Since the pandemic began I’ve had plenty of time to soul-search about the role of the arts during a crisis. The value of most industries seems to pale in comparison with the life-saving work carried out by frontline workers in the NHS, yet on an individual level we’ve never been more in need of, say, a film that chimes with our sense of humour, a book with a gravitas that matches life, or a song with a melody that stirs delight. The arts offer rejuvenating distractions from the heavy news cycle, and can go further, deeper and more precision-guided to soothe our loneliest pangs or plant the seeds of an awakening to the true ways of the world.
“I want to love more than death can harm,” writes Ocean Vuong the poet, essayist, novelist and teacher in ‘The Weight of Our Living’, a 2014 essay for Rumpus, published shortly after he lost his uncle to suicide. Vuong invokes the image of a poem as a fire escape, a place that people who feel too raw to communicate through the codes of conventional conversation can climb onto to share their reality. “I want to leave the party through the window and find my uncle standing on a piece of iron shaped into visible desperation, which must also be (how can it not?) the beginning of visible hope.”
The idea that being recognised in the depths of despair can save your life is something I believe in. During my worst eating-disordered years, I got most of my nutrition through the written word. I copied out fragments of prose and held them like amulets, convinced that a day would dawn when their wisdom would turn a key that restored my health. The loneliness of illness is hard to convey. There is a difference between occasionally feeling alone and the grip of an alienation that makes you question whether you are human in any sense beyond the immediate physical. In this state, meaningful communication is elusive. Everyday conversation can’t hold the SOS that sweats out of you.
How magical, then, to find a passage written by someone that gets it. The relief is sensual, spinning into awe for the solace that art provides. What an endorsement for staying alive it is to know that the record holds artworks that diagnose your strain of suffering and frame it in a hopeful context.
For me and for Vuong’s uncle, crises occurred inside our minds where no one could see them. This is the norm in cases of private mental anguish, yet now we, as a global population, are experiencing a shared crisis in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, although the severity of its impact is shaped by individual vulnerability and socioeconomic status.
What’s more, writing now in early June, the centuries-old fight for racial justice has been reignited in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, whose last words, “I can’t breathe,” already haunt the public memory as the last words of Eric Garner in New York in 2014 and Seni Lewis in London in 2010; both Black men killed by police officers. Institutional racism is a crisis that has never gone away; it permeates the arts and is on our shoulders to rectify.
“The most important thing that art can do is make us think,” writer Olivia Laing told the BBC Radio 4 programme Start The Week on 11 May, “it’s a tool for thinking round all kinds of situations.” Laing’s most recent essay collection, ‘Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency’, was written pre-COVID-19, with climate change, AIDS and Brexit in mind. She believes that art needs to be grounded. “I have a strong and slightly puritanical view that the duty of the artist is to bear witness to reality.”
She put the book together as an “antidote to anxiety and despair… It’s an introduction to artists who have lived through intensely hard times, and who have made work that manifests emotions of joy and hopefulness and that create utopias that remain available to us.” She makes a careful distinction between achievable utopias and irresponsible fantasies sold by career politicians. “There’s a difference between thinking of utopias, and being in cloud cuckoo land, which I think is very dangerous. You can gauge a difference between those two different imperatives. Often it’s politicians who are creating fantasies that aren’t actually liveable.”
There are politicians hiding behind fantastical rhetoric on all levels of the arts, from secretaries of state down to gatekeepers of individual institutions. The purveyors of culture must get their houses in order, connect with their audiences with integrity and recognise the message of Black Lives Matter, that all must be accountable for creating shared power. Too often in the current climate, workers who pursue a living expression of equality incorporating diverse culture and values into their organisations discover intense resistance to their principled challenges, and so are further disenfranchised by organisations that continue to speak publicly about commitments to diversity.
Jemma Desai is a researcher, writer and a film programmer, with 15 years experience of working in the British cultural sector, largely for high-profile, predominantly white institutions. She is also a South Asian woman who grew up in London to immigrant parents and this year quit working for the BFI and British Council after a period of research and dialogue made her more cognisant of the cumulative impacts of institutional racism on marginalised arts workers’ health and wellbeing.
As many marginalised arts workers do everyday in a variety of contexts, in the year prior to handing in her notice Desai made whole-hearted overtures to decision makers at the institutions she engaged with, offering action plans to redress the systemic racism and raising consciousness via detailed testimonies of how marginalisation had affected her own career and health as well as those of her colleagues embodied in difference. It eventually became clear that, despite superficial sympathy, there was no serious will to prioritise the dismantling of a culture of white supremacy.
Desai has since made public a tour-de-force research paper called ‘This Work Isn’t For Us’ the result of 18 months of reading, thinking and dialoguing with non-white cultural workers (and a lifetime of being one). In it, she quotes an anonymous source who summarises the disconnect between ideology and reality in the cultural sector: “No one cares about us and our bodies. But this is supposed to be a space where empathy is encouraged, we’re in the game of illustrating stories to make people empathetic and no one is basically. The people in charge aren’t. They’re just interested in power.”
While these war stories make a career in the arts a dubious sell, there are people out there committed to the matter of how Black, ethnic minority and other institutionally disenfranchised groups can get their start, considering that the sector is dominated by people who do not look or sound like them. “It’s much harder when you face structural disadvantage and different kinds of soft and explicit prejudice,” says Neil Griffiths, a onetime activist, fundraiser and stock market analyst for the Financial Times who is now dedicated to the charity he co-founded, Arts Emergency. “There are plenty of programmes that can catapult people over the fortress walls, but they soon drop out. In the sector it’s referred to as ‘boomeranging’.”
Arts Emergency secured charity status in 2013, after being conceived in 2010 by Griffiths and the writer and comedian, Josie Long. Both grew up white and working class in Southeast London and joined forces after the coalition victory, at the beginning of austerity. “We were both in our mid twenties,” Griffiths recalls, “and she was like, ‘We’re both really lucky. We’ve come from backgrounds that weren’t traditionally in the arts.’”
Arts Emergency provides people aged 16-18 from non-privileged backgrounds with a trained mentor for a year and then access to a network of 7,000 arts and humanities professionals until they turn 25. “Our intention,” Griffiths says, “is to be a thread through an individual’s journey in the same way that we look back and see our peer community and our lucky breaks were a thread that kept us on a path.”
Griffiths is driven by a desire to transform both individual lives and the overall integrity of our political landscape. “We’re seeing now a populist right-wing government who have failed so badly. They tried to combat an actual plague [the coronavirus] with spin, and media manipulation and different narratives and specious arguments and straw-men arguments. Marginalised voices matter more than ever now because we need to hear the real story. We need to hear the truth. We need to hear that through art platforms. We need to hear that through public discourse. It’s literally a matter of life and death.”
An art platform offering 20 different voices, albeit those of established authors, can be found in Penguin Perspectives, essays written in response to Covid-19 and now available as a free ebook. (A donation of £10,000 was made by Penguin on behalf of participants to booksellers affected by the crisis.) Essayists include bestselling fantasy author Philip Pullman, former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, vivid chronicler of femininity Deborah Levy, and Holocaust survivor Edith Eger who implored readers to “Find an arrow to follow to the good that can come.”
“My hope was that it would offer a little bit of an alternative to the news cycle,” says Sam Parker, editor-in-chief at penguin.co.uk, formerly digital editor at Esquire. We are speaking in May at the height of the lockdown. “The story has moved very fast. For obvious and understandable reasons people are preoccupied with the latest news about the virus and the politics around it. The two questions we put to the authors were: ‘What is this moment revealing about yourself and about us?’ and ‘What do you hope it changes in the future?’ The pieces are all very different, but a lot of the feedback that we saw consistently on social media was that it was nice to read something that was a bit slower. That was the short-term hope: Can we create a small space where we’re addressing this issue but in a slightly more contemplative way.”
Parker usually reads every day but during the first few weeks of lockdown he found it hard to concentrate. “I really struggled to focus. I felt like it was a dereliction of some kind to take my focus off the news and enjoy reading a book.” His focus of late has returned and he has been doing “nostalgic reading” and reading about nature. I ask what he thinks art does for the human soul. “What’s important in this time is to be able to access a range of emotions about it [lockdown]. It probably wouldn’t be the healthiest thing to only be angry, or only be scared, or only be slightly excited or hopeful about some elements of it. You need to be able to access a range of responses and art is a really great way to do that and to give yourself space to feel a few different things. So, I guess that’s what it gives the soul: access to different ways of feeling.”
Despite the fact that Britons have turned to various artforms to help them through the lockdown, huge question marks remain over how creative industries will fare once public life resumes in full. While cinemas can reopen the same can not be said for theatres, galleries, museums and live music venues, and although the government’s £1.5 billion support package is welcome it has come too late for venues that have already made major lay-offs.
Parker believes it would be a real shame “for the arts to be sidelined in whatever comes next. There’s going to be a recession and there’s going to be difficult times for everyone and for society. What’s happened in different points in history is that almost the first head on the chopping block is the arts. That’s something we should be really careful to avoid, because mental health is going to play a big part in the fall out of this, however it goes, and art, like nature, is essential to help mental wellbeing.”
No doubt because of my personal history, I see mental wellbeing as a site of sanctity that must be tended to and preserved, even when we are unimpressed with ourselves and think we deserve to suffer. Is it possible to make a space for our souls to bloom in their entirety? The world is burning. The news is an infinite scroll of death, devastation and disappointing leadership, while our ongoing state of social distancing means there are scant opportunities “for the simple harbour of a hug” (words from the poet Grace Nichols).
The temptation can be to languish in hysterical despair and to deny the opportunity for relief because it feels like a gross indulgence, but who does it serve when you make yourself an invisible martyr to the ills of the world? As my friends pointed out when I said I wanted to jump out of a window, Boris Johnson isn’t considering jumping out of a window. Or, as my dad put it, don’t let the bastards grind you down.
A way back to my full size is through poetry. So much cultural exchange occurs on social media now, with half an eye on whether the watching panopticon will validate or puncture the offering. Poetry is a private connection from soul-to-soul. “There’s a reawakening that occurs as you read. It opens up some responses that you have on a human-to-human basis,” says Neil Astley, editor of ‘Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times’. Published in 2002, and arranged by theme, this is a pop star on the poetry anthology scene. Front and back covers are adorned with endorsements from famous names. A Jane Campion quote says: “These poems distil the human heart as nothing else.”
Astley founded his poetry publishing house, Bloodaxe Books, in 1978. It has been his mission ever since to take poetry out to a wider audience. “I want to both publish poetry for an existing poetry readership, as well as take poetry out to a readership that might not normally have access to it, or who think that it isn’t for them.”
The success of ‘Staying Alive’, which has sold 250,000 copies to date, was not by chance. Frustrated that his poets weren’t reaching the audiences they deserved, Astley took a tactical approach. “I was convinced that there was a book that would break through into wider readership if it had the right kind of poems, and had an avenue, so I produced a proof of it a year before publication, and sent it out to about 100 well-known people who I knew loved poetry. That’s how we got those endorsements on the cover of ‘Staying Alive’.”
By chance, the anthology was published shortly after 9/11, leading to interest from an American publisher and emotional readings in New York City. “Meryl Streep read ‘Begin’ by Brendan Kennelly and that whole audience of about 700 just erupted in applause because it spoke to them so personally,” Astley remembers. “I read a poem by Imtiaz Dharker called ‘They’ll Say, “She Must Be From Another Country”’ and again that got spontaneous applause because people connected with it so strongly.”
One of Astley’s favourite poets is Imtiaz Dharker, whose work has been published for over 20 years. “She was born in Pakistan and grew up in Scotland and then moved to India when she eloped with a Hindu. Her poems are ones that I think a lot of people have connected with because they are all about the modern world and living in different cultures and not being confined to one country or one culture.”
‘They’ll Say, “She Must Be From Another Country”’ cuts two ways: as a celebration of personal difference and a critique of those intolerant towards difference. It is confident and playful, with a rhythm to die for. The poem is made for people akin to Dharker to look inwards and affirm their identities and it is made for those unlike her to look outwards and appreciate identities different to their own, but for art workers with power there is a responsibility to do something with the enhanced awareness that should follow ritual gorgings on other peoples’ stories. We must react to the cries about systems close to home that are hurting people and deprioritise a white-knuckle grip on personal status.
There is a distinction to be made between the arts as a public workspace, and the arts as a source of private solace. When it comes to our private life, the case for art is that it nurtures our souls in secret. One of the poems that I copied out during the bad days is on page 106 of ‘Staying Alive’. This is how ‘The Waking’ by Theodore Roethke starts:
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear
I learn by going where I have to go
These lines might seem simple to readers who have never been scared to face the day. To me, who used to feel that way, they opened up space to exist at my own pace. Art can justify a pause to feel yourself made whole and to reach out to others from a place of wise generosity, which is richer than fear. There are other things in life that induce this feeling – such as friendship and nature – but when those are beyond reach, there is renewal stored in unassuming objects: a familiar DVD, a speaker hooked up to a favourite song, a poem beat-matched to your heart’s desire.
Astley is used to receiving strong personal reactions to the work he puts out. Readers email him about particular poems. “One person said that they’d left their husband as a result of reading Mary Oliver’s poem ‘The Journey’ [‘But little by little, as you left their voice behind, the stars began to burn’]. It had helped them see their life.”
This is evidence of how art valorises the quiet stirrings we have to live by bolder instincts, and evidence of the badass brilliance of Mary Oliver, who has said that nature and poetry saved her from her childhood. She used to go out into the woods close to her home with a notebook where she found mental space in physical space. Her seminal poem ‘Wild Geese’ reaches out to people with half a leg off a fire escape, telling them that they belong here still:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.