How art helps us transcend the grim reality of coronavirus

Image description: Canvas with strokes of paint 

The last time I wielded a paintbrush with any intent was aged 13, during art lessons at school. Yet, a couple of weeks into quarantine, I was desperate for new ways to occupy my time and found myself participating in Noel Fielding’s Instagram Art Club with gusto. Each week, the comedian chooses a theme – often as bizarre as you might expect – and encourages followers to paint the given subject in a few hours. In the time I spent painting my favourite animal from a film or TV show, I wasn’t thinking about the spiralling Covid-19 pandemic, my friends and family scattered across the globe or how to stay productive in these testing times. I was just trying to make my dog painting look vaguely like a dog.

The process of creating, whether it be art, literature or music, is an embodied experience. It is an emotional, mental and even physical feat, which demands the integration of mind and body. Artists Tracey Emin and Yayoi Kusama, for example, have described losing themselves in their art, using the creative process as a way to obliterate their fears and find catharsis. No matter the medium, art helps us transcend our reality. Picture the musicians who close their eyes for total immersion as they perform or the method actors who inhabit their role both on and off-stage. James Joyce reportedly used immersive techniques while working on Ulysses, while film directors, such as Wes Anderson, have won critical praise for how they transfer their unique vision of the world to the screen.

No matter the medium, art helps us transcend our reality

Everybody, at some point, has been “lost in music”– to quote Sister Sledge – transported to a different world, time or place by a page-turner or found themselves transfixed by a piece of artwork. Just as the creative process can offer the artist temporary reprieve from external reality, engaging with art, in any form, can be transformative for the observer.

Take, for example, the science-fiction or fantasy genre. When the children in the Chronicles of Narniastep through the wardrobe into a realm of snow, ice and talking beasts, ruled by a malevolent “White Witch”, so does the reader, as we are transported into the weird and wonderful surroundings of the book, and perhaps find – or lose – ourselves there for a moment. Critics of the genre, as author Ruth Nichols has pointed out, argue that it is better to engage with art which addresses the harsh truths of the real world, rather than lose ourselves in make-believe. Yet, Nichols responds, the fault then lies with the reader who evades responsibility, and not with the art itself. Escapism is healthy – in small doses.

But offering escapism is not art’s sole function. Importantly, it can also force audiences to confront and reflect on unpleasant, often brutal, external realities. Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, for example, encourages the viewer to consider the grotesque qualities of birth, death and separation. Similarly, rapper Slowthai’s Nothing Great About Britain, is a bleak – though, at times, humorous – portrayal of the country today. We can draw comfort from this art too. It reminds us that imperfections and uncomfortable truths are a valid and shared element of our human experience.

Art cannot be used as a way of escaping one’s responsibility in the real world

Yet in times of hardship or crisis, some choose to seek out a more overtly comforting salve. The Great British Bake-Off is a prime example. But anyone who has access to the internet will have been struck by the deluge of Tiger Kingmemes in recent weeks. While the world the documentary explores is admittedly real, it’s sufficiently bizarre and unfamiliar to provide a distraction from our daily realities. Its extraordinary popularity could simply mean that we are all bored. But perhaps it also suggests that escapist art is essential to us in times of crisis.

We shouldn’t feel guilty about binge-watching our favourite Netflix series, immersing ourselves in fiction, or whiling away time painting, writing or drawing. Engaging with different artistic mediums is proven to aid mood management. However, we should recognise that the relief art provides is ephemeral. Art cannot be used as a way of escaping one’s responsibility in the real world. Psychologist Robert Weiss suggested the coronavirus pandemic has provoked an onset of collective grief. If that’s the case, evading our present circumstances altogether won’t bring us any closer to healing. Yes, we must use art to escape and we must cling to it to console and soothe. But, most importantly, we must embrace its unparalleled power to anger, befuddle, amuse, educate, shock – and inspire hope.

Image creditSteve Johnson on Unsplash