Should we believe in the arts?

Today marks the final lecture for my theatre module on Singapore English Language Theatre (SELT). But after one whole semester learning this module, I have arrived at more questions than answers.

My professor firmly believes in the power of theatre in bringing hidden sociopolitical issues to the foreground. He asserts that because Singapore is a highly regulated country, and arts defy regulations by nature, any form of performing arts is bound to be subversive. Hence, the arts, especially theatre, is often closely monitored.

At the start of the module, I was easily convinced by his thread of argument, especially because I was drawn by the powerful pieces of theatre works. But towards the end of the module, I started to question it.

Could the reason why the arts is so heavily regulated be that it has the power to point people to a perspective of truth they never knew exist, when it may not be based on actual facts? Due to the liveness of theatre, the audience is directly implicated and invested into a play. Even if the play has Brechtian elements in it, the playwright inevitably places his own bias into the play with a specific purpose in mind, be it directing the audience to other perspectives or to make them question the current state of matters.

Percy Bysshe Shelley once said that “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Given the power artists hold, the next question is this- Is this power legitimate? When I pick up a play, or watch a play, how can I be sure that the playwright has done extensive research before claiming to reflect social realities? Arguably, artists reflect the social reality they see through their eyes, and hence have no responsibility in depicting the society as it is. If plays merely reflect the playwrights’ perceptions of the world, doesn’t that undermine their power in evoking change in society? Additionally, it is claimed from the start of the module that SELT provides a window into Singapore society. How do we judge the validity and reliability of the narratives that are meant to parallel actual issues in the society in these plays?

Personally, I think these are difficult questions to answer. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the responsibility of the playwright. Still, I do see the need for regulation because theatre, if handled carelessly, can be a dangerous tool. Even though SELT often criticises how the Singapore identity is constructed, it will be ironic if the plays that are meant to expose different narratives are based on mere perceptions that could have been constructed in the playwright’s subjective perspective as well.

For example, in Chong Tze Chien’s play, “Charged”, he exposes the underlying tensions between races in a highly confrontational manner. However, while playwrights constantly challenge the notion of multi-racial harmony in Singapore, should there not be a reason for being appreciative of at least a certain degree of peace between races in Singapore? The other day, in the lift, I met a Malay family. I pressed the “open” button for them and they greeted me with “thanks”. That could have been any other family of another race and it would have made me as happy and grateful nonetheless. I admit that I do not fully understand the customs and traditions of other races very well, but this degree of harmony is something so difficult to achieve in other countries. Should this perspective not be represented or respected then, just because it is cliche or mainstream? But I do agree that this perspective of mine does reveal beliefs that are subconsciously ingrained in me, which I will probe further in the later part of this post.

Additionally, there are two other means to reach a plausible solutions for the above questions. First, my sister pointed out a good point that we should believe in the competency of the audience in viewing the show critically. My concern has an implicit assumption that the audience will not be able to identify the biases held by the playwrights.

Second, in my Methods of Social Research lecture, I learnt about the value of Biographical Research. Biographical research “takes the individual as author and source of evidence, collect and interpret personal narrative, discourse, and story in order to understand the individual life within its social context”. Similarly, the question of validity and reliability arises. How objective can one person’s account of society or history be? This time, my professor suggested that perhaps biographical research is valuable precisely because it represents partial reality. For example, “Oral History”, which is the “collection and study of historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life using audiotapes, videotapes, or transcriptions of planned interviews” may only capture personal perceptions, but personal stories often include very rich data that cold hard statistics cannot fully capture. Furthermore, these personal “oral histories” are part of the history making process, as they are parts of a whole.

This parallels art in the sense that we should value it as a medium to uncover deeper interactions between people, that facts cannot illustrate. Perhaps, there is nothing wrong with treating each of these plays individually, and valuing them more as platforms to give each playwright a voice to the issues to show that these voices exist, and less as plays that are representative of the population.

This whole debate with myself unexpectedly brought light to the subconscious beliefs that I have held in my life thus far. Perhaps, I have been living in a bubble that assumes everything is perfect in Singapore, in which I have been termed as naive. Perhaps, the unspoken preconception that artists are troublemakers instead of able instruments for positive social change have been ingrained in me. Perhaps, the idea that arts should rightfully be regulated has been one that I have unknowingly conformed to, simply because that it has been the master narrative I have grown up with. These may account for the cognitive dissonance I experienced when I attended SELT lectures. But at the very least, it takes such moments for beliefs to be brought to light and that is the first step before I can evaluate if these beliefs are justifiable, or not. For that, I am happy to have learnt something about myself from this module.

Currently, my stand is more conservative than liberal on the question of the role of art and artists. However, these questions will continue to stick with me, and the answers will be constantly evaluated, as I approach the arts in the future.


Author: Cheryl Tan

21 // +65 A closet thinker. Documents her life in words and songs. Hopelessly obsessed with skies, and oh, FOOD.

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