We need art in times like these

Above is Mickalene Thomas’ “Afro Goddess Looking Forward,” 2017. Rhinestones, acrylic and oil on wood panel. Image courtesy of the artist via artatatimelikethis.com.

When the first college I applied to rejected me, I watched the pilot episode of New Girl for the first time. All I knew about the show was that Jess, the spunky, loving, and, although the word is controversial and I’m hesitant to use it, “quirky” protagonist had just been dumped. I figured that we were probably in similar emotional states and that it was a timely show for me to start watching. I have since turned back to New Girl more than a few times over the past year—whenever I needed to be cheered up or to remind myself that I’m not alone in feeling sad.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how we consume media; my reliance on New Girl as a coping mechanism seems to have grown increasingly relevant during my time in quarantine. What is it about a TV show that can make everything in the world feel OK for 22 minutes, even if the world really isn’t OK?

On the surface, you could say that television simply distracts. When you’re watching an engaging episode, you’re too busy focusing on the show to remember why you had been sad or anxious or lonely. But I think it goes deeper than that. Television, like all types of media, is art. And art, whether it’s painting, writing, sculpture, photography, dance, music or film, makes us feel. Everything. Blissful, nostalgic, raging, crestfallen, wistful, exhilarated, hopeful, connected. The power of art lies in its ability to capture its creator’s feelings and throw them back out into the world, knowing that someone else out there will feel something too.

In a time where physical connections are limited, media seems crucial in helping people feel connected in some way. According to Variety, “When consumers stay at home amid broadly disruptive events, their media consumption rises nearly 60 percent.” In an interview with CNN, Chief Content Officer for Netflix Ted Sarandos said, “[P]eople certainly are watching a lot more Netflix” and that the company hoped to “make people feel a little less isolated while we are being physically isolated.”

Similarly, creative institutions have brought their work to people through the internet. Museums all around the world have opened up virtual touring opportunities through Google Arts and Culture; anyone can now “visit” the museums and enjoy the artwork that they would otherwise have missed. Global Citizen’s “One World: Together At Home” concert on April 18 featured performances from a range of talented artists, such as Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and Taylor Swift. In addition to allowing fans to stay connected in light of canceled tours and festivals this summer, the concert also raised $127.9 million for healthcare workers and COVID-19 relief efforts. Even an app like TikTok, which I have become a reluctant fan of and could be the subject of an entirely separate article, fosters this network of connection through creativity.

As a prospective art history major with a love for photography and museums and writing, I sometimes feel selfish for considering a career in the humanities or arts. The pandemic has only reinforced this guilt—wouldn’t I be more useful to the world if I went to med school and became a doctor and actually helped people? In response to my spiraling self-doubt, my mom, who often sends me art-related articles, texted me the link to an online exhibition titled: “How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This? The exhibition is a self-defined “platform for free expression during a time of crisis…It is purely a place of exchange, a place to vent or cry, share anxieties or plan a revolution.” The co-curators, Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen, “hope to open a dialogue at a time of social distancing. Art offers solace or has instigated resistance and rebellion…[They] invite you to join in the conversation and appreciate art responding to times like these.”What immediately grabbed my attention was the title of the exhibition itself: How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This? The title almost begs me to respond with, “But how could we not?” We need art to cope with the confusing world we live in. We need art to bridge the gap between thoughts and reality. We need art to understand and grapple with our own minds. No, art is not going to cure the virus. No, artists are not going to save patients’ lives. But that doesn’t mean art isn’t powerful and isn’t meaningful in a time like this; it’s just meaningful in a different way. Art allows us to feel connected: to ourselves, to other people, to the world around us. A time like this is when we need art the most.

One Comment

  1. Beautifully said, Nina. The power of art to lift us out of ourselves and into a community of those who speak other languages but have a universal aesthetic goes back to Lascaux and before. It’s a kind of magic for good. Thank you for affirming that truth. Brava.

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