In the teeth of a crisis, we need art as well as science
Updated: May 29
This column first appeared in Holyrood on 23 March 2020.
In Emily St. John Mandel’s powerful 2014 novel Station Eleven the ‘Georgia flu’ rips through global society and kills most of the population. Survivors live in the ruins of the old world – camping out in small communities based in airports or petrol stations.
It’s been five years since I read that book, but it has never quite left me. For obvious reasons, it has been particularly in my mind over the last few weeks. Art has the power to offer imaginative landscapes that help us understand our own reality.
Our current pandemic is, thankfully, neither as deadly nor as infectious as the fictional Georgia flu, but it is undoubtedly going to change all of our day-to-day lives in the coming months. As our horizons narrow through social distancing, the journeys we can take within our minds are going to be more and more important.
Despite its premise, Station Eleven is not a true dystopia. It is too shot through with hope. The society after the Georgia flu has lost electricity, medicine, government and law. It is profoundly unsafe. But it is also a world where a caravan of people travels in horse-drawn former vans from tiny settlement to tiny settlement, performing Shakespeare and classical music. Where their motto is ‘survival is insufficient’ (yes, it is a quote from Star Trek).
In the teeth of a medical crisis, we certainly want our best scientists on the case. Frontline health workers, immunologists, epidemiologists and microbiologists all deserve our gratitude and support. This is a good time to reflect on the progress made by science in making us all safer through better public health. (And an excellent moment to give those anti-vax conspiracy theories a rest.)
And yet, while we can all be glad that there are medical experts there to care for those of us who are hit hard by COVID-19, for most, this crisis is going to be about taking care of our mental health. Anyone with ongoing difficulties will be vulnerable, as we all face a slew of frightening news and our usual coping strategies are disrupted by social distancing.
For those with obsessive compulsive disorder, fear of contamination is one of the most common obsessive thoughts, alongside fixations around order and counting, and so current government advice for coronavirus may undermine their psychological treatment.
My own anxiety, which has been broadly under control for years, has been quietly building. My dad, back in my native Belfast, is one of those who will now be strictly isolated for the next 12 weeks because of underlying health problems. As for many Irish people here in Scotland, the North Channel suddenly seems very wide. The natural desire is to hold our loved ones close, but in this very particular crisis the best thing is to stay apart. It’s profoundly unsettling.
Breathing exercises have become important again, as have the benefits of a solitary walk or run. But, when we have to keep our distance, the most powerful force we have to bring us closer is art and storytelling. Music, film, books, magazines, TV… culture is all too often seen as the condiment rather than the main course, but here we are in a crisis – and it turns out it’s essential nourishment.
Cooped up in self-isolation, we turn to the transformative power of music, the escape of a great box set, the comfort of a favourite film. We travel the world in the pages of a novel, discover new interests in a magazine, or find solace in poetry.
Until there is a cure or a vaccine, the coronavirus has to be controlled by social measures. The muscles uniquely worked by culture – those of empathy and understanding – are the ones we will rely on. They’re the ones that will give us the resilience to continue disrupting our lives for the benefit of people we may never meet.
Yet in the very moment when we need artists most, they are facing an existential threat. With music venues, theatres and cinemas closed, events cancelled, and everyone advised against gathering in any numbers, the money going to performers, writers and other artists is drastically reduced. The vast majority of artists are freelancers, so lost work means no income. The arts and cultural sector is difficult, underpaid and highly competitive at the best of times, so few creatives have a cushion to keep them going.
As I write, the government response has been adding to the pressure. By advising people not to go to theatres, clubs or pubs – but stopping short of ordering closures – Boris Johnson has left cultural venues, as well as the hospitality sector as a whole, in limbo. Many have already deemed it the right thing to do to shut, but without an official order, even the best insurance is unlikely to cover them.
In the immediate instance, anyone who is suddenly without income must be helped. With foodbanks on the rise, it’s been clear for some time that our safety nets are not good enough. This crisis is going to throw a sharper light on their inadequacies. We must use this as an inflection point to improve how we treat people when they fall on hard times.
Looking further ahead, we must redouble our backing for the arts and artists. Art is how we understand and improve ourselves. Culture is the basis of our civilisation, as well as a source of joy and transcendence.
If you’re able, think about how you might support the creatives that mean something to you. Pre-order that book you fancy reading. Check out the Patreon of your favourite comedian or writer. Buy a record rather than streaming it. Get yourself a magazine subscription. Look into whether you can support your local venue by buying vouchers for a later date.
Above all, keep speaking up for the value of culture in the face of overwhelming pressure to think only about bare practicalities.
The arts can save us, but first, we have to save the arts. Because survival is insufficient.