How To Art In Really REALLY Bad Times
Ah, the Salad Days of cultural angst.
When Billy Joel growled out the final words of his 1989 list song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” I wonder if he considered for a moment that the 40 years of world events highlighted in his unforgettable primal scream would, in a mere 30 years, come to be seen as “precious.” Yes, I know that was an incredibly long sentence, and no, I don’t give a fuck.
Who among us wouldn’t trade COVID for British Politician Sex? The Climate Catastrophe for Ho Chi Minh? Trump for Rock n Roller Cola Wars? Whoever said, “may you live in interesting times” can blow me…in hell, if the Christian Right is right.
Like many of my sister and brother writers, I’ve been struggling to find artistic purchase in this exceptionally challenging time. My work-in-progress is a YA fantasy, but it’s set in our world. Our pre-COVID world. I’d also started a play – a contemporary satire – in January that no longer seems particularly relevant as we collectively inhale the reality that nearly one million human beings have died from this plague. And there doesn’t appear to be a true end in sight…at least not one that can be achieved by the application of critical thought.
The West Coast is on fire. Sally is having a party in the Gulf while other storms circle like a shiver of sharks in the Atlantic. The results of the 2nd most important election in our lifetime (we blew the first one) are already disastrous, and it HASN’T EVEN HAPPENED YET. Giant chunks of the Arctic are turning into a massive slushie. Sahara Dust is on the way. BLM has had enough of our country’s legacy of racist bullshit, and their anger is so incredibly righteous that it’s contagious – in a good and long overdue way. Schools are unbelievably open, and as of this writing, the number of teachers, TEACHERS, who have died from COVID continues to rise.
And of course there’s more. So much more.
How do we function as artists when our collective frontal lobe is filled with end-days shit that none of us had on our Bingo card? The thought of COVID literature/theatre/art makes me cringe. It’s too big, too awful to reduce to the intimacy of storytelling, and yet, how can we legitimately spin a contemporary yarn without it?
Those who fought in WWI were dubbed the “Lost Generation.” Countless soldiers returned to their homes suffering from shell shock, which we now call PTSD. Their wandering, directionless lives were succinctly captured in works like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.
Shell shock wasn’t reserved for soldiers, however. The War to End All Wars was too big, too awful, and the artistic response to what was previously unimaginable was a jagged slash through the fabric of what had come before. Dadaism exploded in the art world in Europe and America, and Theatre of the Absurd was soon to follow. The sensual beauty of La Belle Époque that preceded the war became unbearable to contemplate, and artists scrambled – like many of us are scrambling now – to integrate our unimaginable reality into our individual forms of storytelling. Are we becoming a new Lost Generation? I hope not.
The German Dadaist, Richard Hülsenbeck, described his world thusly:
“Berlin was a city of tightened stomachs, of mounting, thundering hunger, where hidden rage was transformed into a boundless money lust, and men’s minds were concentrating more and more on questions of naked existence… Fear was in everybody’s bones.”
The Dadaists, Surrealists, Existentialists and Absurdists saved our species’ artistic asses while carving out a new space in our understanding of art for daring new forms, which sadly seem commonplace today. Will our generation generate a similar eruption in response to the unprecedented times in which we’ve found ourselves? I really hope so.
Outside my window, the world seems unchanged from where it was a year ago. The grass is green. Trees are just beginning to tease with autumnal blush. Herons fly overhead on their way to the Ten Mile River. Our horses graze, unperturbed. But I can feel it. The thing. It’s out there and it’s terrifying. It taints my every thought. I’ve spoken with other writers and know that I’m not the only one trying to push through this malaise. I have no credible advice. Just keep telling your stories. I’m pretty sure that the world needs us now more than ever, because this fire we so totally started.
Stay safe/Wear a freaking mask/Support the ARTS