How can the arts make a response to the Covid 19 crises that is relevant?
What is the place of art when we are preoccupied with a pandemic that threatens the worlds health, economy and social fabric?
In answer to these questions I propose a form of art that could be described as ‘deep art’.
‘Deep art’ is prophetic, mythic, democratic and improvised.
In her posthumously published book Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf asserts a penetrating manifesto for the role of artists.
‘it is a constant idea of mine that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we-I mean all human beings-are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the work of art…there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven, certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music, we are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock’
I agree that there is a form of art that we are all connected with and is distinct from what Woolf calls the cotton wool.
But I would go even further and say that this art is not just humanistic but also inspired by the great beyond, the divine, the other.
I think the cotton wool Woolf refers to is our normal way of living. It’s the familiar narratives played out in our individual, cultural, political and social contexts. We inherit and retell stories about the way the world is, what others are like and who we are. These narratives give us the illusion of being able to control the turbulence of change.They tend to be dualistic, trading in the language of ‘in or out’, ‘good or bad’, ‘one of us or one of them’. At the societal level these stories are deployed to maintain power and suppress any threat or disruption. The theologian Walter Brueggemann describes this as ‘empire’. The function of empire is to maintain control, suppress chaos and maintain economic power.
Although empire brings the illusion of security and protection the stories and art that maintain it are so thin as to be translucent. This kind of art could even be called cotton wool art.
Cotton wool art
Cotton wool art supports empire. It is the kind of art that spews, streams and surges across multiple platforms. It’s machine tooled to distract us from reality. It has a narcotic quality that is both addictive and sedating. We have a dizzying array of options if we want to self-medicate rather than stay in the disorientation and grief of the present moment. We can jump onto our smart phone, Netflix, Instagram or PornHub. Or just collapse into a Barcarlounger and shoot Tequila Slammers. If we have a pain, we go to the doctor, they diagnose, treat and heal. At the socio-political level, we expect the ‘experts’ to know what to do. Even though there have been catastrophic failures of leadership in politics and economics we still subcontract power to these ‘experts’. They in turn operate with all the dualistic ‘us and them’ language that has always been present in empires across time. Tired metaphors like declaring ‘war’ or building a wall are used in response to the current world wide pandemic. When we have a shock it is often the case that we reach for these metaphors to a) make sense of what the hell is going on and b) to fix it and c) make sure that THAT never happens again. This cotton wool approach to life has one big primary aim. To manage, anaesthetise and suppress our fear.
We currently live in a time where the empire and the cotton wool art that supports it has been infected by a viral load that is unstoppable. The Matrix is being deconstructed by a rogue code. The shock we are now experiencing is vastly more traumatic than anything Woolf could have foreseen. The stories we have woven to distract and entertain are now floating apart like cotton candy in a headwind.
Covid 19 has infected our empires with a lethal does of chaos.
So how could deep art speak to the current crises?
For the purpose of clarity lets assume that there is a clear difference between deep and cotton wool art. We have described cotton wool art, what about deep art?
This is an artistic expression that erupts from within the deep heart and passion of humanity. It can be an expression of pain, trauma, alienation or vaulting joy. This gives it a deep if fractured humanity. Deep art can also be informed by an energy that comes from beyond the artist. Some call this the muse, others God, others inspiration. However we define it, there is a dynamic of otherness in deep art. It may seem shambolic, chaotic and strange. And yet it has a familiarity while originating from beyond the walls of empire and the maps of our familiar territory.
‘When I am far away, when I am far away
I feel the rain from another planet’
Which reminds me
When I was 17 I was writing poems and playing in a band that did covers of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Sex Pistols songs. I know, eclectic doesn’t begin to describe it. I don’t know if I would have called myself an artist but I was definitely expressing things that I wanted, NEEDED, people to hear. It was a time when everyone was in a band. Our band was called Alpine Eurology after something we read in a Geography text book. We did covers. Our rivals were called The Random Noise Makers. They made their own music. The RNM’s were made up of an assortment of geeks and weirdoes. Cutler, with curly locks and a Rothmans mild fag hanging from his lips was the bass player and singer. Stevo said he was a marxist. His parents owned half of Hampshire, but he had an enormous Zildjan kit so he became the drummer. Trev was tall, blond and studious. He kept growing out of his uniform and played a flute that no one could hear. Occasionally they would be joined by a guitarist called Cooky. He was the only member of the band who could play his instrument. So of course he was fired for being a fascist. The RMN’s would set up in the corner of the common room and make noise and words on the spot. Once they played a gig in a barn to a lot of confused sheep.
And my point is?
For all their chaotic, dadaist affectations the RMN’s were trying to do something original and real. My band was copying the songs, the moves and look of people we saw on Top of the Pop’s. The RNM’s were a glorious mess of improvised sound. But they had intent, they stood for more than anarchy. They stood for a philosophy that said, anyone can do this, anyone can be a star and have a voice. Punk music was an alternative to the pomposity of contemporary rock music. Infantile and adolescent as they were, I nominate the Random Noise Makers for the deep art hall of fame.
There is much that could be said about deep art but I have chosen four key markers for the kind of art that not only disrupts but also gives voice to a new story from within the ruins of the old.
Deep art is….
Prophets have always spoken, shouted and cried out from beyond the walls of the empire. They speak from the liminal position of the outsider. They use poetic even painterly language to deconstruct the ‘way things are’. They deliver a viral payload to the dominant narrative while simultaneously creating alternative stories.
Artists can be the prophetic voice of the uncomfortable truth. Like the Fool in King Lear they have a licence to disrupt the dominant and often insane story. They use a language of fire and wind in contrast to the kingdoms of ego, fear and control. In his book ‘The Prophets’ Heschel says
‘His images must not shine, they must burn’
In the artist as prophet paradigm it becomes impossible for artists not to cry, to wail, rail and breath fire not philosophies. They do not trade in the linguistic parlour games of the theologian. They cry out with the agony of the refugee and the victim. They do not speak ABOUT inequality, injustice, racism and oppression. They stand in the fire and shape words and images from within the flames. They ARE the ultimate disruptors of the cotton wool empire.
They ARE The Random Noise makers!
And yet as artists they are not entirely random. This could make them easy to dismiss as lunatics. They have the craft and artistry to mould and shape new realities and narratives. They not only tear down but they also construct.
It is easy to dismiss the prophetic as some kind of fortune telling. But it is also a deep expression of the present moment that plumbs greater depths than the media can fathom. In 1937 Picasso painted Guernica. He wasn’t in the Spanish town when it was bombed by Nazi Junkers. But when he heard an eye witness report of the slaughter of children and women something ignited in him as he poured this excruciating horror onto canvas.
As a storyteller I have to ask the question, are our stories capable of handling this level of world wide trauma? We could ask the same question of all art, is any of it able to carry the current weight and freight of disorientated trauma? I believe Picasso’s Guernica suggests that the answer to these questions is yes. But to do so we need to rediscover the deeper magic that is to be found in myth.
It is time to plumb deep into the universal and archetypal storehouse of stories, drama, music and dance that are not just an ironic pastiche of post-modern cynicism. Mythic narrative engages the big stuff, like death, grief, disorientation, loneliness and pain. But it also gives voice to joy, love and compassion. This could be a time to revisit the mythic tales of fairy stories, origin tales, sacred texts and transformative journeys. Above all else, myth can carry our experience within a framework of meaning. Our challenge in this time is not to settle for thin, trite and formulaic meanings but to go deep for stories big enough to engage with our disorientation, confusion and pain. The old sources of meta-narrative such as the church and state have not as yet managed to do this. The age old questions of ‘what are we doing here, what does this all mean and where are we going?’ can no longer be answered by narratives based in materialism, tradition and power.
Woolf describes a world beyond the cotton wool of superficial distraction. Here, everyone is an artist, a creative. I am aware that there is a counter argument to this. The tsunami of bedroom singers, painters and actors we see online are not all excellent. In fact excellence may be hard to find among the dross. However I do think that now more than ever we need an open source, democratic expression of creativity. This could include all of us. Why not adopt a poetic approach to economics, a theatrical reframing of politics and a choreographer’s perspective on virology?
This pattern is all about dialogue, hospitality to the other and yes, I would even say love. This is utterly counter cultural to the dominant story of empire, with its roots in fear, control and ego.
So perhaps a question here is, what could we create with others that we couldn’t create alone? I used to make a podcast with a friend. We talked about everything from superhero’s to theology. The ideas we created were polyvocal and could only have been created out of two voices in dialogue. This happens as we host other voices join the dance of co-creation. For me this is a key aspect of deep art. It is open to the ‘other’. This is art unlimited by our own fractured ego’s. It reaches beyond to receive what artists have called in-spire-ation, the in-breath of the divine.
As an acting student who happened to be a control freak, I hated improvisation classes. I knew I could only do it if I let go and flowed into the moment to moment give and take, take and give with other actors. I couldn't go away for a week to ponder my response. It only worked if my thought and action was almost simultaneous. This drew aspects of me into the light faster than years of psychoanalysis would achieve. However, improv is not a free for all. Far from it. As the great jazz musicians have always said you have to know the rules of music before you can break them.
I remember in one scene I was a bus driver. This was my home and in my hands was a bag of money I found on my bus. My aim was to persuade my wife to run off to Rio with the money. Then she enters the room with a secret objective of her own. Action!
One afternoon at my drama school we tried to conduct an improvised scene with no rules, no script and or character objectives. The result? Chaos. Not art. Just chaos.
When children play together they have to negotiate and agree the rules before they can be free to play. Otherwise it is too chaotic and stressful to do anything. Under these conditions creativity withers and frozen fear takes over. Improvisation is a fine balance of some control and freedom. This is necessary for creativity of any kind to flourish.
You cannot improvise a scene without having to depend on the other actor. You build it together. It’s not a game for one. It’s not a monologue, it’s a dialogue. Improvisation by definition is not the retelling of old stories using the same format and language. It’s an alchemic meeting of different voices to create a dialogue that never existed before. Could this be the time where politicians, scientists, economists, theologians, poets, musicians, dramatists and film makers come together to improvise new solutions and new stories to live out? Stages could pop up where new and alternative stories of human relating could be rehearsed in the safety of knowing that ‘its just drama’.
This could be a time for deep art to draw on the prophetic, mythic, democratic and improvised to help us give shape and voice to this present chaos.
Maybe it’s time for the Random Noise Makers to make a comeback.