Art and meaning-making during the time of COVID-19

Aboriginal photographer Wayne Quilliam has created a new series of work in response to the Covid-19 crisis entitled 'Virus'
Wayne Quilliam, Virus, 2020. [Source: SBS]

During the first phase of lockdown, I managed to break my arm while trying to keep socially distanced on a busy footpath. It was a clean break to my forearm, just below the elbow – no splint, no surgery, no complications. I was lucky. Earlier this year, my GP tripped on a tree root and broke her elbow into multiple pieces. It involved surgery, a lot of metalware, and months of recuperation. Breaking your arm can mean a lot of different things.

Not long after my fall, I was walking with a friend and her three-year-old who was curious about my broken arm. Since we were in-situ out in the street, I demonstrated the tripping over and landing on my arm. I may have been more restrained if I’d realised that his parents would be watching their lad re-enact this for the next two weeks.

My friend sent me a one-minute video of her little boy in his scooter helmet telling the story three times over. Initially the narration is hesitant: ‘I walk along the road … And what happened?’ It gathers force as he demonstrates the moment of tripping, bumping his gumboots decisively at the gutter’s edge. Then, as if he is taking a bow, he bends at the waist and lowers his helmeted head gently to the asphalt footpath – this moment in the re-enactment lends a dignity to my stumbling face-plant. After the bow, the little fellow stands up and with a triumphant flourish extends his arm, pronouncing with great finality: ‘I broke my arm!’ He flinches and holds it close: ‘Ouch!’

I felt honoured that this three-year-old took hold of the story so strongly. The quality of his attention was mesmerising to watch. As a colleague observed, it was a ‘beautiful example of how children work through disturbances in their lives until they integrate whatever the learning is’.

The three-year-old’s mother tells me that storytelling is becoming something of a rite of passage for her boy. Recently, after an episode involving a series of tantrums, he asked her, ‘What happened?’ She realised this was an invitation to telling about the episode and attempting to get a handle on it. In a continuation of this, when her son recently had a mishap on his scooter, she consoled him with telling how he had crashed when he bumped into a big stick. The story told, he was emboldened to get back on the scooter.

The capacity to story our experience is a powerful tool for reflection and understanding. As adults we learn that no story is pure and that we are capable of telling ourselves spin, but the shaping of experience into story is the bread and butter of our lives. Narrative, it has been said, is a primary act of mind.

My son was almost three when his sister was due to be born. He was bewildered by my absence. When I came home, he was waiting at the front gate: ‘Mummy, we losed-ed you’. 

His baby sister took up residence with many visitors admiring her surprisingly bright blonde hair. Bedtime stories settled into a nightly repetition of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Our firstborn asked for it every night for those first weeks. I realised that the story of the blonde-haired female intruder needed retelling until he’d shooed off Goldilocks enough times to be able to give up his place as the singular baby bear of the family.

The two three-year-olds took hold of the tools for making sense; one by the telling of what happened, the other by adopting a story from the cultural storehouse. Meaning-making is a lifelong task that becomes more nuanced as we age.

Songwriters, poets, and musicians bring us narratives wrapped memorably in melody or honed words which allow us to see our own stories more clearly. They offer ways of naming love and loss, yearning, delight, gut-wrenching fear, and hooting hilarity. No matter if they adapt the vernacular or write in elegant prose, we receive the possibility of understanding ourselves in a new light. We may find we are not so alone after all.

It is self-evident that we need diverse artists from the varieties of ethnicity, gender, and geography if we are to see our lives reflected in these ways. Songs, poetry, and story become a shorthand whereby we integrate our own experience and find a common language. This doesn’t replace mental health-care but forms a fabric that connects us to ourselves, and to others.

Celebrity and commodification can sometimes disguise this process and lead us away from the message to being dazzled by the messenger. But there are artists, song-makers, poets, and writers who companion us and enable us to honour our ordinary lives. The best ones know that this is their job, that it is not all about them, but about where the songs or stories or poetry meet the listeners. Their words and melodies free us for the work of making sense of our un-famous lives.

When we understand what artists enable in us, it is no surprise to find outrage at their dismissal by the federal government. Notwithstanding rescue packages that give a cursory nod, the prevailing message is that artists are surplus to need. Even announcing his arts rescue package, the Prime Minister felt compelled to mention the benefit to the tradies, but unable to acknowledge the artists themselves. Earlier in the lockdown, in a move that has caused grave disquiet, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra stood down its musicians, overlooking their offer of taking a 50% pay cut, meanwhile maintaining 75% of their administrative staff. There is a disregard of the lifelong cost of what it takes to maintain a practice as an artist.

Because many artists work in an environment where casual or short term project work forms their income, the vast majority have had to apply for Job Seeker rather than Job Keeper. Both forms of funding are subject to undermining. Last year, the Prime Minister famously refused to raise the impoverishing payments of Newstart (the precursor of Job Seeker) by saying it would be ‘unfunded empathy’. It is now clear that it was a refusal not based on a lack of funds but rather on determined hoarding. The dispersal of taxpayer funds is still in acute danger of a sports rorts style disbursement.

Before the bushfires and COVID-19, the federal government had already started shutting down the arts – rolling the department into a lumpy bed with transport and infrastructure.

When Paul Fletcher (the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety, and the Arts) recently appeared on the ABC’s Q&A, the surety with which he asserted that there were no cuts to the ABC was breathtaking. He repeatedly interrupted other speakers with what acting-host Virginia Trioli rightly named as ‘dissertations’. In regard to the new arts rescue package, he demonstrated once more the side-stepping of established advisory bodies. The Australia Council will be consulted but not given oversight of the dispersal of the $250 million arts rescue package.

Now in a move that reveals a boxed-in version of what education is for, any young person with ambitions to explore history and philosophy in a humanities education is being made to pay double, and simultaneously instructed to train vocationally.

Educating in this way is setting the nation up for an even more gigantic failure of imagination than such policies reveal. We need people with the curriculum vitaes that show what they did when they didn’t get what they wanted – life stories that reveal their resilience and capacity to find another path.

If education teaches that A necessarily leads to B, you won’t get that resilience. You’ll get narrow minds that say, ‘What relevance does this have? Is this on the exam? Why should I participate, it’s pointless?’ The curiosity and inquiry that makes education vibrant gets lost. Occasionally, I’ve taught people with this mindset. You don’t want them on the crew when you are sinking.

Amala Groom, The Fifth Element, 2020. Acrylic, found object, 26 x 33 x 1.5cm. Artist’s collection.

And let’s stop saying that we are all in the same boat, because, actually, we’re not. We are in the same storm, but most of the artists, writers, and musicians are on hastily handmade rafts, watching the more-valued professions and high-end company directors cruise by in the shipping lanes. Meanwhile, the industries that flourish in association with a vibrant arts community are running aground; even if those boats are bigger, they’re still getting wrecked in the storm. Just as a broken arm can mean more than one thing, a broken economy costs some sectors more dearly than others. When you lose the arts, you lose more than economists can count.

We will always need creativity to open new pathways in the unknowable future. We need meaningful ways to engage with each other and a curiosity that interrogates our learning. The question is, will the economic measures that are supposed to save us simply serve to crush us? Thank goodness there are three-year-olds who know better.

[A version of this piece appeared in Eureka Street]



Is now the time to make art?

What kind of time is this? And what might such a time mean for artists and their work?

Beyond the very real financial hit that many artists are currently taking, a great many of us, artists included, are welcoming this abnormal moment to ask other questions – existential questions, and questions about our regular habits and commitments, for example. It is suggested that to try to carry on with business as usual, however tempting and well-intentioned that might be, would be to forego a rare opportunity to reimagine and re-embody other modes of our living. Others are turning to all kinds of creative endeavours. Others still – including artists – are asking whether now is really the time to make art at all?

Of course, we’ve been here before. This is hardly the first time in our history that such questions have been asked.

In the aftermath of WWII, where the dominating backdrop was clearly otherwise than it is today, the philosopher Theodor Adorno, in his Negative Dialectics, raised the question of whether the traumas of Auschwitz mean that ‘we cannot say anymore than the immutable is truth, and that the mobile, transitory is appearance’. It is not, he insisted, a case of an impossibility of distinguishing between eternal truth and temporary appearances (Plato and Hegel had already showed us how that could be done); it’s just that one cannot do so post-Auschwitz without making a sheer mockery of the fact:

After Auschwitz, our feelings resist any claim of the positivity of existence as sanctimonious, as wronging the victims: they balk at squeezing any kind of sense, however bleached, out of the victims’ fate. And these feelings do have an objective side after events that make a mockery of the construction of immanence as endowed with a meaning radiated by an affirmatively posited transcendence.

Put more plainly, our emotional responses to horrors of such magnitude ought to outweigh all our attempts to explain them. It was this conviction too that led Adorno to state famously (in his essay ‘Art, Culture and Society’) that ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, and that ‘the task of art today is to bring chaos into order’. The line between explanation and intelligibility has been severed. In the wake of such, we are left with the possibility of Adorno’s ‘negative theodicy’, a kind of theodicy in which the old intellectual and philosophical distance is impossible. If we are to make any headway at all in recognizing how the Nazi death camps succeeded in the destruction of biographical life, and reorientate our thinking in response, Adorno argues, we must learn how to regard Auschwitz as the culmination of a trajectory embedded in the history of western culture in the wake of the Enlightenment. In other words, there can be no genuine acknowledgement of the Holocaust that does not begin with the realization that ‘we did it’.

Today, our questions may be otherwise. For some of us – for those, for example, trying to discern (or create) lines between unbridled capitalism, ecological disaster, and global pandemics – perhaps they are not so.

In his latest post for The Red Hand Files, musician Nick Cave responds to a series of questions about his own plans for this time during the corona pandemic. His reflection is worth repeating here in full:

Dear Alice, Henry and Saskia,

My response to a crisis has always been to create. This impulse has saved me many times – when things got bad I’d plan a tour, or write a book, or make a record – I’d hide myself in work, and try to stay one step ahead of whatever it was that was pursuing me. So, when it became clear that The Bad Seeds would have to postpone the European tour and that I would have, at the very least, three months of sudden spare time, my mind jumped into overdrive with ideas of how to fill that space. On a video call with my team we threw ideas around – stream a solo performance from my home, write an isolation album, write an online corona diary, write an apocalyptic film script, create a pandemic playlist on Spotify, start an online reading club, answer Red Hand Files questions live online, stream a songwriting tutorial, or a cooking programme, etc. – all with the aim to keep my creative momentum going, and to give my self-isolating fans something to do.

That night, as I contemplated these ideas, I began to think about what I had done in the last three months – working with Warren and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, planning and mounting a massive and incredibly complex Nick Cave exhibition with the Royal Danish Library, putting together the Stranger Than Kindness book, working on an updated edition of my “Collected Lyrics”, developing the show for the Ghosteen world tour (which, by the way, will be fucking mind-blowing if we ever get to do it!), working on a second B Sides and Rarities record and, of course, reading and writing The Red Hand Files. As I sat there in bed and reflected, another thought presented itself, clear and wondrous and humane –

Why is this the time to get creative?

Together we have stepped into history and are now living inside an event unprecedented in our lifetime. Every day the news provides us with dizzying information that a few weeks before would have been unthinkable. What deranged and divided us a month ago seems, at best, an embarrassment from an idle and privileged time. We have become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out. We are forced to isolate – to be vigilant, to be quiet, to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilisation in real time. When we eventually step clear of this moment we will have discovered things about our leaders, our societal systems, our friends, our enemies and most of all, ourselves. We will know something of our resilience, our capacity for forgiveness, and our mutual vulnerability. Perhaps, it is a time to pay attention, to be mindful, to be observant.

As an artist, it feels inapt to miss this extraordinary moment. Suddenly, the acts of writing a novel, or a screenplay or a series of songs seem like indulgences from a bygone era. For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for.

Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together – throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all – so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.

Love, Nick x

Like Cave, Adorno too challenges us to ‘take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is – what we, as artists, are for’ – and to lean into ‘other forms of engagement’ that such uncertain and time-altering times render (almost) unavoidable. It is certainly a time to consider our responsibility to and involvement in all kinds of violence, for example.

But is this the only or final word on the matter? Returning to Adorno and his book Minima Moralia: Reflections on Damaged Life, he suggests that:

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity [fancy] or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects ­– this alone is the task of thought.

Is not what might be true for ‘philosophy’ and ‘thought’ not also true for art? Redemption, the ‘messianic light’, exposes the incongruity between the world as it appears now and the world as it might be. That exposure – birthed and sustained by profound and counterintuitive hope, hope born not of trust in markets or in a change of conditions but which is the wholly unanticipated gift of the God of life – serves as both a judgement upon all that threatens and overcomes life, and as a promise that there is a love that is stronger than death.

That exposure also brings new possibilities for artists – in their freedom – to find their banjos, their pens, their brushes, their shoes, their voices, their humanity, etc. etc.

Human poiesis (and theology too, for that matter) can be – and in this world ought to be, as Jonathan Sacks put it in To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility – a form of protest ‘against the world that is, in the name of the world that is not yet but ought to be’. It can like placing oneself right in the midst of a broken world – something like the way that the cellist Vedran Smailović placed himself in Sarajevo’s partially-bombed National Library in 1992 – and refusing to accept that the way things appear is the way that things must or will be.



Julian Meyrick on creativity during the time of the coronavirus

Julian Meyrick writes:

‘The arts and culture we will turn to in coming months to fill our time in isolation will provide us not just with distraction, but with meaning …

Arts and culture make important and varied contributions to the national economy and social cohesion. But the reason they do so is because of their intrinsic value. This arises in two forms.

Firstly, our culture is a steady source of thoughts, feelings, stories, images and moments which coalesce and collectively define us – what the philosopher John Searle called “the background”. Culture brings us pleasure, connection, meaning and joy, and in the current situation that’s a significant contribution to our narrowing lives.

Secondly, and even more crucially, it is where we may find our best selves. To act in a creative way is to act generously. This is not to say that artists are better than anyone else, or that creativity is the sole preserve of the arts. It is to observe that to be creative is to give to others through a selfless impulse to share, and not just a desire to monetise that relationship as an economic transaction …’.

You can read the full article here.

Coronavirus: cancelling culture

The global coronavirus pandemic is escalating so rapidly that an observation made in the morning is likely to out of date by the afternoon. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say, however, that the material conditions of artists and arts workers nationally, and globally, are being destroyed by this pandemic. An industry that relies on people being able to gather is wholly vulnerable in a time when no one can gather. And yet people find a way: one of the few gladdening stories to emerge in recent days has been the knowledge that quarantined Italians are singing and playing music to each other from their balconies.

We gather even without being able to gather. Such feats of solidarity and creativity are essential during this crisis.

What does singing matter when so much is at stake? Who cares about art when people are dying? Art matters because it is one of the most ancient ways we have of forming community: telling stories, singing songs, and making sound and images, are acts that bond us together as human beings. More than this, these acts can teach us something about our place in a complex and fragile ecosystem, a web of life. In an essay for [The Monthly] last year, which detailed the long-term damage done to Australian arts by decades of funding cuts and political neglect, Alison Croggon wrote: “It feels fatuous to talk about Australian art and culture amid such overwhelming global crises – and yet it also feels impossible not to note this context.” That observation is just as applicable now.

From Monday, March 16, “non-essential” outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people were temporarily banned by the federal government, and the list of cancelled arts events and festivals in Australia is growing rapidly. Sydney’s annual Vivid Festival, scheduled for May, was cancelled last Sunday. Byron Bay’s Bluesfest is cancelled for the first time in 30 years. Sydney Writers’ Festival, scheduled for late April, was cancelled, after having only announced its full program last week. Arts venues in Victoria, including the National Gallery of Victoria and the Arts Centre Melbourne, have closed their doors. The Melbourne Comedy Festival is cancelled, and the Melbourne Theatre Company has cancelled all remaining performances of its current productions, as has the Sydney Theatre Company. Sydney Film Festival, scheduled for mid-June, was cancelled on Wednesday. Now that the ban has been extended to indoor gatherings of 100 people or more – as it needs to be, if we are to avoid the scale of public health disaster that has been taking place in Italy – that list of cancellations will only get longer. All but the smallest of arts companies will be prevented from public performance and exhibition under these rules, and even the smallest, as our public health emergency deepens, are cancelling their schedules, out of caution and social responsibility.

Hundreds of thousands of arts workers are going to lose, or have already lost, sources of income because of all this: actors, musicians, writers, comedians, visual artists, programmers, producers, event managers, copywriters, box-office staff, front-of-house staff, technicians, road crew, arts critics and arts journalists, and more. Not to mention those workers employed by hospitality and tourism businesses that rely on venue contracts, or festival visitors, to stay solvent.

The cancellations mentioned above are just the big-ticket, big city events and organisations. Along with them are ranged all the medium to small arts companies – particularly regional arts companies – and individual workers, who are already operating in conditions of precarity, pushed there by long-term funding cuts and widespread casual labour, both within the arts industry and outside of it. The website I Lost My Gig, where arts workers can self-report cancelled employment due to COVID-19, had, by Tuesday, already tallied $100 million dollars of lost income, and counted 380,000 affected workers. The gig economy now so prevalent across different employment sectors, from food delivery to tech, has been the default arts employment mode for a long time, but when there is so little funding available to bolster artists’ wages or production costs, and when the industries that arts workers often turn to for a secondary or even primary income – low-paid industries like hospitality and retail, or tutoring – are also based on casual and contract labour, there is no financial buffer for people to rely on when the shock of a crisis looms. Australian arts has been in crisis for years, so what do you call a crisis on top of a crisis? A catastrophe?

Even in the best circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic would have done enormous damage to Australian arts, but these are far from the best circumstances. As Croggon detailed in her essay last year, part of the long-term problem with Australian arts has been its two-tiered funding model, by which major companies receive the lion’s share of Australia Council funding, while the scraps are left to small organisations and individual artists. Many receive no funding whatsoever. I want to stress that this is not the fault of the Australia Council, which after all must take direction from federal government. And governments both Coalition and Labor have shown a historic tendency to fiddle with the Council’s make-up, its funding models, and the money available to it, as in 2015, when the then federal arts minister, George Brandis, under the prime ministership of Tony Abbott, took $104 million from the Australia Council’s budget to divert into a new ministerial arts fund, Catalyst, while ring-fencing some major arts companies from the Australia Council’s consequent funding cuts. The Catalyst fund, in turn, was axed in 2017, but the money taken has never been returned to the federal arts budget.

Again, it’s not the fault of major arts companies that the arts sector in Australia is so inequitably funded. Every arts company, large or small, is vulnerable in this crisis. But when small organisations and individual artists have no monies whatsoever to spare, the result is likely to be permanent wipe-out for them, in a sector that has already felt the damage – especially the cultural damage – of an economic landscape in which sustaining a long-term arts practice at a small scale, or on a not-for-profit basis, is already close to impossible. My fear is that a federal arts stimulus package – should there even be one – will reinforce this unevenness of funding. And funding matters so much in the Australian context in part because we have nothing like the scale of private philanthropy that bolsters arts organisations in, say, the United States. Now is the time, more than ever, for all arts organisations and arts workers to argue for a significant, widespread and equitably distributed stimulus package.

The virtual roundtable convened by the federal government on Tuesday, and hosted by Arts Minister Paul Fletcher, “provided”, in the bloodless words of the minister’s press release, “an opportunity for Minister Fletcher to hear directly from the arts organisations on the ways they are responding to the challenges they are facing as a result of COVID-19, as well as their suggestions for support measures”. But no support measures specific to the arts have actually been announced. Instead, the minister referred back to the assistance measures outlined in last week’s general stimulus package, through which small to medium businesses can apply for up to $25,000 to cover the cost of employee’s wages. This will do nothing to assist casual employees or contract workers in the arts, and $25,000 will hardly be sufficient to make up for the cash-flow shortfall to small arts companies, whose entire operating budgets are now in jeopardy. Nor should writers be forgotten here, though they are often left out of such discussions because their work is done alone, as if this magically protects them from the labour conditions that affect the arts industry as a whole. There are plenty of writers now wondering if their scheduled books will be published, their newly published books bought, their teaching gigs scrapped, and so on. The cancellation of writers’ festivals, book launches and book tours will have a deleterious effect on authors, who depend on the publicity generated by these events to boost their sales.

In an article for The Conversation on Tuesday, arts writer and Monash University lecturer Ben Eltham outlined some ideas for how an arts stimulus might be put into effect, including by making payments to artist sole traders through the Australian Tax Office. This is the crux of the matter: money needs to go directly to arts workers themselves. It’s no solution if the federal government’s best suggestion, as it has been so far, is to direct all affected casual workers – in the arts sector or otherwise – to Centrelink, there to await the slow administration of a manifestly inadequate unemployment allowance, or a short-term sickness benefit. Forgive me if I have little faith in the Morrison government’s willingness to help arts workers to any degree, when the same government, in December, abolished the federal arts ministry.

In a situation where the global spread of COVID-19 underlines, once again, that an economic system based entirely on profit-making and commodity production will quickly spiral into crisis when things cannot be bought and sold, art matters precisely because the value it creates is never wholly measurable in terms of profit. Art matters now because it demonstrates, as it always has, that there are ways of being in the world, and things we can make in the world, that might be an alternative to commodity production. Meanwhile, we live inside of capitalism – this enormous global commodity system, its parts intermeshed – which means that arts workers, along with everyone else, have got to sell something to survive: their labour or art, or both. And all of a sudden there is precious little to sell. May this crisis make us think more deeply, more urgently, about the need to organise together; about the fact that when workers, including arts workers, bear all the risk in a labour market, we are all acutely vulnerable when the risks multiply. This vulnerability is not inevitable, just the way things are; it is the result of politics. I think again of Bertolt Brecht, and the motto he appended to a section of his Svendborg Poems cycle, in 1939:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

Reposted from The Monthly.

Image from Italy Magazine.


Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.