This is going to be a different sort of blog post, because we’re living in different times. Though we’re looking forward with hope, and spring is rapidly springing from the earth, we’re currently in the belly of the beast. Michiganders are under a stay-at-home order. To be clear: now is not the time for anyone to be traveling anywhere.
So I thought I’d take a step back, and write a more general post about art in this period of social distancing. With luck, I’ll soon be resuming my interviews of brilliant local artists from the Sleeping Bear Dunes region, and reporting on goings-on in the art world up here. But for now, let’s take a deep breath and think about how art can help us through these difficult days.
I have some ideas. Five, to be precise. Here’s why this “pause” in our lives is a good time for art.
1. Find your art…and branch out
Use this time to indulge your inner artist — and learn to appreciate art you didn’t think you’d like.
I honestly believe everyone is an artist. Yes, you! Even people who swear to me they aren’t artists turn out to be artists, when I dig deeper. Do you like to cook? That can be an art. Do you like to garden? Do you like to crochet, or doodle, or improve your house, or paint your nails, or take photos, or even do a puzzle? What all these things have in common is form — navigating shapes, colors, space, proportions. You might say some of these things are assembly rather than creation, but I disagree. “Assembling” a puzzle is not so different from a poet assembling beautiful words, or a florist assembling a beautiful bouquet. So don’t sell yourself short. You. Are. An. Artist. Figure out what your art is, and take pride in it.
And even if none of these things appeals to you, you are still an artist in the sense that you surely appreciate art. I have never met anyone who didn’t have a favorite song, or a favorite movie. And I would argue that by engaging in a heartfelt way with art, you are participating in a process of “self-creation.” Which is an art!
But also branch out! Watch movies you thought you’d hate. Listen to music you never thought you’d like. Crack open that neglected book a relative gave you for Christmas.
I’ll offer an example. I’m a film snob, and I’m hardly a fan of cheesy science-fiction flicks. But last night, I watched the classic Star Wars II: Wrath of Khan on Netflix. And it was, ahem, really good.
And if you hate black-and-white movies or movies with subtitles, watch a black-and-white movie with subtitles. And if you hate Taylor Swift, listen to Taylor Swift. Branch. Out. That will keep you stimulated, and keep you growing.
2. Now is not the time for perfectionism
For half a year, I’d been on a low-carb diet. But when the social distancing started, I immediately went back to comfort foods. Because! And I was feeling mixed about it, but my mom reassured me, “Now is not the time to be on a diet.” I would also say now is not the time to be an artistic perfectionist. The key thing is to just keep producing, keep doing something artistic every day. Prioritize quantity, not quality. And guess what…If you create something every day, eventually one of your creations is going to be excellent. And if 1 out of 50 watercolors you painted turns out to be gorgeous, then congratulations! You now have a beautiful work of art you can be proud of for the rest of your life!
I write poetry. On average, I write one poem a month, because I’m a perfectionist, and I need to feel like everything I’m writing “passes the test” and is “worthy.” But the crisis we’re living through has liberated me a bit. In the last two weeks, I’ve written four poems. There’s probably only one decent poem in the batch, but still…I’m feeling like I have permission to relax and experiment. I’m playing around, and returning to poetic forms I hadn’t used in decades.
Because here’s the thing: When survival is your biggest priority, the pressure is off for other priorities, such as perfectionism. Who cares? Who’s going to judge you? When life and death are suddenly on the table, caring about what other people think of you takes a backseat. And as my friend half-joked, “I can create whatever I want in my house, and no one’s going to see it, because these days no one’s even even allowed to enter my house!”
3. Solitude is precious…and conducive to art
If you’re trapped in a house with a spouse and kids right now, you might be cherishing your 15-minute solitary stroll through the neighborhood, which, hopefully, your generous spouse allows you to take every day. It feels like a luxury, doesn’t it? To be alone…Ahhh! What a relief!
And if you live alone, and you’re accustomed to a lot of solitary time, you’re learning to double down and appreciate your lifestyle in a new way, and fall back in love with yourself and your own thoughts.
Either way, this is a time to relish alone time. Our default civilized existence involves having to put on a performance for most of the day, and wear a mask, and be at the mercy of other people’s company. But social distancing is giving you more opportunities to tune out the noise and enter into the wilderness of your own mind, where lovely and scary and inspired things can be found. That’s the jungle that art comes from.
Once the gears of the world are back in motion and we’re back to normal, you might just feel a tinge of nostalgia for the intimate relationship you enjoyed with yourself during this time.
4. Trying times are conducive to art
One of my favorite professors gave an unforgettable lecture about the relationship between artists and melancholy. He cited Prince Hamlet and Albrecht Durer, among other examples. His point was that there’s a longstanding tradition of viewing the artist as a melancholy, lonely, contemplative figure. An unhappy figure. Whether or not that’s a fair stereotype of artists, it’s true that a lot of great art deals with anguish.
In recent weeks, much has been made about the fact that Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a pandemic. (Needless to say, he didn’t write A Midsummer Night’s Dream during a pandemic!) Lear has got to be one of the most emotionally brutal and upsetting works of art ever. And it’s also one of the greatest.
So don’t be afraid to create tragic art while the world around you is troubled. Venture deep into that jungle of your soul and the cobwebby attic of your mind. With daily news reports that tug at the heartstrings; with the anxiety of not knowing when this all will end; and with the innumerable stresses of social distancing, you could be forgiven — and perhaps should be applauded — for going to the artistic “dark side.” Tragic art has its honored place. It’s cathartic. And maybe you’re the next great tragedian.
Or maybe that’s not the itch your’e wanting to scratch. Maybe these overcast times are making you yearn to introduce as much sunlight and laughter into the world as you can. So go ahead…Write the next Midsummer Night’s Dream during this pandemic!
5. If you’re an artist, creating art is your civic duty right now
The song goes “Fish gotta swim / Birds gotta fly…” And artists gotta create art. It’s what we do. For some of us, it’s pretty much the only thing we know how to do well. So think of your artistic productivity as contributing something to society. The staff at grocery stores and gas stations — heroes, in my book — are contributing more than they need to. Not to mention medical workers, the biggest heroes! But also professionals working from home and keeping the economy alive, or friends bringing groceries to a friend in need, or people making masks for hospitals…They are all contributing and keeping our society afloat. Do your part!
The blogger Ann Althouse has advised “Be helpful” during this time. Some things are obviously helpful. But it may seem less obvious that artistic creation counts as a helpful activity. Consider this, though. What is everyone doing right now? They’re watching Netflix — watching art. I’m aimlessly driving around in my car listening to Bach. People are reading books. Everyone is falling back on art as a savior, a source of solace and sanity. We’re seeing that art is indispensable in our time of need. As a diversion. As a friend. As a catharsis. As therapy. Art is not, to use a word we’ve been hearing a lot lately, “nonessential.”
The art you’re creating now may not be “helpful” during this particular pandemic. But it might be helpful during a future crisis, when people are needing your art. And heck, it might be helpful now, too, in the sense that it’s giving you a mission, perking you up, and motivating you to be part of the effort. You feeling a sense of mission isn’t just good for you. It’s good for our whole society, because our society needs its members to be healthy and productive. Especially now.
So start your engines, artists! And start your engines, those who don’t think they’re artists but really are! There’s no doubt that storm clouds are dominating our metaphorical sky as I write, and that many people are suffering, and worse. But even the darkest clouds must — must — have a silver lining, because “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul / And sings the tune without the words / And never stops at all.” A silver lining of these times is the opportunity for art to flourish.