This post was originally posted by Ashwin Gobinath on his Facebook page on April 27, 2020. It was extremely moving and hit the nail home on the importance of placing high value on the local arts scene that we obtained his permission to reproduce the post here. We hope Ashwin’s sentiments resonates with you and his message is shared widely. Hopefully it reaches the ears of the various stakeholders of Malaysia’s creative economy including its policymakers.
It is public knowledge that times are, and have been tough. Especially now, with everyone having this huge shroud that is COVID-19 looming above us all.
To make matters worse, the government committed an unintentional or intentional boo-boo via a certain interview making its rounds online depicting the arts as a child’s plaything or akin to a hobby. As a fellow practitioner of the arts and someone who has been a cog in the machine or music industry and is currently trying to make a living in said machine, initially I took offence and was ‘triggered’.
After a spell of thought and rumination, I’ve come to realise that what I feel is actually disappointment. With a heavy heart, it feels as though all the nay-saying of the past about how the arts in Malaysia is dying, is finally, as much as I hate to believe it, coming true, not necessarily because of that article, but in part. I would certainly be remiss if I thought that this matter was of higher importance than so many other issues in our world today with people dying all over, but it still is disappointing nonetheless.
There is a silver lining though, with the surge of countless videos of artists performing their craft online, be it performances, concerts, cover videos, online cooking tutorials, people building things, creating in general.
Creating is the key word and the key factor in this whole situation. We are all creators. It doesn’t matter if we are ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’. Engineers create. Doctors create. Artists create. We are all united by the fact that no one, I repeat, no one can survive in a world without art.
The coldest of hearts can be warmed by a particular tune, a scene in a movie, a particular art form, as much as they hate to admit it. Love, a universal truth, is art, of which in turn has been the basis of the creation of countless works. All forms of emotion are equatable to art in some way. And that in its own diversity is what creates the world around us. We operate and navigate life around a fundamental truth that is, ‘Survive’, but no one survives alone in an inter-dependent society. And that summarises our arts industry and lives very well. We are all trying to survive.
There are many institutions in our country that support and champion the arts. We have them to thank for what little there is for us, but this makes me ponder the need for them. Why do institutions need to be made to ‘support’ the Arts? If art is vital to humanity’s survival, then shouldn’t it be the most thriving of all institutions?
Maybe art has been taken for granted for far too long that we have now forgotten how to truly appreciate it. Sure, we have our favourite bands and our favourite movies and artists and visit concerts and galleries in our free time or go to the theatre when a friend is performing. But do we sit idly by as they struggle to put food on the table? As they work tirelessly night after night to entertain others, sacrificing hours after hours away from families and loved ones? Sacrificing relationships over the sustainability of their chosen careers? I believe most people do. We can’t blame them for it because it is far too easy to turn a blind eye when they are not affected by those situations and are able to feed off of it unsuspectingly.
What about our leaders? Do they go home after a long day of leading and sit down on their favourite sunken-in spot on the couch and listen to music to unwind, put on a movie to relax? Are we held hostage by the fact that we have to keep creating and outputting material? What would the consequences be if we were to stop? Would the fine line between being jaded and quitting be crossed? I definitely know a lot of people who have. Would we lose chunks of ourselves? I know a lot of people who have. Would countless personnel ranging from the workers, tech crew, organisers, production crews, and more be stranded? Would we be resigned to a life unfulfilled? I know a lot of people who have. I also know many who persevere. Through hardship and pain. Just like any other industry when times get tough. So shouldn’t the arts be on the same tier of importance and value as any other industry?
I quote an article I read many years ago on NPR: “In 2002, the sleepy town of Kristiansand, Norway (pop. 80,000) made a big move in arts funding. Kristiansand sold off some of its energy stocks to start an arts foundation, Cultiva, with an endowment of 1.4 billion Norwegian kroner — currently the U.S. equivalent of around $240 million. Public funding in Norway is founded on a belief that even the most sparsely populated and remote regions of the country deserve the quality of life enjoyed in Oslo — including culture and art. So a small city like Kristiansand feels entitled to put itself on the cultural map, and thought it was important enough to sell off energy assets to make that happen.”
I can personally attest to the fact that Malaysian artists be it musicians, film makers, painters, chefs, poets, workers, entertainers, organisers, tech and production crews, and all manner of professional creatives in any form of the arts, are potentially world-class, if not already. We are lying in wait, to be unleashed onto the world. Have a think at what would happen if we were as willing to subscribe to a Malaysian artist as instantaneously as we would to someone like Rihanna, Arianna Grande, Gordon Ramsey, etc. What would the socio-economic impact be on these individuals and on the global perception of our country? What creates that divide?
“Norway pays to export its art and culture. The country’s pride in its improvised music means international jazz tours have a reasonably high rate of funding: In 2013’s first application round for overseas touring support, nearly a third of the jazz requests were granted. Subsidized touring often helps Norwegian musicians play career-boosting gigs at foreign venues that can’t or won’t cover their accommodation and travel expenses,” the NPR article reads.
How many of us wish we could bring our art to a worldwide audience? We have come to a stage where uploading our content online is not enough. Some of us know how to scale this and create growth and further our careers but the general artistic population don’t have the education or the resources to do so. We are limited by a lot of factors notwithstanding our government ‘support’. What about the support of the people?
The age old adage of masses willing to spend hundreds of Ringgit to see a foreign artist as opposed to the measly sum of a RM30 cover charge to see a local artist, rings so blatantly loud and true that it has become the norm for us. We all know the reasons for this and the factors and contributors to this situation, but are now living in an unprecedented new world. A world where buskers are taking to Facebook to perform without being incentivised. Are you going to transfer 10 Ringgit to a busker online?
I highly doubt that.
In fact, we would probably spend a few minutes watching before scrolling on past to another post about Kylie Jenner’s dog being diagnosed with the Corona virus. I know I’ve been guilty of that in the past. And this snowballs throughout a society. So how do we create an ecosystem where artists and technicians are properly incentivised for their creations, especially in this new world we live in?
“Public funding does carry an expectation that a festival will become increasingly self-sufficient, and Punkt did just that. By 2012, its eighth year, Punkt sold out many of its shows, won a prestigious European Cultural Festival grant (to go with increased private support), and established an international reputation that attracted Brian Eno as guest curator.”
“With towns throughout the country so eager to host festivals, it’s fair to count them as a significant source of income for Norway’s improvising musicians. Norway has more than 400 music festivals, and 20 jazz festivals alone, offering substantial performing opportunities. This is in a country with a population of just less than 5 million — roughly the population of Alabama. It’s no surprise that more than 20 percent of Norwegians attend a music festival each year: They can’t help running into at least one,” the article goes.
Do we even have a fraction of that number of festivals in our country of 33 million plus people? We probably do but how many of those do you know about?
“Innovation obsession is nurtured at the influential Trondheim Music Conservatory Jazz Program. Its graduates include many of Norway’s most successful (and well-funded) musicians. As Jazz Program director Erling Aksdal explains, his teaching philosophy reflects the “highly egalitarian culture in Norway where authority of any kind is always questioned and people’s general sense of self-value is high.” This gives a jazz student, Aksdal says, an “inventor’s belief in her/his uniqueness.”
“Norway’s egalitarianism creates humility — “I’m no better than him” — but the inverse also has traction: “He’s no better than me.” Egalitarianism can give a young Norwegian jazz musician the conviction that his music is as original as Monk’s or Garbarek’s once was. Even if the musician is wrong, false confidence may inspire him to create something interesting. “What at the outset may look like a chauvinistic attitude usually is a springboard to a fantastic world of discoveries,” Aksdal, in the NPR piece says.
What about our sense of self-value? Do we even take pride in the skills and talent of our fellow Malaysians? Don’t we want to see a world where Malaysians are in the news for the right reasons and are as commonplace as any other famous artist?
Creativity and art go hand in hand with almost any aspect of life and any industry. Creative minds emboldened and enriched by science (albeit primitive) created the first wheel. Fire. And with evolution came future inventions like cars, flight, medical advances and more, all of which are deemed vital to humankind’s survival and growth.
What if we took all that away and were left with just the clothes on our back and the world around us?
We would still create. Anything. Something.
Humans have a left and right brain for a reason. Two halves balance the scales of our being. We are vital and we matter. I and many of my peers have personally struggled with the uncertainty of a future in the music industry. So have millions of others around the world. We persevere because of one irrefutable fact: We cannot deny the fabric of our being.
We have to compose and play music. We have to write. We have to balance accounts and pay our taxes. We have to make movies. We have to make love and have families. We have to dance. We have to get groceries. We have to paint. We have to sculpt. We have to make a living for ourselves and future generations. We HAVE to create. We WANT to create. Not for the sake of ourselves alone, but for the sake of surviving.
Because without art, what and who would we be but empty shells and skin bags in a world forsaken?