Art in a Time of Crisis

I spent way, way too long searching for some half-remembered lines about art, and the value of creating art during a disaster. I ended up down a rabbit hole of ableist assumptions and statements that honestly drove me to drink (it was tea, but still).

But as usual, Twitter came through for me when nothing else on the internet would appreciate my hour and a half of keyword and boolean operator combinations. Let’s be clear, I only spent that long trying because … well, it’s not like I’ve got anywhere to go.

This thread from Erika Verkaaik is about a Vonnegut quote that got thrown around on social media more than I cared to witness in January of this year. As they explain, it is a quote extracted from its context of an interview with Vonnegut at age 80. Vonnegut was a dark and a cynical man, and I think Verkaaik’s treatment of this entire portion of the conversation, where Vonnegut expresses distaste for the effect of the artists against the Vietnam War, is a moment where I felt some kinship with Vonnegut over my own participation in protest art and my own perceived ineffectiveness. It’s a brief but compelling look at one aspect of the intersections of art, power, authority, and privilege. 

Audio Dramatic is a newsletter about fiction podcasts, but at its foundation, it’s about art. All my work is in some way. It’s about how we embrace everything we call art and why that’s important. This is a chaotic and unpredictable time for people around the whole world, disrupting and uprooting many of the corners of our lives, if not all of them in some way. And for that reason, certain actions feel too risky or difficult, and that’s true for the creative process as well.

I could write you a philosophy of my approach to creativity and art in a time of disaster and crisis — I’ve lived through some wild disasters, including multiple hurricanes, so like many others, I have acquired a lot of opinions. But that’s not going to help, I don’t think, especially since a ton of people with a better turn of phrase than me are already doing it.

Instead, I’m going to consider the potential walls that are in your way, whether you made them or someone else put them there. Then I’m going to get busy enabling you to wreck them.

This feels like a First World Problem. We shouldn’t impose making art in a time of crisis when there are people who have no creative outlet, like people in Third World Countries.

(Yes, this is a thing that I have seen and heard people actually say in my presence.)

First, I have an enormous problem with this assertion — which is that it relies on a very narrow frame of what is considered art and the assumption that people in so-called “Third World Countries” would not ever prioritize its presence in their lives or would have the creativity to figure something out that fits their situation. This sounds like art requires financial and material resources, as well as energy and time.

But art can be singing while you work, dancing before you go to bed; it can be in the food you make and in the clothes you repair. And that’s just me thinking of “stuff you probably have to do in quarantine no matter where you live”. Art doesn’t have to be for anyone but you. You can make it public if you wish — but it is not a requirement for what you’ve done to be “art”.

Consider the work of Outsider Artists, people “who work on the margins of mainstream contemporary art and beyond the confines of artistic institutions, creating works of inhibited expression without rules and taboos and providing a valuable insight into the world seen through their eyes.” (Martinique, 2016). The fact that their art was not made public until long into or after their career doesn’t mean it wasn’t art before then. Public display and exhibition of artworks is not the lynchpin to something being “art”. So yes, the lovely dance routine with scarves you’ve created to release stress? Art.

I’d agree that saying you must create art during a crisis is… not exactly useful or helpful. For anyone, actually; it’s also got a lot of ableist rhetoric embedded there. Not everyone’s catharsis, freedom of expression, or outlet can be found in something they would consider art or artistic, or in something that they felt they could approach with ease. And yes, people living in situations of poverty (whether “Third World” or not — I have so many problems with the First/Third World distinction but I’m not going to get into that here), or perhaps in grave mental or physical health situations, and especially in abusive ones, will have less access, less energy, and/or fewer options.

People are, above else, resourceful. They will find their way there. I hope that we embolden and strengthen our communities of care in order to help them, too. Don’t say that the only way to survive any crisis is to make art. Instead, encourage people to try it, to keep trying, to try new ways and methods.

Be kind, and be mindful. Broaden your scope of what is “art”. Broaden your understanding of what people are capable of.

I feel guilty for sharing my art because I rely on darker themes, including death.

Just as how everyone’s enjoyment is found in different things, so too is people’s own artistic and cathartic expressions. I can assure you there are people out there who seek out horror or dark, difficult themes in order to help themselves process or even escape. I find comfort in murder mysteries, even if they’re tragic or depressing instead of cozy. That’s a result of the long years I spent with my mother discovering classic mysteries and British adaptations. But a lot of people would not agree with me on the point that it’s comforting or relaxing right now (I literally watched all of Maigret this week, which is most assuredly tragic, though counterbalanced by his fulfilling home life and marriage).

If you want to protect your community or even whoever stumbles upon your work, this is what trigger warnings and content notes were designed for! Put a content note before anyone sees what it is — before they click a link or continue scrolling — and be as vague or specific as you like. Even just saying “content note: death”  or “content note: plague” will cue people of the fact that your work discusses or relates to these topics somehow, and they can make their own decision of whether they feel up to engaging with the work. I’d suggest using more specific warnings if it’s something very particular to this point in time, such as “death resulting from pandemic”, or if it’s something you feel must be explicit for everyone’s safety, such as “depictions of murder” versus the less intrusive “references to murder”.

Final point: don’t let anyone shame you for it. As long as you’re using warnings and mindful behavior*  as I would expect anyone to do when creating art for public consumption, you’re allowed to express yourself in art exactly the way you need to. It’s true that audiences aren’t exactly adept, let’s say, at handling messy, flawed, complex art especially when that mess is presented in a character. But I want your mess. When you can’t believe anyone wants your mess: I want your mess.

*“mindful behavior” as in, let’s leave the stereotypical harmful tropes and exploitation of oppressed peoples’ cultures and histories in the trash where it all belongs.

I want to create something, but I don’t know how/I’m not artistic enough.

Okay well, first, take that voice telling you that you aren’t artistic enough and throw it directly in the trash. I understand that voices sometimes crawl back out of the trashcan like the garbage monsters they are. Remember to put it back or ask someone for help to put it back in the trash.*

But if you want to, then that’s all you need to get started. This is a really lovely post on NPR about how to start an artistic habit. I found it heart-warming and empowering, and I hope it can do that for you. You might find that your first choices don’t work for you. “Actually, I hate working with acrylic paint” or “I always am too sleepy at 3pm”. Change it. Try something different. Try working on it in the morning, or switch to pencil work, or whatever.

*Trashcan’s going to be pretty full by the end of this essay, I realize.

People need to stop saying at least the art will come out of this will be good. Have they even thought about what an artist has to endure to make it?

Honestly, great question. This tracks immediately back to “the suffering artist” and the horrible idea that suffering creates great art. So I’ve got one thing to say.

Do not suffer for your art.

If your art is causing you pain, switch tactics. Take a break. Make something different, watch some TV, take a nap. Take a break for as long as you have to. Take your meds, remember to eat meals.

Do not suffer for your art. You shouldn’t have to “endure” to make it. (This gets tricky if it’s something you’re getting paid somehow to do, especially through a platform like Patreon, and/or you survive on income from your art, but please do whatever you can to take care of yourself.) But if you don’t feel creative, that’s okay. It’s okay to do whatever you have to do to survive, and for those things to not include any effort for art.

We don’t have medical supplies! How dare you make art! What a totally useless waste! Etc.

Hey? Fuck you.

I know that’s aggressive, but seriously, imagine policing people deciding to create art of some kind in order to cope with a crisis of any kind. Creating art was one of two things that kept me from falling apart during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (The other thing is my partner, if you’re curious).

The average citizen quarantined in their home can only do so much. They can call their elected officials and yell at them about budgets, and bills, and allocating resources. And then phone a friend and tell them to do it too. The next step might be forming mutual aid groups, voluntary reciprocal exchange of goods, resources, and services for mutual benefit (e.g.: Alcoholics Anonymous is an international mutual aid fellowship with a lot of groups; groups are better as smaller and more local). You might provide art livestreams or group video sessions to give people an outlet and community support, or create an online gallery or collection that your mutual aid group can access and add to.

But all of that has its limits. At some point, they will run out of people to call, they will not have a hanging out livestream forever. What happens if you, in your own cynicism and despair, put this horrible voice into someone’s head, depriving them of an important outlet for emotions?

I will personally never forgive you.

If this voice is in your head, please refer to the next point.

This is a CRISIS. How can it be moral or good for me to futz around making art at this time?

You know what’s moral and good?

Taking care of yourself. Taking care of your community.

People derive a lot of joy from all kinds of art. TikTok videos. Hairstyle tutorials. Recipes you’ve created or perfected. Extremely ridiculous and well-designed Twitter threads. Art challenges that you post every day.

Seriously, anything. People love witnessing art. It gives them a distraction, a relief, a sense of community, and a lot more. Sometimes it’s cathartic, sometimes it’s empowering, and sometimes it makes them think.  Sometimes it’s just feel-good enthusiasm and well-timed jokes.

And if you’re reticent to make art about the crisis? Artists and audiences need that moment too. Maybe you’ll hold off on sharing it until the crisis has mostly passed. Maybe you’ll share it immediately. If it helps you, it’s already valuable. And if it helps others experience a catharsis, deep understanding, or a sense of community across great distances — what’s so bad about that?

As always, go gently. Use content warnings. Check in with yourself.

The fact that we have access to a myriad of ways to form our own artistic process and mechanism is nothing short of a miracle. Embrace it.

By the way: make that fucking podcast from your quarantine. Do it. Email me if you need any resources or tips.

Resources, and a last word.

My goal was to provide you with uplifting words, tools to break down your internal barriers, and maybe get out of your shell and explore a little more. If you’re not really into the idea of creating art, but you love to engage with it, do so! And then tell creators about when it helps you; what you love about it, how it kept you sane or secure or comforted. Because creators need those voices, too and those reactions become critical if they’re struggling with the act of creation.

I’m going to link some resources below, which touch on different topics presented across this enormous essay. It’s an amalgamation of book recommendations, articles and essays, news reports, videos, music, newsletters (weirdly, only one podcast, but that’s just because I’m leaning into my “I have missed X media, let’s do THAT” quarantine mode. Sorry, podcasts.) I don’t agree with everything I’ve put here, and some I have quibbles with in some parts and agreement in others. But here’s the thing: art is not just one thing or one opinion. By necessity, it is many. I don’t want this essay to declare what art is, in a concrete way. That’s why it’s so important to provide as many viewpoints as I can muster.

If you’ve got a resource along any of the lines present in this essay, about the power, importance, and even risk of art during some kind of crisis, email it to me. I’d love to engage with it. Honestly, especially if it’s a podcast.

  1. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, by Christina Sharpe. This is a review of one of the most important books I’ve read this year. In fact, I have lost words to be able to describe to you as I think about it. This is a book with deep, agonizing roots about what it means to live, create, think, and die as a Black person doing it all “in the wake” of ongoing antiblack oppression, (It is, as far as I know, only available in an eBook format through Barnes & Noble or your local library, and probably Amazon but please don’t shop there for books, okay?)
  2. Tart Magazine has started a newsletter specifically for art created during the COVID-19 crisis. You can subscribe to it, and you can also submit to it! The first theme is “intimacy”. Submissions are open until April 22.
  3. Crisis Art, by Harold Jaffee. This is a thought-provoking essay about the nature of crisis art. I don’t agree with everything here, but that’s not the point. The point is that this essay made me think, gave me some feelings, and helped me further develop my perspective. But honestly that last line? It got to me.
  4. This is an interview with Stefanos Tsivopoulos, an artist and filmmaker who created work during and about the Greek financial crisis. The interview centers around the value and importance of doing that work. He’s a hell of an artist and speaker; reading this interview literally brought chills to my arms. You can read about History Zero, one of his most famous artistic installations presented during the 55th International Venice Art Biennale. You can also read this review.
  5. This Refinery29 article covers the potential increase in abuse happening during quarantine and methods that survivors or communities of support can take.
  6. PBS News report on the power of art during the era of social distancing and the #SunshineSongs hashtag, Italy’s balcony music, and more.
  7. Livestream over at Vonnart about artists during the COVID-19 outbreak about what artists can do to prepare for the future, help themselves with regards to their income, and other advice for these times.
  8. Documentary about art made during the Hong Kong protests, as protest leaders who have been branded as rioters. Among many other things, it explains the concept and slogan of 5 Demands, None Less. Warning that Regina Ip has some sections of interview and it’s infuriating.
  9. This song from Residente, Bad Bunny, and iLe is a protest song created in defiance during the political unrest and #RickyRenuncia protests in Puerto Rico last year. Alt.Latino has an episode about this song and its power.
  10. This is an article in the Fairfield Mirror about the art of Syrian refugees from the Za’atari Refugee Camp, in 2016. Nadra Al-Hamwy, who graduated in 2018, wrote this essay on her experience of witnessing the art considering she hadn’t been back to Syria since 2010.
  11. John Luther Adams, for Slate in 2015, discussed his approach to creating art in times of crisis. It includes a discussion on how art should intersect with the political and the responsibilities of an artist as a citizen of the earth.
  12. Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, wrote Making Art in a Time of Rage in 2017. Among other things, the glory of the playlist that I got from this piece accompanies me whenever I write in rebellion, at whatever has fueled my anger at injustice.

This essay was originally published in Audio Dramatic, Issue #42, March 30, 2020.