25. What we’ve lost in the loss of art

In the early days of the pandemic in March of 2020, footage captured on smartphones from Italy started doing the rounds online.

As is the way of things on the social networked world of the web, whatever strikes an emotional chord is propelled forward in a million different directions at once as unseen hordes of people see something on their phones or monitors, are moved by it, and thus feel compelled to like, comment and share.

The videos from Italy showed cellists and sopranos and string quartets and electric guitarists and amateur tenors alike taking to their balconies amid the general lockdown and letting their songs float across the piazzas and vias of Milan and Bologna and Siena.

It was a time when a general existential fear had found its way into the marrow of swathes of humanity spoiled by several decades of fresh produce daily, material abundance at home and peace and prosperity outside our doors.

Entire generations of us had been conditioned to believe that freedom of choice was our daily right, that endlessly restocked supermarket shelves and online shopping with next-day delivery were baselines beneath which we would never go.

And then, the fear of a new virus of unknown provenance and danger gripped us, and we retreated into a mode of survivalism: tradesmen opted out of house calls where they might have to share space with a potential spreader, fights broke out over packets of toilet rolls, supermarkets had to impose per-person purchase limits on essential items, and “Feed the Nation” became the latest in a long line of three-word political slogans emanating from the UK’s backroom spin doctors (who had discovered during Brexit campaigning that the three-word slogan — “Take back control”, “Leave means leave”, “Get Brexit done” — was not just succinct, but may actually represent the new absolute limit of comprehension for the majority of an eternally distracted populace).

What these videos from Italy showed were moments of humanity’s most cherished attributes amid the uncertainty of a sweeping global health and economic crisis: beauty, togetherness, warmth, hope.

But they signified something else also. They showed us that the most fundamental human expression is through art: in this case, music, but elsewhere in the paintings and sculptures that adorn galleries in every town and city, on the stage and the screen, in the poetry and prose of countless books by countless authors sitting quietly at their typewriter to bring their inner world into the outer one.

If art is about expression and pushing boundaries, sport also has a place here. Sport at its best does this always: Leo Messi’s ball control, the natural talent, sculpted physique and honed technique of Michael Phelps, the almost supernatural gliding stride of Cathy Freeman, Rafa Nadal’s endless public quest to edge beyond his own limits.

Art is sometimes seen as an indulgence. It is Friday evening theatre seats, or Saturday night cinema, a museum stop-off on the sight-seeing trip or a ticket for the game.

This sense that art is something extra, something additional, the cherry on the top of a decent week, is what makes it somehow expendable in a time of crisis.

When we are struggling for our very survival, we think we have no time for such fripperies.

This is understandable, but it is a grave mistake.

Art is not expendable or luxurious or somehow additional. Art is an essential aspect of what it is to be human.

For as long as we have been thinking human beings, we have been creating art, from swirls to deer to handprints on cave walls.

In a memorable scene in the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, John Keating, the English teacher played by Robin Williams, said,

We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

Art is a difficult thing.

Money and acclaim and adulation can poison the artist’s purity.

Even the support of bursaries and grants and commissions, welcome as they are to help put food on the table so that the artist can work without immediate fears of going short, can carry within them the weight of expectation that can sully the inexpressible essence — some would call it the divinity — of the artwork.

Yet despite all the difficulties, artists find a way.

And we are, all of us, improved by the fact that they do.

The world is endlessly complex: the closer we pay attention, the less we understand; the more things we know, the more we realise that many things are truly unknowable. If we understand something at all, it is either with the clear and all-seeing help of hindsight, or just before the something we understand morphs into something new, different and chaotic (and we have to begin work afresh to build a new understanding).

To be human is to stand on shifting sands, trying to find a solid footing.

Art helps us to make sense of these shifting sands, to give us the patch of solid ground we seek. We tell stories to make some sense of the complexity all around us. Art is story, in many cases a wordless story that creates an entire world within us.

In that world — maybe for the rest of our lives, maybe only for the entirety of the moment we inhabit it — things make sense.

There is cause and effect, some form of justice, perhaps even a neat resolution.

We understand implicitly that it can never fully capture the entirety of the real world’s chaos, but the version of the world we see, the spotlit circle it shows us, is orderly or meaningful, and we find ourselves returning to the art again and again so that we might rediscover that order or that meaning.

This past year or more, as we have been barred from gatherings and celebrations of any size, we have lost these essential experiences.

Whether it’s standing before a Caravaggio in the company of strangers, or flicking through pages in a bookshop awaiting a paragraph that goes straight to our hearts, or sharing a moment in space, time and feeling with thousands of others in Glastonbury or Benicassim or the Coachella Valley, we yearn for togetherness in the presence of art.

Technology and art

We might be thankful for the power of technology to bring the world to our sitting rooms, and yes, there is something miraculous to be able to stream the latest Oscar-winning movie instantly in 4K, or to download almost any book we want instantly to the device in our palm.

But the algorithm-driven feeds and recommendation engines of Netflix or YouTube or Amazon, which give you exactly the same type of thing you watched yesterday or that other people are watching today, are a poor substitute for the beautiful happenstance and serendipity so routinely created by curious minds in wandering bodies in the presence of art.

Art can move us only without warning. To offer us a sunlit square of clear ground amid the dark and foreboding forest, it must pounce on us and take us unawares with the weight of its truth.

The art that changes our lives, that directs a shaft of light into our world and brings us meaning within the madness, does not come on schedule. It never arrives as the next item on a playlist. We can’t add it to the queue.

We cling to great art like we might cling to a life-raft in a swelling river.

Encouraged to work from home, keep our distance and report any gatherings to the appropriate authorities, we are robbed of that life-raft and the meaning and order it brings us.

One day, soon perhaps, we might again revel in the glory of an unexpected moment, with the clarity or energy or emotion offered up by a poetry reading or a Shakespeare soliloquy, by a textured painting or a dramatic chorus line or a plaintive cello, in the inviting company of strangers who seek the same thing we seek and who are, for now at least, no longer afraid.

This essay is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email as each one is published.