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  • Mathew Silver

The artist works in isolation. But what's the point when ‘all art seems inconsequential right now?’

Toronto Star, April 2020. Find the original article here.

The artist works in solitude, or at least that’s what the age-old myth dictates. Here’s some familiar imagery: a novelist with a typewriter in their woodsy retreat, a painter with a blank canvas in an empty studio, a tormented songwriter slumped over a notepad at the edge of their bed, or an eccentric director obsessively studying old reels in the editing room. If there’s truth to the romantic notion of the desolate artist, then government-imposed isolation during a global pandemic should be fertile circumstances in which to create something beautiful. Just as hospitals should expect a baby boom in the winter of 2020. So why does the creative process, at least right now, feel more futile than ever?

Some have even suggested that it’s unethical to create art right now, at least a few angry birds in the Twittersphere, since it could be perceived as capitalizing on the pandemic, using global distress as a resource for something as frivolous as art. I disagree. The process of imagination is so fickle, so ethereal that it would be downright irresponsible to ignore the creative spark whenever or wherever it may appear. The question, at least in my opinion, seems to be not whether it’s ethically ambiguous to create art in a time of tragedy, but rather that all art seems inconsequential—perhaps even anticlimactic—compared to what is happening in real life. The circumstances also seem utterly antithetical to its creation, despite what artistic myths would like us to believe.

As a writer and editor, I try to find storylines that will delight and surprise the audience. Now, there’s something jamming the creative frequencies that typically rebound between my brain and the artistic ether. It’s a looming sense that no narrative—no matter how clever or dramatic—could eclipse the plot of our current reality: a deadly virus is ravaging the Earth roughly a century before climate change makes our beautiful blue space marble perfectly uninhabitable. Not even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson can save us with another entry in the Jumanji movie franchise. There’s also the creative fatigue that accompanies the realization that, short of a remarkable environmental reversal, the world is doomed within a couple of generations. So much for Bill Nye and his beloved science tutorials.

We also take for granted the societal calmness that facilitates making art, a sort of cultural equilibrium that makes global disasters fit tidily within our daily schedule and the margins of the morning paper. We sip espresso while reading about Donald Trump’s latest exploits. We know when work starts, school ends and grocery stores close, so we plan accordingly. There’s a certain day-to-day predictability in which we can find pockets of time to sit and think and create. Usually, cell phones are the biggest distraction, but those are manageable with a bit of strategizing (ie. leaving phones in a different room, putting restrictions on email usage). The virus, ever so indiscriminate, has thrown everything into flux. Offices and schools are closed, a trip to the grocery store could mean waiting outside in an hour-long line and we’re tasked with juggling work, parental and household duties.

Then there’s the obvious impediment of not being able to leave the house. For the most part, art is borne of experience, yet the world has shrunk to the size of our houses and condos. Notwithstanding, of course, virtual reality and the exploratory advantages of the internet, but clearly, experiencing something online isn’t preferable to in-person experience. It’s the simple day-to-day interactions that give texture to our creative endeavours. The conversation overheard at a local pub. The cultural disparities only observable on a vacation. The quibble with the completely irrational bank teller. All of those experiences, whether consciously or not, inform our art. Sure, social and collaborative processes can live on Zoom, if dividing the workforce into dehumanizing square boxes, forgetting to unclick the mute button, WiFi cut outs and the stop-start experience of talking over one another don’t conspire to spoil the experience.

There’s a school of thought that suggests the best art is made during times of hardship. But which artist, in the comfort of home quarantine, is experiencing anything close to the suffering in hospitals and on the frontlines? When it comes to journalism, our most literal form of storytelling, all coverage seems insufficient unless it’s documenting the battles being fought by patients and staff in our hospitals. What else really matters right now? In fact, the stories detailing the struggles of our front-line workers constitute some of the best reporting thus far. Those newspaper writers with their pithy columns that deride our politicians? Redundant. Criticizing our pols feels like poking a hole in an already deflated balloon. It’s difficult to deride Justin Trudeau’s facial hair or Doug Ford’s budget cuts, when they’re doing the best they can despite the circumstances, just like everyone else.

By contrast, it’s the ideal time for consuming art, not creating it. We entered an era of self-isolation long before the arrival of this virus. Streaming services, of course, have gotten a bump because everyone and their grandmother is indulging in passive consumption. Adam Sandler has never seemed more hilarious, Hugh Grant never so charming. They amount to the perfect distraction from the End of the World narrative recurring in our news feed.

Perhaps we’re learning, now more than ever, that art falls into the category of a non-essential service. I suppose, given the circumstances, I’ll have to wait until the end of the pandemic to create art. Well, unless you count this article.

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