Yesterday was the 21st day of confinement here in France. It’s currently extended to 15 April, but I don’t know anyone who expects that rendezvous to be kept. All my work in May has been cancelled: June puts on a brave face but it will go the same way. One voluntary group I work with here is deciding whether to reopen in September, There is some talk about how the present restrictions might end, if not when, but the only thing that seems clear is that we’ll emerge from this tunnel blinking and slowly, in case there’s another tunnel coming up.
The tone of my conversations with colleagues and friends in the cultural professions has been changing. The courageous energy I often sensed at the start of this, especially in public statements and social media, is giving way to something more wary and uncertain. What could be done immediately largely has been done – the practical activity of closing and cancelling, relocating, organising life at home, finding ways of keeping active and visible. Now it feels a little like the days after a funeral. Shock has been cauterised by the many demands that urgently follow a death, but after the service and the tributes and the condolences, you’re alone in a new world, searching for ways to live with grief.
There is frustration now in those conversations, not at confinement, but at being unable to help when the scale of need is so evident. Many artists and cultural professionals are strongly motivated by a desire to be of service to others. People choose careers in the arts, museums or libraries because they believe their work can make a contribution to society. Those who work with vulnerable people, like community artists, know how difficult this enforced isolation may be for many, But how can we help, unable to leave our homes or use our skills? Many have shared ideas for creative activities online, helping those with time on their hands and children at home, to enjoy making and doing together. But I wonder if interest in that is starting to flag. After all, the Internet is already an almost inexhaustible source of learning and entertainment for those who can access it. We are not missing painting or singing or needlework as such. We are missing doing those things with other people, getting out of the house, making friends, laughing and gossiping, planning an exhibition or a concert – the activities that make art participatory, social and, for many of us, meaningful.
There is personal frustration too, as people, particularly artists, find themselves struggling to exploit their unchosen leisure. Hopes of making new work, experimenting with form or media, finally starting a novel or completing that thesis, are proving hard to sustain in confinement. The practical needs of our diverse households can be overwhelming. Feeding people, home-schooling and entertaining children, caring for the most vulnerable and paying the bills, while sustaining relationships and our own mental health doesn’t always leave much time to take on new projects, however long-cherished. We are under psychological strain, anxious about loved ones, our plans suspended and our future uncertain. We are holding it all together, thinking of others worse off than we are, being brave and hoping for the best.
In extraordinary times, ordinary expectations may not be very helpful. Our career plans, our hopes for self improvement, our simple good intentions belong to a former time with other rules. We need collective action of the kind rarely seen outside wartime, as governments are starting to see. Individually we can only do the human scale good that is within reach: looking out for neighbours, organising delivery of food and medicines, keeping in touch, finding ways to be together, even while we observe the social distancing rules. Staying at home might not seem like much but everyone who does prevents the virus reaching and perhaps killing others. Everyone who does avoids the risk of making more demands on overstretched health workers, delivery drivers, shop staff and emergency services. The gap between the need we see all around and the difference we can individually make is painful, but collectively we are the difference. And anyone with resources of health, skills, energy and ideas needs to take care of themselves because the days are coming when their contribution will be needed, not least by those who are taking the strain now. So, if you can, take care of yourself and those around you, make kind, realistic demands on yourself and nurture your resources, We will all be needed soon enough.