On 28 June, Dr June Yap was one of the 6 commentators invited to speak at Art As Res Publicae. The text below is a transcript of the speech, responding to the topic for the evening, Complexities Surrounding Pluralism In Singapore.
What is the value of the arts?
Is its value in economic and quantifiable goals?
Of bums on seats, the number of spectacular productions, huge ticket sales, endlessly clicking attendance counters, high returns on investment, generous levels of patronage, and getting as many social media likes as possible?
Or is in ‘strategic value’* for the nation: such as in enriching the quality of life, the encouragement of creativity, the boosting of emotional and spiritual well-being, the strengthening of ties, integrating individuals and communities, and creating identity?
(*this list of strategic values has been culled from three pages of the Report of the Arts and Culture Strategic Review of 2012)
Perhaps, it is all of these. But it is to the latter that I will speak to here.
In the case of quantifiable value, what counts seems quite clear. But when the scope of impact is in the quality of life, well-being, ties and community — how value occurs is less obvious.
Yet, in relation to Eleanor Wong’s Wills and Succession, one of the ways in which such value is produced is quite simple: in an ordinariness.
In the reading of the scene in Wills and Succession which we just observed, Grace and Ellen quarrel over Ellen’s attendance of Grace’s wedding.
What this verbal tussle reveals is a deeper conflict of indifference and unhappiness.
Ellen claims Grace is ‘embarrassed' by Ellen and her partner; to Grace, Ellen is being ‘crude’ and, unlike Ellen, ‘not everyone is as open as (she) (is)’; and Ellen retorts that ‘at least they don’t pretend to be’.
Our worlds are sometimes so hermetic and contained. Difference and change appear daunting. It scares us that things are not what they seem, and we are moved to defend ourselves to remain the persons we think we are.
As the play continues, a few things happen. After Lesley moves in as Grace heads to Surabaya, Lesley suffers a lymphoma relapse and requests for Grace to return.
As Lesley’s health deteriorates, Grace and Lesley get to know each other; such that, at Lesley’s memorial, Grace announces that, while the relationship between Ellen and Lesley “has not always been an easy thing for (her) to understand or accept…, but (she) (does) know love when (she) (sees) it.”
To Grace, Lesley’s love for Ellen was “as deep and as strong and true as any love (she has) ever known.”
Of course, it is arguable if Grace’s position has shifted substantially, or if it has merely softened a little. My point on the ordinary is not the extent of this shift. But how it occurs.
In Act Two, Scene One, just after Grace returns from Surabaya:
Lesley asks Grace: Are we so difficult for you?
Grace answers: Yes
Lesley continues: Do we seem so wrong?… In London, whoever came home first would get dinner. Whoever was later would do the dishes and take out the garbage. Ellen would work late just to avoid dinner duty. On Saturday mornings we would clean house, do the laundry, lug grocery bags up five flights of stairs. On Sundays, we would fight over the weekend paper, have friends over for dinner, run out of paper napkins. Earthshaking, wasn’t it? But you know how it is already.
And Grace, in an epiphany of sorts, agrees: Yes. And you know that’s exactly why it’s so difficult.
Earthshaking or earth-shattering? What Lesley meant was its contrary. That what was shocking was that her life together with Ellen was ordinary. In other words, not earth-shattering at all. Normal, in fact, and human in scale.
So what is the value of the arts?
Certainly, it is in the spectacle, in the grand gesture, in ever-increasing numbers and expectations.
But it is also in revealing the reality behind the abstraction, and in bringing to the senses the profundities of human experience in an articulation and in perspective.
A moment for the simple and ordinary insight. Earth-shattering, isn’t it?
This is the value of the arts: the ordinariness of our subjectivities.