If the orders to isolate ourselves in our homes have shown us anything in the last few months, it is that human beings turn instinctively to the arts when we feel things deeply. Isolation, depression, and abiding worry cannot go undocumented; our psyches demand both that we express great pain and that we build for ourselves modes of coping that will help us feel less alone.
Reading novels and watching dancers and looking at paintings produces pleasure in a world that feels sorely starved for joy. Museums, libraries, theaters, and cultural institutions of all sorts are founded to share the power of creative modes of expression to communicate — often beyond words — the depths of our humanity, its frailty, its power. And lately, these institutions have given us gift after gift, releasing into the public domain videos of operas and plays, thousands of digitized paintings, bookshelves full of novels. Living artists read Shakespeare to us, one sonnet a day, offer us lessons in doodling, play the cello, read us bedtime stories.
And while consuming these expressions of our human conditions is a pleasure, this crisis has proven even more strongly that producing them is a need. We do not just want to look at great masterpieces; we want to recreate them out of piles of sheets and blankets, an old prom dress, and our daughter on a porch swing.
Out of pretzels and toast and cinnamon rolls.
Out of our pug dog in a party hat.
We want to compose things on our pianos and dance in our kitchens and paint tiny murals on the backs of our denim jackets. We want to read poetry and write poetry and be part of email chains sending poetry to strangers. We want to bake bread. And mock other people for indulging in the cult of sourdough. And eat delicious bread. We want to grow flowers and take long walks along neighborhood streets where other people have grown flowers.
We want to listen to the birds, rowdy in the bushes early in the morning, and realize that the light makes the bare branches of the trees glow pink at that hour — and then we want to rush for our cameras and try to capture that pink, so that we can throw the picture onto our social media accounts in hopes that someone, anyone, else will gasp with us over the fleeting beauty of a giant disk of golden moon.
The arts, in short, have incredible power because they provide means of expression in an enormous array of registers. Those blobs and splatters of paint are anger as clearly as is the spray of red sauce across the kitchen floor when a petulant toddler upends the spaghetti dish. The decades of training that result in the perfect arch of a ballerina’s foot is perhaps more graceful, but I would wager not less eloquent, than the joyful squirm that spontaneously erupts in the family room when the teen relays his breathless good news. The slightly misshapen, wholly delicious pineapple bun — baked for the very first time by the fledgling home cook — is a work of art too. An offering, sweet as her own half-shy smile of pride, that brings us together over mouthfuls of shared enjoyment.
We, all of us, revel in the creating whether we know it or not. We may not equally admire the work of a given artist. We may not even be willing to call certain products of pen or paint “art.” But we all strive to express ourselves. And if the outpourings of creativity online are any indication, we are all drawn to the valiant imperfect effort. The rube goldberg machine that snakes through the house, the music of a ping-pong ball bouncing off angled pans into a tiny cup, the exercise routines using toddlers for barbels or dogs for inspiration.
You may say these things are not art but just past-times. I beg to differ. Art is, at its core, an expression of humanity. Of creativity, emotion, innovation. Of the need to provide solace. Of the desire to feel we are part of a world beyond ourselves. It is an offering. An outpouring of fear or a sharing of wonder. A narrative of an individual journey to which others may relate not because our journeys are the same, but because we also feel the urge to narrate.
Art is not just a painting done by an expert in a lonely garret, under-appreciated until decades after he dies, or the virtuoso performance of a soprano. It is the human effort to give emotion wings because grief is too big for our bodies. Because joy is too big for our bodies. It reminds us that we are not alone, even when we are isolated. Art is the human effort to connect, crafted into something made whimsical or beautiful for the sheer joy of taking additional effort over the crafting. And it is profoundly necessary.