Turning to the Arts in Times of Trouble


Alice Manning on the role of art in building endurance.

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Image by Abhi Sharma

By Alice Manning

With the advent of the second lockdown, I have found myself turning increasingly to familiar works of literature, film and music to get me through the strange time that this is. One work that especially comes to mind is Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’ – a half-stoic, half-ironic poem in which Bishop claims that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” When contemplating our own losses during this time, we might well turn to art in the creative sense.

There are plenty who would say that art is just art. A fiction that we turn to for a little entertainment now and then; not the real event, but the decoration on the side. And whilst it’s unfortunately true that there is a disconnect – that watching virtually any film, TV or dramatic production from before the pandemic provides a kind of escapism previously limited to specific genres, and is done to bide the time while the world waits – we can also learn valuable lessons from art about the human power of endurance.

Art fundamentally provides hope and the opportunity to see beyond our present moment. George R.R. Martin's view that “a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies” not only attests to the rich tapestry of voices that contribute to the various creative industries, but the fact that art can offer you an outlet away from spiralling thoughts when you most need it. Engaging with art can help us to remember the universality of what we’re going through right now; it is essentially inviting other voices in, a necessary move when a lack of social contact causes us to spend a lot of time in our own heads.

Art offers the opportunity to learn or imagine how other people lived, through its creators and the characters represented in stories; it is the ultimate form of empathy. This is especially necessary during a time when we are all so removed from each other, whether that manifests in physical social distancing, the cancelling of familiar social events – weddings, birthday celebrations – that structure our lives, or the grimacing disconnect sometimes felt on Zoom calls. The latter provides the illusion of directly looking at someone with the elephant in the Zoom being that you cannot meet in person – the awareness of which never failing to cast at least a minor shadow over things.

On a more tangible level, engaging with the art forms on offer is a way of grounding ourselves when the future is anything but certain. Turning to a familiar book or film is an action enshrined on countless self-care checklists alongside getting a good night’s sleep, making your favourite meal and other more mundane activities. And the pandemic has already proven that we turn to art when our ‘real’ lives are altered or compromised. Rainbows adorned our streets during the first lockdown, while choirs, dramatic companies and storytellers have found new ways to adapt in order to continue doing what they love and comply with the new restrictions.

We can despair at what is happening and how the arts as an industry have been disrupted by the pandemic. But art itself, as the human desire to create, is not something the pandemic can cancel. The flourishing of so-called ‘pandemic poetry’ demonstrates it palpably. While much of today’s contemporary art reflects the grief and suffering caused by the virus, its presence serves as a powerful metaphor for our ability to endure.

I remember being without an outlet in the past, and how difficult that was during times of hardship. But what I learned then, and the message of ‘One Art’ (as I read it, anyway) is that ultimately, despite undergoing difficult experiences, we can and will make it through. While it may ‘look like disaster’, we can always move forward from it. There is always more to see and experience: more art, and more life to be had. If nothing else, at least this hope cannot be obliterated by the pandemic.