Don’t treat arts as an after-hours hobby: Alfian Sa’at to SOTA students

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“I know I’m coming across as harsh,” said poet and playwright, Alfian Sa’at. “But I have to register my disappointment at the responses coming from SOTA students regarding why an overwhelming majority of them, despite having an arts-based education, would ultimately choose non-arts careers.”

Mr Sa’at was referring to recent news that 83 per cent of students from the School of the Arts (SOTA) in 2015 went on to non-arts related degrees in university. This is a jump from 60 per cent in 2012.

In her speech at the school’s Arts Awards Day on 15 May, the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu, praised the school for providing “multiple pathways and varied career options.”

“Over 70 per cent of its graduates have gone on to pursue non-arts related university courses such as Law, Journalism and Engineering and some have taken arts and arts-related courses in prestigious arts institutions and conservatories,” she said.

Straits Times

However, the news was greeted with concern by some, who also questioned the purpose of an arts school and its very existence.

“The staggering number of students from a specialised arts school designed to provide a first-class arts education dropping arts when they enter university is extremely disconcerting,” wrote Jeffrey Say to the Straits Times on 22 May.

Mr Sa’at – known for his provocative works which are performed here and abroad – says that students need to respect the arts as a career in the first place.

“[I] also want to tell you that unless you start according an arts career the respect and commitment that it deserves, and that means not treating it like an after-hours hobby, or a post-schooling co-curricular activity, or making statements like ‘well who’s to say that I won’t still dabble in the arts?’, we will never reach a stage where professionalisation is possible, and we will never create a real industry, the kind you might aspire to be part of one day.”

Mr Sa’at’s reaction was posted on his Facebook page on 25 May.

We reproduce it in full below.

A SOTA student says: “I’m allowed to have more than one passion. And you don’t get to tell me that I can’t have it both ways. So, no, I’ve never met a SOTA student who gave up on their ambition. And that’s because SOTA students understand that it’s human nature to have more than one. And we’re never going to play the zero sum game with our dreams.”

Sure, you’re young, you’re idealistic. You probably don’t believe, at this point, that it’s possible to bite off more than you can chew. But I also want to tell you that unless you start according an arts career the respect and commitment that it deserves, and that means not treating it like an after-hours hobby, or a post-schooling co-curricular activity, or making statements like ‘well who’s to say that I won’t still dabble in the arts?’, we will never reach a stage where professionalisation is possible, and we will never create a real industry, the kind you might aspire to be part of one day.

When you come in late for rehearsals, because of the overtime from your ‘real’ job, the work suffers. When you don’t get your lines down because you don’t have the head space and bandwidth for the play, the work suffers. When your stage manager has to try working around your schedule and has to even cut rehearsals to accommodate your ‘real’ job, the work suffers. And you expect everyone around you to make compromises and sacrifices so that you can chase your double rainbow?

I know I’m coming across as harsh. But I have to register my disappointment at the responses coming from SOTA students regarding why an overwhelming majority of them, despite having an arts-based education, would ultimately choose non-arts careers. What I’m hearing are ‘you haven’t been to SOTA so please don’t comment’, ‘I’m still young and have every right to change my mind’, ‘don’t talk about your tax dollars subsidising my expensive arts education, I refuse to be blackmailed by any talk of obligations’, ‘people were so discouraging when I joined SOTA and now that I have internalised that discouragement you want to blame me?’ The kind of defensiveness that comes from avoiding the real issues.

And for me the fundamental issue here is: in spite of a prolonged exposure to the arts, a career in the arts remains a deeply unattractive option for many of these students. And I really would like to know why. Yes, I know some students found out along the way that they were interested in something else. Some felt that they were more suited for a life as arts patrons and consumers than as artists. I have no doubt that these are honest responses, but I also feel there is something else if you scratch hard enough.

When I talk about honesty in one’s writing, I tell students that you must be honest in addressing your desires, and you must also be honest in addressing your fears. And I feel that there are fears involved in such decision-making, fears that are not articulated because there is that additional fear of being outed as fearful.

I feel that there are systemic things to talk about, about how after so many years we’re still talking about rice bowls and backup plans and safety nets, about things to do with conformity, risk, innovation, failure, dreams, thwarted dreams, stillborn dreams, dreams that are skewed and resized, trimmed and pruned, dreams nibbled by fear, dreams folded into paper aeroplanes, tucked into crevices between concrete slabs, dreams that were made art in a student’s hands and then turned into rubbish in the hands of the administration..