It can feel a bit like fiddling while Rome burns.
The world at large has always been a tumultuous place, particularly with the advent of new online media entities, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle of network news making us more aware than at any other time in history of the shit going down across the globe.
Lately, however, it seems it’s not just greater access to the news that’s making the world seem so untenable, but rather the quality of the news as well.
In short, the world right now, if you’ll pardon a terrible joke, seems like the shittiest place on Earth, with bad stuff happening literally everywhere that you look.
It can be difficult to carry on with a pursuit as frivolous-seeming as art while people are suffering hardship and dying from it on an almost daily basis.
If you’re a person who’s lucky enough to not be in personal or political crisis at the moment, it can feel disrespectful to those who are in crisis to do something that seems so self-indulgent.
It can feel like you’re flaunting your good fortune. Like, instead of being appropriately penitent and remorseful about your general inability to do anything about the situation, you’ve put it right out of your head in order to carry on with your business of living the high life.
The reality, however, is that art is an essential and fundamental human pursuit. During every age and era of human history, many of which were equally horrific in their own right, people have created and turned to art to reify and reaffirm our humanity.
Particularly when the world around us is at its darkest, art has an important role to play in how we see ourselves through troubled times and envision a better world for the future.
So if you find yourself feeling guilty about creating—if you find your output suffering for it, or are otherwise asking yourself what does it even matter—remember these three key points:
1) People need escapism
During troubled times, when just getting through the day is an interminable struggle, people often need a means of temporary escape. A means by which they can just disengage from the world around them for a little while to regain their mental energy.
Think of the last time you were in some sort of crisis. What did you do to console yourself? Turn to a beloved book? A favourite TV series? Stare at a beautiful painting or photograph? Play a video game?
Depending upon the nature of the crisis, you mightn’t have been able to do any of the above in the moment. But as soon as the immediate danger—be it physical or emotional—had passed, no doubt you looked to some form of art to help you return to yourself.
Not every piece of art needs to be heavy with contemporary themes and valuable life lessons. Sometimes, art is just meant to be uplifting and fun.
Art can help boost someone’s mood when they’re suffering. It can bring them an unexpected moment of joy.
No one can withstand constant suffering (just as no one can withstand constant guilt over the suffering of others), nor should anyone be judged negatively for not being a martyr to their anguish—for needing to mentally check out for a while.
An important and often forgotten element of caring for and about others is to care for one’s own self. Art, in its myriad forms for the myriad tastes of so many different people in the world, helps make that self-care possible.
2) People need the blueprints
Great art can create a working model of the better world we want to live in (for example, To Kill a Mockingbird). Or of the hellish world we don’t want our current one to become (e.g. The Handmaid’s Tale).
Art has always been a laboratory for testing theories on how the world can be different, and for revealing the steps involved in making those theories a reality.
It can presuppose any number of conditions and any level of political will for change that our current world doesn’t possess. It can inspire people to ask why our world isn’t the way it could be, and what we can do about it.
Rather than an act of disregard, art can be the ultimate form of respect in the face of people’s suffering. Not only can art memorialize and bring awareness to suffering to prevent it later being downplayed or forgotten, it can propose and inspire the solutions to prevent that suffering ever happening again.
3) People need a trial run
This relates to point #2. Often, the world stays as it is with the status quo maintained because people can’t even envision what a different one would look like. It is the ultimate of unknown unknowns.
We are all strongly influenced by all forms of media—more so than many people are prepared to acknowledge.
Art is a safe environment in which people can be exposed to unimaginable ideas and see them have a positive outcome.
According to the documentary Miss Representation, in the wake of the 2005 TV series Commander in Chief, about a fictional first female President of the United States, people surveyed showed an increased receptivity to the idea of a real female POTUS. (The feelings of the Electoral College in this regard are clearly a different matter.)
Similarly, the Mary Tyler Moore Show of the 1970s helped normalize unmarried, independent women in the workplace and society.
Meanwhile, reading fiction has been shown to make people more empathetic. According to the November/December 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind,
The process of entering imagined worlds of fiction builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view. It can even change your personality. (p. 63)
And changed personalities are the ones that help change the world.
BONUS) Life is too damn short
You could die tomorrow. Your country could get nuked. You could succumb to extreme weather. You could die from a lack of affordable health care. You could get shot by police. You could get run down by white supremacists, whether you’re a person of colour or not.
Hell you could get hit by a bus. Or get thrown under one. Not all deaths occur in the physical sense.
All this to say your own turn at suffering could come any day. So you need to be spending the precious time you have now devoted to something that you love. Especially when that something has the potential to help far more people than just yourself.
And on the off chance that you manage to make it big with your art, you can further help by donating some of the proceeds to charity.
Do you find it hard to continue creating while the world is in turmoil? What helps you to carry on with your creative pursuits? Tell me about it in the comments.