Why, indeed. When our emergency and medical workers toil at the “front lines,” often without respite or proper equipment, when able-bodied workers in other sectors are told to stay home, and when those who fall victim to the virus lay, gasping for a breath, why art?
Why take photos of flowerscapes, as they unfold in the morning--or seek the illumination of the sun and its gilt clouds in the evening? Why sit before an easel as the sky goes dark or rise and move to the music of spring birds in the morning? What justifies the time poured into the siphon of words, to ensure a deliberate, poetic phrase comes out finely on the other side?
Growing up among artists in the 1970s, I heard them asking this same question—after the Civil Rights movement, which, must still continue, and the Vietnam War, which still plays in the heads and hearts who were there. Back then, I respectfully never asked Frank Meyers--artist, mentor and friend--what purpose his wartime sketchbooks served when, as a Navigator in the Army Air Corps in WWII, he was shot down and imprisoned in Germany. Or what catharsis it brought to burn these sketchbooks upon liberation. Or why he spent the rest of his life making and teaching art. In making the world beautiful.
For many years—most of my life—I believed that art came after all the wars were fought and won. In fact, this prompted me to go West Point, thinking I might dive into the fray to get that job done. So then art could be made. By me. If I could just fix it all early in life, then I could spend all of my days making art—if that day came.
After living many lives, I realize that art might be among the essential services in a time such as this.
Simply, art is a tangible manifestation of hope. It is a glimpse of beauty and light here to discern--the light that shines brightest when the world appears dark. It is a clear and expressive voice when words seem tangled into knots. It is the loosening, the unraveling, the clarity, the light. It is something great and indicative of something even greater.
How many photos have I seen of flowers, emerging from the cracks in a city sidewalk? Flowers of perseverance through the dark time, reaching for the hope of seeing the light and sending its message on to another generation, perhaps on the back of a furry, four-legged passerby, who might deposit the flower’s seed in fertile ground.
How many paintings of dawn and dusk, when the light emerges or disappears in the mostly colorful bouquet of rays and reflections? Holding the first and last rays. Knowing that, barring apocalyptic disaster, the light WILL return.
How many images of agony and ecstasy? It is found in blocks of marble, hewn from ancient languages, expressing the deep pain of the current moment and the joy that will come, because it is in the nature of joy to promise this.
No. I never asked Frank why or how or what purpose his art served because there was no need to ask. The purpose was in the clarity of his drawings, the richness of his paintings and the solidity of his sculpture. It was in him. It has been in so many artists that I know and love, including my parents.
It is in each of us. To create out of the darkness and pain. The loneliness. The agony. And the ecstasy. The question isn’t, “Why make art in such a time as this?”
The question is, “How can we move through this time gracefully without it? How can we, in good conscience, move through this time without documenting the agony and the ecstasy without engaging the creative nature that resides in each of us? Without creating art for the joy of it? For art’s sake.
Perhaps, don’t ask whether to—or why?
It may not be important to know why right now, but it is crucially important to make art in such a time as this. Thank you.