, singers and writers contribute nothing to society.

But after reading some online takes and digesting the feelings of hurt and persecution they carry, I reckon the authors might be projecting their own insecurities just a wee bit.

I agree with anyone who says that the arts are undervalued in Singapore, but it is quite a leap to go from "non-essential" to "worthless, undeserving of help, a waste of resources" - if you are reading this subtext, then the problem is between you and your therapist.

There is a whole essay to be written about how emotive the word "essential" is, and how right now we don't have a more compact word for framing questions about who deserves a higher salary than what they are now getting. And how its opposite, "non-essential", carries a hurtful sting.

And there is the whole other issue of using salary as a marker of value to society. But let's look at "artist" first.

"Artist" is a fuzzy category. We consider as "artists" infographics makers, those who design MRT maps and those who work in manga and comics. Let's include in this group sculptors who make statues celebrating dead white men who founded a colony.

By coincidence, a documentary about Mr Teo Veoh Seng has just been released online. Mr Teo maintains the statues at the Haw Par Villa theme park. The title of the film is The Last Artisan. "Artisan" implies Mr Teo is somewhere between a craftsman and free creative. He paints inside the boundaries set by someone else. A great many people we think of as great artists were artisans. Michaelangelo was, strictly speaking, an artisan in the employ of the Catholic Church. Fairies, fauns or centaurs weren't allowed on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Only Bible stuff, or get off that scaffolding, he was told.

Today the word "artisan" implies someone of lower rank than an artist - a rude thing to say - so it has fallen out of favour.

If the survey had been worded, "Of the two, which is more essential? Artisans (newspaper illustrators, map designers, religious statue daubers, buskers, wedding and creative photographers) or artists (singers who do originals, collagists who work with old shoes and fish bones, writers whose niche is Asian steampunk fantasy, photographers who make everything look like midnight on Pluto)", we might have gotten a clearer, less controversial answer, but it would make for an awfully unwieldy survey.

The circuit breaker has hit artists hard because the places where they used to make money, like clubs, galleries, cinemas and performance centres are closed, so nerves are raw. The results feel like a kick to someone who is already down. I can see that.

One thing has become clear: It is that artists - and I am speaking of the "doctorate in performing arts from New York" type, not the person who designs Ovaltine packets - have a powerful presence on social media. Their defence of what they do online has sparked an important debate on the meaning of art in our lives.

As a writer - and a proud member of the non-essential club - I thank everyone who has spoken up.

So who's going to print up those Proudly Non-Essential T-shirts?

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.