So, the West End is shut. Bookstores are shunted online. Art galleries encourage you to browse their collections through a virtual tour. It’s not quite the same, is it? There’s a light at the end of the tunnel without a day or month attached to it. The phrase “when this is all over” has wormed its way into my daily life while I daydream about scaling the walls of the Tate Modern with my bare hands.
We’ve said goodbye to some staples this year, whether we’re a fan or not. Glastonbury. Eurovision. Events now being moved to livestream. We are in the midst of an impending shift in how we view and value art, and it makes us wonder: how much of our joy comes from the actual media we consume, and how much comes from the experience? Of venturing out, of squinting at actors on stage because you accidentally booked seats too far back, of running your fingers lovingly over book spines, leaving fingerprints that won’t budge on novels you won’t buy, of worn seats, of people watching, of sharing an experience. Just existing in the space of a work of art is a non-replicable sensation.
The eventual re-opening of all our favourite venues could go one of two ways. One: we’re dredged in fear and hand sanitiser. We don’t want to sit in a dark room wall-to-wall with people coughing and sniffling (because there’s always at least two). We forgo the theatre, and the cinema, and the galleries, to soak in the culture from home, where it’s relatively safe, and where we don’t have to wear trousers to appreciate art. Two: the novelty is so new to us that we jump straight back in, desperate to sink our teeth into something physical and not virtual, to be in the presence of something we could lick, if we wanted to (although, unhygienic, so maybe refrain, especially in our current climate).
The former will undoubtedly prevail for a while. The shift back to ‘normal life’ will be tentative. Anxieties nurtured and exacerbated in this period are hard to shake off, and the arts probably won’t be a priority in the readjustment to pre-coronavirus reality.
However, we are already seeing a change in art and literature produced at present. Antony Gormley (the artist responsible for the infamous UEA statues) has been displaying new clay models fraught with internal fears and the struggle of coping with only yourself as company. Banksy uploaded a photo of a bathroom, adorned by spray-painted rats, with the caption “My wife hates it when I work from home”, an unnervingly intimate insight into the private life of an artist who only projects work into the public, and not vice versa. Writer John Boyne has posted parodies of poems by the likes of Dickinson, Wordsworth, and Eliot, with tongue-in-cheek twists about social distancing. Author Maggie Stiefvater has been doing something similar, rewriting sections from her own books with the hashtag #sociallydistancedravenboys.
On a sillier note, popular fanfiction publication site Archive of Our Own now sports a hefty number of works tagged with ‘COVID-19’, ‘Coronavirus’, and ‘Lockdown’, which have been steadily increasing since late February. Everyone is coping differently, and a lot of people use art as a platform to wrap their heads around Life As It Never Has Been. Sometimes, to cope, you have to write stories about people falling in love through all the noise, and that’s okay.
Where do we draw the line between sensitivity towards those suffering, and our own coping methods? The reality is, we are facing a global pandemic while society collapses around us. On account of this, art produced during this lockdown period takes on a polarising role. We have artists like Gormley, who are leaning into the messy, ugly realities of a closed-off present, portraying introspection like it’s the only thing to cling to. Alternatively, people like Boyne are using humour and relatability as a means of transforming the fear of a nation into something we can laugh about. Humour as a coping mechanism is pretty popular, and that becomes a part of our art; whether it’s ethical to make jokes from crisis is a whole other can of worms, but that’s a debate for another time. Without distractions from the glaring issue at hand, we dissolve into little puddles of existential crisis and anxiety, so we must bury it in poems, and watch theatre performances on the internet, and laugh at authors being snarky on Twitter. We are reaching out to content creators, asking for help, and they are reaching back with lovingly plucked responses that resonate within us, whether they be light-hearted or deeply tragic.
Art isn’t saving lives. But it’s helping us stay steady through tumult. It’ll still be here, when all of this is over, as honest and brutal and eye-opening as ever, with a little more hypochondriac tension and self-awareness to it. We are already leaning into COVID-19, and from the looks of it, it will continue to carve a space in the arts because we write what we know, and right now we don’t know anything better than a pandemic. The effects of the coronavirus will linger, until centuries later, where it’s mythologised into crappy historical fiction novels. But for now, it’s important. It’s devastating. We are coping through flurrying media consumption that changes day by day, and for that, we can only say ‘thank you’.