Monkeys have long since quit performing for the organ grinder on the streets of Europe. A stuffed chimp is all that tourists will see

Cultural pretensions are just a monkey show

Marshall McLuhan is the Canadian chap who wrote a book that I bought at great expense for my Mass Communication Master’s programme at Nanyang Technological University (located somewhere in the boondocks of Singapore).

The book was crap! Other than the catchy expression about the medium being the message, the man was talking mostly nonsense, something about electricity in communication, etc.

Sadly, I have quite a number of such expensive books in my library that turned out to be mumbo-jumbo.

Much of Western symphonic music is also crap. And most people – the elites in Singapore, in particular – only pretend to appreciate it. If you attend any symphonic orchestra performance, you can see these VIPs fidgeting with their hands. They are bored as hell, but since they are there in tuxedo and gowns, they have to pretend to be in raptures.

The most painful thing I discovered about attending such concerts is the handclapping, more prolonged than during a Chinese Communist Party congress. When the concert ends, you must clap and clap, and clap some more, for 15 minutes at least, to thank the music players for sending your soul to paradise. During one such evening, I clapped till my hands were sore and I stopped, but the VIP clowns around me were still clapping.

Ten years ago, at a dinner date in a pricey restaurant, I learnt a lesson on cultural pretensions from an attractive but straight-talking girl. I was trying to impress her with the extent of my intellectual knowledge by talking about Homer, Cervantes, Dante and other well-known writers of Western literature. Over wine and French food I discoursed long and earnestly; but at the end of the night, she told me, “Thanks for the lovely dinner but what you said is simply the most boring crap I’ve ever heard.”

I felt deflated, depressed, despondent. Here I was trying to bribe my way to get into her pussy with a display of literary erudition, and it was nothing but crap to her! Eventually, I did get into bed with her, no thanks to Homer!

The beauty of Literature and the Arts is all in the mental eye of the beholder, and there are precious few such beholders in Philistine-dominated Singapore! After more than five decades of an active reading life (I began reading at 8), I have met only a handful of Singaporeans who find pleasure in Literature and the Arts, and one was my Secondary 3 Literature teacher Mr Matthew (1966), who was probably dead by now.

I’ve not met any individual who confessed that he or she is enraptured by the self-musing in Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (William Wordsworth), the lyrical irony of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edward Fitzgerald), or the stirring speech, We Band of Brothers, by William Shakespeare in Henry V.

So, without appropriate costumes and the right setting, there can be no message, and by extension, no genuine audience. The medium provides the cue for us in the audience to show off our cultural pretensions, like the prolonged painful handclapping after a concert, despite the fact that we get a numb head from sitting more than 10 minutes listening to the winds and strings pounding our ear drums.

An American celebrity conductor and violinist Joshua Bell played his violin at a street corner, but few people stopped to listen. Without the ornate setting of the theatre, there was nothing to cue the people around that he was producing “fine” music. Consequently, there was no clapping audience, only indifferent passers-by.

When a man grinds an organ and makes his monkey dance at the street corner, however, there is a message saying this performance is unusual and comical. So passers-by stop to watch and laugh and throw coins. The street is the appropriate medium for dancing monkeys and their musicians because it is where people expect such things.

By the way, I can’t resist adding this quote from British war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill: “Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room.” Organ grinders and their monkeys used to be a common sight in European cities before the war.

– Francis Chin, Jan 10, 2009

Busking at a subway station

In an experiment initiated by a Washington Post newspaper columnist, Gene Weingarten, the symphony conductor and violinist Joshua Bell donned a baseball cap and played as an unknown busker at a Metro subway station in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2007.

The event was recorded on hidden camera. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped to listen to Bell, and only one recognised him. For his nearly 45-minute performance, Bell collected $32.17 from 27 passersby (excluding $20 from the passerby who recognised him). Three days before, Bell earned considerably more playing the same repertoire at a concert where no one in the audience was allowed to wear a baseball cap.


Never hold discussions with the monkey when the organ grinder is in the room