(As printed in the Fairbanks Newminer, Community Perspective,September 28, 2020)
A few months ago, a global debate erupted over a seemingly innocent survey posed to a thousand Singaporeans. Respondents were asked to rank the most essential jobs to “keep Singapore going” during the pandemic. Fittingly, jobs deemed most essential were those in health care, janitorial services and certain retailers. Controversy sparked over what respondents named the least essential job: artists. Since October is National Arts and Humanities Month in the United States, it’s a good time to reflect on the artist’s role during a crisis.
Let’s first be clear about one thing: We cannot underestimate the necessity of beauty in a functioning society. And given that artists are the custodians of beauty, we therefore cannot diminish their importance.
T.S. Eliot once wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” When the reality of 2020 upended the world, and humanity careened from crisis to crisis, where did we turn? Many of us reached for the novels on our shelves and the movies on our watchlists. We streamed music, performances and dance classes. Exiled from normalcy, we escaped into art because we knew the beauty found there could quiet the chaos.
British painter G.F. Watts understood the intrepid hope art offers the world. Shortly before Christmas 1885, Watts wrote to a friend saying, “I see nothing but uncertainty, contention, conflict, (and) beliefs unsettled.” At this point in history, England had been dealt a devastating blow by the Long Depression, the pessimistic philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche had taken hold of British consciousness, and Watts had just suffered the death of his granddaughter. His reaction? Paint hope. Honestly.
In 1886, “Hope” debuted at the Grosvenor Gallery. Like most artists, Watts depicts the virtue as a young woman, but instead of holding her usual emblem of a bouquet of flowers or an anchor, she clutches a lyre with a single playable string. Blindfolded and sitting atop a desolate globe, she bends her ear to hear the music. For Watts, hope isn’t a synonym for wishful thinking or false optimism. Rather hope, the virtue composed of courage and perseverance, is the antidote for a world falling apart.
The beauty found in good art doesn’t lecture the audience, glorify the artist, or peddle empty promises. Instead, good art has the power to make a person feel known, a little less isolated. In the face of infection and injustice, good art comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
Shortly after its debut, reproductions of Watts’ portrait began to appear around London. It’s said that on at least two occasions, a glimpse of “Hope” convinced those on the brink of suicide to continue living, and decades later it inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Shattered Dreams” sermon.
Therefore, to all artists, I say: Don’t stop. You won’t discover a coronavirus vaccine or pass relief funding bills into law. That’s not the hope you give. But your contribution to this current crisis is nonetheless essential. You have the ability to make visible the hidden goodness of this life. Don’t squander that. Keep going, keep creating, keep infusing our communities with the kind of beauty that disrupts the noise and tells the truth. There’s no time for self-doubt. We need you to lean in and not look away.
To my fellow Fairbanksans, remember that we are part of the reason artists create. We are their audience, so stand with them. During National Arts and Humanities Month, let’s find ways to give back a little of the hope artists have given us. The next time a performing group offers an online event, tune in. Invest in season tickets for a season not yet imagined. Donate to an arts nonprofit, purchase a sculpture from a local artist or at minimum commit to wearing a mask so theaters, galleries and museums can get back to normal that much sooner.
Finally, to our legislators and influencers, please fight for the arts. Prior to the Chimera of 2020, the creative sector contributed billions of dollars in economic activity nationwide. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Alaska’s creative sector generates $1.4 billion for the state and creates 11,000 jobs. Experts project it will take Alaska’s economy three years to crawl out from under the wreckage of the pandemic. In order to achieve this, and preserve the humanity we’ve managed to maintain, you need to remember there can be no healing without hope, no recovery without creativity. You need to remember the artists.
Samantha Reynolds is executive director of North Star Ballet in Fairbanks.