In March of 2020, when COVID-19 arrived seemingly overnight in New York City, author Luis Jaramillo—director of fiction at the New School and my professor as a master’s student at the time—wrote a letter to my MFA class about the role of art in crisis. He opened by saying that he’d already drifted from his own ritual of sitting down and writing words each day and that he didn’t know the way forward except to say that, yes, of course, we should all keep writing. “There’s always something that seems more urgent than the writing, and so it takes real effort to make the time to write, even though writing is an activity that we all actually want to do,” he wrote. Like a global pandemic, he added, the blank page is a “place of almost constant uncertainty—this is what makes writing difficult—but writing is also a place with enough moments of surprise, connection, and perspective to make it worthwhile and necessary for me—if not for anyone else.”
Artists have a long, well-recorded history of using times of public duress as inspiration for new works that then come to be part of history themselves. A few examples include French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex, which emerged as “The Feminist Bible,” and was born from her deep frustration for France’s repressive contraceptive laws. And following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, photographers became the watchdogs of the glaring racism Black people experienced in schools, restaurants, protests, and beyond. In 1970, as the Vietnam War raged on, musician Edwin Starr asked “War! What is it good for?” in a protest song that spent 22 weeks on the Billboard charts. Now, COVID-19 has swept in and positioned itself as an unpredictable muse that no sculptor, writer, or singer would necessarily choose to make their centerpiece. But if history serves as any indication, we know that the work these pros are in the midst of creating during the pandemic will help the world navigate the uncertain future.
That’s in large part because the very role of the artist is to keep creating, even without the guarantee of a decisive period at the end of the sentence. Making art is brave and mysterious work, and it’s because of people like De Beauvoir and Starr that we know that the murky process often and eventually creates something (a play, a comedic bit, or a piece of visual art). Below, creators who work in various mediums share how they’re exploring their chosen craft in the time of the pandemic.
Making art during COVID-19: Why and how artists are facing the proverbial blank page
The process of making art is never “easy,” per se—but it’s especially difficult when people are facing record unemployment numbers, isolating themselves, and watching their loved ones fear for and sometimes lose their lives. On a recent episode of Fresh Air, Hamilton composer Lin-Manuel Miranda expressed that forcing himself to care about his personal and professional projects has been a struggle because he feels trapped by the news and the confines of his own space. “I’d love to able to tell you that I’m writing King Lear or the sonnets now that the playhouses have all closed, but I’m afraid I can’t because I’m as worried about the world as everyone else,” said Miranda. “Because I can’t distance myself from my particular bubble, I can’t distance myself from my thoughts either… The world is being remade in a fundamentally different way because of this pandemic and because of just where we are, and artists have to give themselves the latitude to acknowledge that.”
National Book Award Finalist Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko, agrees that the headlines don’t exactly breed creativity—not initially, at least. “I am highly distracted by the parabolic nature of the news cycle. It is impossible to make plans,” she tells me. But while she shares Miranda’s sentiment of feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of creating, something changes for her when she sits down to actually practice her art. “The upside is that I find work deeply engaging and calming, so when I can, I work. I work a lot. I have depression, anxiety, and OCD, so work is the thread that gives shape to my days.”
“When I can, I work. I work a lot. I have depression, anxiety, and OCD, so work is the thread that gives shape to my days.” —Min Jin Lee, author
On the Sugar Calling podcast in March, best-selling author George Saunders shared a similar take, noting that although the circumstances aren’t ideal, to say the least, focusing on his work can provide him with solace. “I’ve noticed about myself that in times like this, my mind wants to have answers for everything. It wants to have a take on things to give myself comfort,” he said. “I think about it like when you slip on the ice, and in that split second before you land on ground…you’re just out of control and the pavement’s rushing up toward you. I think sometimes, you just say, ‘Yep, we’re in that moment.’” So, even if there are no visionary conclusions to offer in the face of something as devastating and ongoing as the pandemic is right now, this moment between slipping on the ice and hitting the ground, so to speak, will likely prove important and fruitful for future works of art.
“As artists, our job is always to be perceptive of what’s going on in the human heart during the time that we’re living,” says sculptor Paige Bradley. “During the pandemic, there’s definitely been a sense of stopping, but then there’s also a pivot—and I think the pivot is what is really important that I want to talk about with my work.”
Bradley’s work aims to capture the spirit of the human heart, (pre-pandemic, her sculptures often took the the form of corporeal depictions of dancers and wings and sought to express ephemeral feelings like clarity or relief. So it make sense that during these pandemic times, her artistic focus has shifted. She now places herself in the camp of what visual artist Felix Gozalez-Torres once phrased as a “kitchen-table artist,” or the creator whose work now primarily takes place seated, steeped in almost-paralyzing concentration, with pen and paper in hand. While in the past, her subjects have portrayed ecstatic movement, she says that COVID-19 has morphed her daily work into a fascination with one particular object: doors, and what they mean for the current moment, in connection capturing the public mood.
“Recently, I found myself standing in a doorway, having meaningful conversations with friends that I have to stay six feet away from,” says Bradley. “Just standing there reminded me that I’ve got a whole new series that I want to do, you know, where I’m in this port—this space where I had to decide whether I stay or leave, how safe it is. My next project is a kind of purgatory in a sense. How far out do I dare go? How much do I want to leave the safety of my home? I know a lot of other people are feeling the same way.”
That feeling of connection that says “me too” is exactly what Bradley says she seeks to convey in her work now and always. “Connection is still what keeps us human. We have to connect with others,” she says.
“We make things okay to laugh about, and I personally don’t know how to navigate [the pandemic] yet” —Amy Schumer, comedian
In a post-COVID world, a recurring question will be how to weave vignettes of this time into the stories we continue to tell through film, books, and other modes of expression. Comedian Amy Schumer, whose Hulu show, Love, Beth, was scheduled to premiere this year and is currently delayed, tells me there’s a debate about whether to scrap the existing script and write the pandemic into the plot.
“We wrote the whole season, and then the pandemic happened. So the question is, should we go back and write this into it? I don’t really know yet,” says Schumer. While comedians are, after all, charged with finding pockets of humor within tragedy, they’re also tasked with nailing perfect timing. And right now, the component of timing is unclear. “[Comedians are] supposed to start joking before anyone else does. We make things okay to laugh about, and I personally don’t know how to navigate it yet—but people will figure it out, I guess,” says Schumer.
Lee feels confident that many artists will choose, as Schumer suggests, to figure out how to meld the current situation into something that drives the conversation forward and even kick-starts the long process of healing that lies ahead. “It’s highly subjective. However, if it is possible for the artist, and if she is inclined to engage her views and questions within her form and medium, then I am willing to claim that it may be healing for her and possibly her audience. If you want to sit it out, I completely respect that and get it,” Lee says.
When I ask Bradley (with some desperation) how artists—of all levels—can rally themselves to be in the camp that helps the world heal, the camp shared by Starr and De Beauvoir and Lee and so many others, she tells me a story.
At the turn of the 20th century, when World War I began in Europe, she says, artist Pablo Picasso faced a situation not dissimilar from the current one, in that it would have been understandable for him to take a break from creating. “He was doing sculpture at the time, and the government had just shut down all the foundries in order to make weaponry like guns, artillery, and stuff like that. And so the artists weren’t allowed to make art at the foundries anymore, and a lot of the places were actually melting down bronze sculptures or iron sculptures and reconstituting them for weapons. So Picasso went to the junkyard and he found objects and he started putting them together. He was one of the first artists who used recycled materials from old junkyards to make sculptures,” says Bradley.
She takes Picasso’s scrappiness, and that same quality found in countless other artists who’ve made a profession of improvisation, as proof positive that art will always find a way. “It’s in the necessity of creating that we find different ways to do it,” she says. “We’ll never stop because it’s the story of our humanity. It’s like not breathing; we can’t stop breathing.”