Sometimes, life imitates art. Other times, art is the cushion against life, particularly when the going gets tough. Of the many historical trends coming to light amid the coronavirus pandemic, one of the most salient is the enduring power of art in times of turmoil.
A recent Nielsen report indicates that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a 60% increase in the amount of content streamed online. Yes, that’s 60% more than the excessive amount of content we already typically consume in a non-quarantine situation. Nielsen also looked at media consumption during past crises — namely, Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and a major snowstorm in New York in 2016. Unsurprisingly, TV use increased by similar rates — 56% and 45%, respectively — in both cases.
Obviously, in large part, people are turning to their screens to stay informed and pass the time. When group gatherings and many outdoor activities are no longer an option, it only makes sense to resort to the virtual world. But I don’t think that captures the full scope of our dependence on the arts.
As illustrator and senior lecturer at the University of Portsmouth Louis Netter so eloquently put it: “People are dying, critical resources are stretched and the very essence of our freedom is shrinking — and yet we are moved inward … Of all the necessities we now feel so keenly aware of, the arts and their contribution to our well-being is evident and, in some ways, central to coronavirus confinement.”
Whether fleeing the eye of a hurricane, trapped passively in one’s own home or awaiting the end of war, it seems to me that once basic needs (safety, sustenance and shelter) are met, there is an emptiness that the arts can fill. And as time passes, they fill that emptiness in fresh, idiosyncratic ways.
Italians are belting out impromptu opera songs from the confinement of their balconies. An entire generation is raptured by the Netflix original, “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” EDM artists are turning to YouTube to host virtual raves and festivals (however that works), Zack Bia’s live DJ sets are popping off and beat, R&B and hip-hop battles on Instagram are basically fostering a whole new form of musical entertainment. It is clear that, whether we realize it or not, the role of art becomes more central to our lives in times of crisis and isolation.
Indeed, throughout history, the arts have interacted with periods of turmoil in powerful ways. Picasso’s “Guernica,” a 1937 anti-war painting inspired by the bombing of a town in Northern Spain by Nazi Germany, took on a life beyond the canvas and became a marker of modern warfare and humanity that still resonates with audiences today.
More recently, photographer Nan Goldin’s intimate documentation of her own addiction to opioids is a powerful meditation on America’s opioid crisis that other forms of interpretation fail to access. For better or for worse, good art created during moments of uncertainty and struggle have unique longevity and iconicity. I’m certain there is great art being created right now, and I’m certain it will serve as a visceral reminder of this pandemic for years to come.
Beyond the power of art to simply reflect reality lies its ability to protect us from it. A 2008 study conducted by China’s Sun Yat-Sen University and England’s University of Southampton sought to investigate just that. Believe it or not, the center’s experiments with migrant children, college students and factory workers showed that nostalgia can act as a buffer against loneliness. According to the research, nostalgia has a restorative function in that it creates with others symbolic connections strong enough to combat the very real pangs of isolation. If you ask me, this phenomenon and our quarantine-induced return to childhood classics like “Zoey 101” are no coincidence. Right now, art can play an underrated but integral role in our coping.
On the other hand (you knew this was coming), the idea that we can all find ubiquitous comfort in art during this crisis is deceptive and, quite honestly, too good to be true. Some can’t access luxuries like streaming platforms; for those who can, the “power of art” does little to curb the darkness of living in an abusive household or having dire mental health needs that are not being met. Some are living in constant danger that makes the idea of turning to art sound trivial and stupid.
National Domestic Violence Hotline Chief Executive Katie Ray-Jones expects to see rates of abuse escalate during quarantine in frequency and intensity — a pattern recorded during the economic downturn of 2008 and after 9/11, hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Some people are trapped with their abusers, trapped in their minds and trapped in poverty — situations that make many of our quarantine experiences seem peachy.
I’m not trying to go against everything I just said — if you can turn to art, you should, as much as possible. It will probably help a great deal. I also want to recognize that, in the vein of Maslow’s hierarchy, safety and psychological needs always come first. They are the foundation on which the pyramid of self-actualization is built. Art is the icing, not the cake itself. Without the cake, you have way bigger problems on your hands than whether Carole Baskin fed her husband to the tigers.
It is important to remember that while content consumption and innovative art may be making the difference for you and many others during this time, it is the last priority for some. We should welcome the comfort and transcendence of art with open arms, without letting a false sense of universality fool us.
Rachel McKenzie is a junior writing about pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword,” typically runs every other Tuesday.