Why do we need the arts in times of crisis?
The word is different now. Vastly, unimaginably different to how it was just a few weeks ago. But at the same time, things look remarkably the same. There are no bombed streets or sirens or gas masks. Blue skies and daffodils feel to be an unfitting backdrop to what we know to be happening around the world.
How do we make sense of a present, that is unlike anything we have ever experienced before, but at the same time, uncannily similar?
Many of us have found ourselves somewhat addicted to the news, compulsively refreshing news channels each time we open our laptops. We stare at our screen, each fact more shocking than the next, but received with such speed that the reports lose their impact. Faces become numbers. The numbers lose their meaning. The true scale and severity of the crisis feels beyond our comprehension.
Mikkel Fugl Eskjær, a professor of communication and psychology at Denmark’s Aalborg University argues that looking at the news alone is an insufficient means of getting our head around such a crisis. “When faced with crises or with widespread social concern, people seek information on several levels,” he tells Digital Trends, “It is important to remember that emotions are central to human cognition. Through art and culture, we see, hear, and feel what a virus outbreak is like. We identify with people that suffer and we sympathize with those battling the virus.”
Unlike the ‘fact’-based information provided by news channels, the arts prompt us to understand situations through emotions, associations, and identification. This is reflected in a surge in consumption of pandemic related material. An article in the Paris Review observed sales of Camus’ The Plague being “through the roof”, whilst Vice reported in March that Contagion was the third most popular film rental on iTunes.
As the world becomes more fictitious, fiction can help us navigate these increasingly unreal times. We adjust to our strange realities by looking for parallel narratives, seeking examples of human behaviour we can identify with, feelings we can relate to.
The arts are familiar in the terrain of crisis, uncertainty and loss. They hold up mirrors to the human condition, packed with abiding lessons in how to live – how to overcome obstacles, face our fears, cope with tragedy and understand ourselves.
Refocusing our vision
Art offers new ways of looking at the world. It sharpens our attention to the microscopic, the minute, the granular, the mundane. This is echoed in an essay by the artist Bridget Riley, ‘At the End of My Pencil’. Drawing what is in front of her eyes, Riley finds herself “discovering things that on the one hand are staring me in the face and on the other I have not yet really seen.”
When we take the time to actually look at the things in front of us – the tiny yellow buds in the centre of a daisy, the glitter of morning dew on the grass – we find ourselves struck by their strangeness, enamoured by their beauty. Whether it is a song, a novel, a painting, or a film, art condenses something – an experience, a conflict, a sensation – into being. Art animates the invisible. It gives life to what we feel but cannot see.
“It’s like falling in love with the one you love again and again and again and again”, writes Tracy Emin, who took over the White Cube Instagram account with a personal diary last month. Caged by the walls of her home, Emin experiences herself liberated, struck by what has always been around her, but she has ceased to see.
As articulated by the Russian composer, Igor Stravinksy, “the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” Physical confinement can spur creativity; we open ourselves to new ways of seeing.
This goes beyond noticing bluebells or tweeting birds. As a society, we chose what and who we regard as important. Things are not invisible because they cannot be seen; they are invisible because we chose not to see them. The arts can help change this. In giving a voice to marginalised or silenced perspectives, we can experience our own world in a different light.
A return to normal?
Forced to confront our own blind spots, we can embark on radical new beginnings. The word crisis derives from Late Middle English, from the Greek krinein ‘decide’. It is used to describe ‘make or break’ moments – the turning point of a disease indicating either recovery or death. It is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as both “a time of intense difficulty or danger” but also “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.” At the very core of the word, we arrive at crossroads. It is a word instilled with despair and terror, but also possibility and hope.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew,” explains activist and writer Arundhati Roy in an article in the Financial Times. “This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
The arts do not just provide lessons on how to live through the crisis, but how we can survive after. They can provide roadmaps for our recovery, “providing new registers, new languages in which to think,” as articulated by Olivia Laing, author of ‘Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency’. What we consume during the crisis can help us imagine the ways in which we can rebuild, repair and rejuvenate.
Earlier this month, the the New York Times published an illustration by the Toronto-based artist, Wenting Li, depicting individuals through their window engaged in various pastimes – making phone calls, gardening doing puzzles. Spelt out across a starry night sky, Li’s question hangs against the window-shot scenes: “Are we really waiting for a return to normal… or are we ready to build something different?”
However you are spending your time during lockdown, it is worth taking the time to pause and think. What do you want to leave behind when the pandemic ends? What sort of world would you like to live in? What do you want the world to look like when this is over?