Artistic Possibilists: Pandemic Responses #3

This is the third in a series about how arts and cultural institutions have responded to the pandemic. It draws on work with a wide range of European cultural organisations, networks and funding bodies as well as online conversations, research and reading. My concern is with trends, ideas and principles, not with individual organisations, therefore I have avoided using examples. A few exceptions are made to this rule (as in this post) where the examples are wholly in the public domain. Follow this link to read the introduction to the series. 

This is an unhappy anniversary, marking an unhappy year (although it is actually 18 months since Covid-19 first manifested itself in China). When the pandemic began, I’d recently read Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, in which I’d learned how much the conditions of human flourishing have improved, albeit unevenly, in recent decades. However, Rosling concludes by identifying five risks faced by humanity: global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty. The first three, he says, have happened before, while the last two are happening now (p. 237). Versions of these threats have, at different times and in different degree, long haunted my imagination, but I’ve found their scale almost impossible to grasp or respond to. Such as they are, my abilities are useful in art and culture but seem irrelevant when set against the work of doctors, engineers, scientists, agronomists, educators, diplomats and others working as humanity’s first responders to avert Rosling’s five risks. 

Art may not be on the front line here, but it is nonetheless vital (in the true sense of that word, as necessary to life), because it is how humans process, make sense of and find common ground in their experience. And how they interpret that experience governs how they feel, think, behave and act in the world. Our capacity to face and overcome crises depends not only on the first responders mentioned above but on how we all choose to act. To put that into immediate and practical terms, the number of medics needed to save our lives in hospital is in direct proportion to the number of us willing to observe the sanitary rules designed to prevent the spread of the virus. And that willingness is governed by what we believe. 

This week, I’ve watched two beautiful and moving films, each of which tries to make sense of the past year’s traumas. ‘Handel’s Messiah for Our Time’ is a reimagination by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society of its tradition of performing the much-loved oratorio at Christmastime. This had been maintained through the American Civil war, two World Wars and the Spanish flu epidemic, but seemed impossible to continue in 2020, when no more than eight musicians were allowed to be in a room together. The solution was a film, assembled from performances by masked musicians and singers. intercut with images of medical facilities, ambulances moving down empty streets, social distanced queues and deserted public transport. The first words of the Messiah are ‘Comfort ye…’ and these artists have given all they know to comfort the community of which they are part. 

Welsh National Opera’s A Song for the Future was commissioned and created in response to the pandemic, ‘co-created by Composer Boff Whalley, Writer Sarah Woods and six writers and musicians (who also perform) who have sought sanctuary in the UK.’ Focused on a woman who has recently arrived in the UK, it tells her story within a wider narrative of a threatened world where time is suspended. Although its music and references are far from the Messiah for Our Time, they share a purpose of finding sense in these dreadful experiences, and the possibility that we might find other, better ways of living together in future. 

This is a strange and difficult moment for artists, and not only because their activities and livelihoods have been paralysed. They must decide whether or not to reflect these events in their work, either directly as both these films do, or obliquely, like the writers I’ve been working with recently have tended to do. I’ve been conscious since the first weeks of lockdown that the stories artists were working on a year ago will look very different when theatres, galleries and cinemas reopen. My guess is that some audiences will be happy to go back to a world without the pandemic, if only for an evening, and that others, finding that idea unthinkable, will turn to art that recognises and responds to their trauma. Both will be wanted, sometimes by the same people – we are anything but consistent. For now, work like that produced by WNO and H&HS, seem just right, but what comes next?  

Hans Rosling was accused by some of taking an over-optimistic view of human development and its future, but her denied the charge, describing himself instead as a ‘possibilist’:

It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.

Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, 2018, Factfulness Hodder & Stoughton p. 69

Now, as much as ever, we need possibilists in our culture – artists with a worldview that is constructive and useful.

The image at the top of this post is a still from the film of WNO’s ‘A Song for the Future’