The Arts Amid A Pandemic

There is a well-known, nearly cliché, story that most of us remember from history class. Like most over-told tales, there is a reason for its repetition in our lexicon. We over-use examples when they speak to a large number of people, are easily palatable, or represent the rare gem of a perfect analogy. The factoid I’m thinking about today – and have been for the last weeks – is about the Titanic. Not the fictitious Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet story, but the tales that came from the actual Titanic sinking. Namely: that every member of the band perished because they chose to keep playing music instead of getting into lifeboats.

Most of you have heard that fact. I’m probably not surprising or educating anyone with this sliver of history. It’s a piece of information that conjures appreciation and respect in all types of people, even the most ardent slash-the-Arts-budget individual. Yet somehow, in our culture and so many others, this story seems like an anomaly, the exception about the Arts rather than the rule. Creative people are rarely portrayed as the heroes who sacrifice. We are not the ones rushing into burning buildings or performing surgeries or squinting into telescopes for years trying to find that elusive cure. Instead, we are seen as the frivolous ones. We matter and are appreciated, but only during midsummer outdoor concerts or Friday night date night at the movies. We are our culture’s entertainment, the jesters who keep them preoccupied. And we share a significant – if not majority – portion of the blame for this stereotype because we have played directly into it.

Whatever our creative pursuit, most of us aren’t performing Mozart on a cello as the waters literally rise up our feet.

These weird and strange days have brought opportunity to change that. As we continue to watch our world devolve into panicked toilet paper purchases and lonely isolation, the Arts have a unique platform to bring the same comfort and ease to people as those heroic musicians. And its already happening.

Famous musicians are streaming Live concerts from their living rooms. Art galleries are offering digital tours. Writers are starting virtual book clubs. Mostly free of charge, all giving the stir-crazy public a distraction.

But is it just a distraction?

Artists believe that we have something to say. And everyone is going to need something a little different from us as these next few weeks unfold. Some will need encouragement, inspiration and motivation. Some will need comfort. Others will need something a little stronger – a metaphoric shot of whiskey as they bravely face the virus infecting their body or another night shift at the hospital. All of these things are in our disposal to offer. And all of them matter in ways that are far more tangible today than they were yesterday.

This is my hope for our world as we move through the coronavirus pandemic: that we would come out the other side finally understanding the full value of creativity.

Because herein lies our most neglected message: the Arts were never about a specific art form. It’s not a debate about whether pop music is better than country or whether there is more depth in an abstract painting than a sculpture or whether your local theater should sensor a certain number of swear words.

The Arts are about exercising the creative channels of the brain, in both the performer and consumer. And while debates about your High School musical truly are trivial, the value of a mind that thinks outside the box is a necessity in every single field, especially today.

As I watch social media and the news, I am both heartbroken and encouraged to see parents wobbly attempting to adjust to a life of remote work and full childcare responsibility. They are baking and playing music and buying books. They are inventing new board games when their children get literally bored by the old ones. They are being creative. But mostly, they are desperately seeking. They are following other creative profiles and begging the broader internet world for suggestions.

This is our time to rise up, artists. This is our time to use our talents as a service. To promote an exchange of ideas. To offer calm into the chaos. To give dormant minds and bodies new exercise. And lest we forget that this pandemic is still a real danger, and not just about people cooped up in their houses, it is our opportunity to create something of true comfort and depth for someone who may be in pain or may not live through this ordeal.

But bear no illusions: this will cost us. It may not cost a literal life, unless you are exposing yourself to an infected population (please don’t, as you’ll be contributing the virus’ spread!). But it will mean significant sacrifices of time and finances.

This is something that non-artists probably don’t understand. Our culture grasps the depressing realities for our local businesses and the far-reaching consequences this quarantine is going to have on our economy. But it’s not just retail who is feeling the sting. The Arts run on events. The majority of money made by those in creative fields is through events. When concerts are cancelled and book tours suspended and gallery openings postponed, artists lose the primary chunk of their yearly income and have significant portions of their marketing strategy upended. To replace those with services to help the public, most of which are free, puts artists in difficult positions.

But everyone is in a difficult position right now; its all the same ship. And out of every industry, artists are used to using ingenuity to create alternative income streams. We have a lot we can teach our neighbors about practical things like that, too.

We live in a society that hasn’t practiced creativity very well. We have our regular work flow and very rarely think outside the box. Businesses that now have to go virtual are run by people who don’t know how to make that transition. Parents who haven’t used Algebra in 30 years now have to teach it to their adolescent children. A world that literally runs on the 9-to-5 schedule now has to balance work and family 24/7. None of these are specifically “artistic” things, but all are going to require creative solutions from people whose brains have not been well-groomed to practice life this way. We can help with that.

This is our time, artists. Our time to finally prove that music isn’t just entertainment and painting isn’t just inspiration.

I hope we are willing to make the sacrifice and do the service. And I hope when this pandemic is over, society will come out of it with a new priority for ensuring the next generation is better prepared. Not only when it comes to health and flexible business models. But also in the ways we use art to prepare our children for whatever crisis they will inevitably have to face, by molding them to have a deeper understanding of creativity and a looser dependency on rules, models and boxes.

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