I Sell Stone

As I stepped inside the university for the second last time before my commencement in July, I realised one thing. Probably it was the literary atmosphere of the campus, one that reminds me of the days spent buried in essays and research or it may have been the time I spent on my way here since I’ve always think best on the commute (I have no idea why but I think our country’s MRT should have a separate compartment for people who want to write with some semblance of privacy instead of scribbling their notes on a pad with others overlooking their shoulders), that made me remember my priorities.

Why do you want to work in the creative industry?

I was asked that during my interview. Sadly, I fumbled with the ball and dropped it. Most probably, the interviewer didn’t like what she saw. If I were her, I wouldn’t have either. Simply put, I wasn’t as prepared as I would have like to be. And it was on my way to the university that I started to rack my brains for a reason.

Just a good reason that people would accept, a standard one, I tell myself. Don’t go spouting some idealistic nonsense again. Critical opinion, ipso facto, is never welcomed even if your employers advertised for a person who is out of the norm, like an ad that I’ve saw recently:

Because we have spend time creating this advertisement, we expect the respondent to have something amazing.

Wow. They spent time on creating the ad but neglected proofreading. I wonder how much time that constitutes.

I found my answer at the English Department when I made a sidetrip to locate my books which I’ve left there over the holidays.

Graduation gown in hand, I located my books in a converted storeroom, lying in a cardboard box with a layer of dust over it. I also saw more boxes books in its “neighbourhood.” Apparently, someone had left them behind after the last day of school and didn’t bother to come back for it. I thought it would be a waste to leave them there and so I ended up lugging a bag of books back home. Perhaps someone might want it, I thought. I’ll blast out a note on Facebook to see who’s missing these books.

Yet as I stepped out of the storeroom, it struck me how this situation seemed like a metaphor for the present and the future. As the class of 2008 steps into the real working world, we inadvertently leave the critical knowledge that we gained behind for what use does it have in reality? Worse, as we officially “commenced,” we unwittingly shed our hopes and ideals for the future.

Recently, I met this editor who works round the clock because they were understaffed (which is nothing new since writers are perhaps the most undervalued assets in the communications industry, considering how integral words are to it). When she asked me what I want to do for a living (since I was just starting out as a freelance writer), I could hear the lament in her reply when I told her I hope to write.

Once too I was an idealistic youth like you.

It sounded like so many other people that I had talked to. She went on with how she possessed similar ambitions as a fresh graduate but people started questioning her lack of employment (even though she was working as a full-time tutor) nine months after graduation. In the end, she took up her current job which is probably as fulfilling as warm sushi (yes Sakae Sushi, they should be served chilled).

I once watched a film noir where the detective says all it takes is one time for them to lose everything. Once they close an eye on things, everything is over. All it takes for us is to think that those ideals are truly beyond reach, just ideals, and we’ll be no different than the chimpanzees who share 95-98.5 percent of our DNA.[1]

Once their ideals burn bright but now like the books, they lay hidden and as they gather more and more mould, it became impossible to take them out again. How many people have you met who poured the same pail of cold water on you?

Now, except for that time of the month when they receive their pay, they’re stuck in jobs which afford no pleasure. Coupled with the rising costs of living, those jobs become double-edged swords. Damned if you go, damned if you don’t. This is what Marx’s theory of alienation is about.

The fact that labour is external to the worker, does not belong to his essential being; that he therefore does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working. His labour is therefore not voluntary but forced, it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need, but a mere means to satisfy need outside itself. Its alien character is clearly demonstrated by the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists it is shunned like the plague.[2]

Up until that moment where I collected my books in the university, it seemed I had already lost sight of my ideals as well. I contemplated working for more profitable industries or at least in my case, profitable. It’s not even a case of more. If I have to sell my soul, it might as well be sold to the highest bidder. To find employment in this capitalism, I’ll have to sacrifice my ideals.

But as my sight falls upon the pile of books, I realise it doesn’t need to end that way. What I’ve been seeing the world through was no less true than a simplified dichotomy of Art/Commercialization.

Surely, in the creative industry, the dichotomy of Art/Commercialization has been argued and pummelled to death. One could argue that Vincent Van Gogh did not sell out to capitalism or one could also argue that Andy Warhol sold his soul to Mephistopheles. If you take a look at the Renaissance City 2.0 report compiled by the Ministry of Information, Communications and Art, it outlines two traditional roles for key governmental agencies: Arts for Arts’ Sake and Arts for Business’ Sake.[3] Undoubtedly the dichotomy is perpetuated everywhere.

Yet I think that such a dichotomization is largely irrelevant and even impedes a critical mode of thinking. This dichotomization is a crystallization of the way we think, the same way we view things as masculine/feminine, silence/language, speech/words, normal/abnormal, heterosexual/homosexual. It prevents us from seeing beyond categories, from viewing things from our own perspectives instead of sending it to a lineup in a police station.

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In the case of the creative industry, Art and Commercialization simply are both sides of the same coin, existing simultaneously. It is undeniable that as creatives sell their works for profit, they are still, inherently, works of art. On a micro level, these could be said to be for commercial gain. However, on a macro level, these works aim to reconceptualize an individual’s experience of living as well. It is easy to separate these two issues and to demonize either one. But Vincent van Gogh couldn’t have made it without the continual financial support of his brother, Theo van Gogh.

If we adopt the perspective that advertisements can also be seen as works of art, then I believe I can answer the question with regards to why I want to join the creative industry. For it is not an exaggeration to say that we (both the creative and I) share a similar passion for Art. To misappropriate the words of Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky, the writer’s business is to convey the stoniness of the stone through words. The designer’s business is to convey the stoniness through visuals. Both means are different but the ends are the same: to “sell” that stone.


[1] Studies in 2002 have shown that chimpanzees may share a lesser percentage of our DNA than previously thought, at around 95 percent. This does not detract from the point that some homo sapiens behave as if there is no difference in genetic material at all.

[2] Karl Marx, Early Writings, Penguin 1975, 326.

[3] See “Creative Industries,” http://www.mica.gov.sg/mica_business/b_creative.html. Alternatively, you can download it here.

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