In crisis, is art really nonessential?

Cutting Room Floor

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Almost two weeks ago, we were studying in cafés, bar-hopping with friends, fluttering to the movies, dinner, classes and each other’s houses carelessly. We were working in offices and outdoors, in theaters and labs, with coworkers and friends. We were going to art museums, concerts, festivals and live theater performances. Now, the planet and the lives of millions of humans on it all looks very different. 

Social media bombards us constantly with information about what we should be doing to stay healthy and protect our species, but also how to stay connected, sane and calm. With a rising death toll and millions out of work, it seems trivial to ask: How are we keeping ourselves entertained? 

In a pandemic in which proximity to others is dangerous, the arts were quickly deemed “nonessential,” with concerts, museums, movie theaters and festivals being closed in the blink of an eye. Hunkered down inside our homes, we fill our lives with substitutes: from streaming the newest series to making countless pandemic playlists for socially distanced friends, from the stack of books on my nightside table I suddenly have time to read to the endless stream of memes and presidential gaffes to scroll through on Twitter. 

With lives and livelihoods at stake, we can give up the experience of sharing art together, can’t we? It’s necessary, yes, but in the blur of the past two weeks, we seem to have forgotten that art is essential for our civilization, as is the shared experience of making, viewing and experiencing it.

Art is a way of knowing the world, an outlet into inarticulable sensations and emotions. No longer can we stand next to a stranger in a museum, our heads tilted to see a painting more clearly. No longer can we sit in the dark of a theater, eyes wide at the magical splendor, alone but together. Art is what has gotten our species through the most trying of times, and this year is shaping up to be one for the history books. 

But artists are trying — we all are trying. In the past weeks I have read three of my friends’ plays, consumed dozens of poems and songs, and even attended a Zoom concert. I have watched comedians bring us laughter from inside their homes and listened to musicians perform covers and drop albums. Kids are putting on theater pieces for their exhausted parents and artists are livestreaming painting and baking parties. We all can’t write “King Lear” in quarantine, but we can try our best. 

The world is quite rocky right now and we are all processing it differently. From reading to writing to binge-watching, we are all discovering how to work, love and exist in this new reality. Personally, I’ve taken to spending four to five hours daily reading the news, political analysis and critical theory, hoping our country will find a way to remember everything this virus is teaching us. But I have also been more creative than ever. By letting the thoughts out of my brain and onto the page, whether in ink or paint, the world becomes, for a moment, clearer. 

Although I still long for silent movie theaters and loud music halls — the shared experience of humanity — I am uplifted by our ability to share and produce so much together. We are distant now, but when we finally get those moments of togetherness back, they will be all the sweeter. 

In the meantime, if you can, please donate to your local artists. They are necessary contributors to the fabric of society, and they are almost universally out of work. In a time when we need art more than ever, let’s support those who will tell stories, teach lessons and inspire critical thought, laughter and love. We will look back on this as an incredibly precarious time for our country and the world. But the art that we create will preserve that feeling, reinforcing the lessons we learn. Most of all, it will remind us to hug each other a little tighter, for all those times when we couldn’t.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].