Why Make Art During A Global Crisis?

Watching New York City’s creative sector navigate through the closures caused by COVID-19 has triggered a deeply embedded story of mine.

In ten weeks of shutdowns two of my favourite galleries and a beloved local theater have announced permanent closures. I expect many more announcements like this in the weeks to come as NYC remains in PAUSE. Witnessing cities in other states planning to pull government funding from the arts sector to redistribute elsewhere (Philadelphia) I start to wonder if this will happen in New York, too. Without funding many smaller, artist-run venues can’t sustain themselves. If the arts aren’t considered valuable enough to be saved by society, what is the value, by association, of art itself?

This brings us to my story: an internal, always-bubbling-below-the-surface debate about the essentialness of art. What’s the point of art-making, in general, but especially during a global crisis?

Wouldn’t it be better to be a doctor, a teacher, anything else more useful to society than an artist who uses up resources and creates largely for their own purpose (read: “coping mechanism”)? Why continue to make stuff that, although potentially beautiful/thought-provoking/masterful, is essentially impractical in emergency situations?

These questions, and more, have plagued me throughout the pandemic. Though I’ve been working through my task lists to make progress toward my annual goals I’ve been fighting strong resistance on pretty much a daily basis. It’s hard to justify making art that isn’t federally valued, isn’t currently practical, and, potentially, won’t have a place to be shown in the future. Why do it at all?

1:4 scale toilet tissue rolls made for inclusion in the new Bi-Polar Bear diorama. Crafted during my “studio-at-home” sheltering.

Among all of the doubt and questioning there is a clear, persistent voice, this is why:

When I stand in proximity and become immersed in an artwork that speaks to me, directly TO ME, it means EVERYTHING.

When I feel about as low as I can go and I put on my headphones and listen to an artist that has the power to shift my mood, lighten and lift my spirit, it is EVERYTHING.

When I sit in a theater watching a live, irreplicable narrative unfold and it simultaneously grounds me in the present moment AND transports me, it is EVERYTHING.

Art understands my fears, my anxieties, my fucked-up sense of humor. It sheds light, answers unspoken questions, and asks a few more. It fills my soul and gives some semblance of order to this strange, strange world. Its mirror sometimes reflects life’s horrors, at other times reflects life’s beauty. Sometimes art offers optimism, but mostly it simply lets me know that I exist, that I am real. It says, “I see you”.

Humans will always have a need to be understood, spiritually lifted, transported. We will always have the need to feel SEEN. Maybe now more than ever.

The chance – slim though it may be – that something I make has the potential to speak to another in the way that certain artworks and artforms have inspired me, well…that is reason enough to keep creating, making music, telling stories, connecting with others.

Onward, ho.

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