Why Make Art When the World is Burning?

This pandemic is the golden age of memes

When the world is on fire and everything is going wrong, we make memes and share them on the internet. Memes aren’t high art, but they’re a great coping mechanism.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, memes have absolutely exploded. They’ve helped us gain a sense of levity about the situation.

The most recent one that has caught my eye popped up about 7 times in 24 hours early last week on my Facebook feed. Several artists I know who aren’t connected to each other shared the meme below. It shows the world on fire with a photo of Will Ferrell, representing artists, his hands cupped around his mouth, yelling, “ANYONE WANT TO BUY A PAINTING?”

caption: THE WORLD RIGHT NOW - picture of a burning city
caption: ARTISTS: ANYONE WANT TO BUY A PAINTING? - comic actor Will Ferrell cupping his hands around his mouth, yelling.

Art imitates life, or life imitates art?

This pandemic underscores what many of the rest of us — mostly artists — have been aware of for a very long time:

  • Productively working from home is possible. Freelancers of all kinds have worked from home for decades.
  • Racial injustice has been a problem for generations, but it has been swept aside. Now we all see what “other people” have experienced for so long. (I think the pandemic has made the awareness of racial injustice all the more obvious.)
  • The choice between keeping a job and childcare is really hard, and it’s getting even harder now that schools are (sort of) reopening and working from home while managing your kids’ education is harder than it was before. How many artists do you know who try to squeeze in a little bit of work while the kids are napping?
  • The world is on fire, and everyone is trying to just make a living. Artists have always hustled to make a living despite everything that is going on in the world. People are scrambling to pay the bills, and artists are no different.

Billy Joel was right: the fire has been burning since the beginning

Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire (Official Video)

Artists will keep making art, no matter what happens. Art doesn’t get put on hold just because it is not considered “essential.” And often, artists keep making art because of what is happening. A lot of art is a direct response to what is happening in the world.

Why make art when the world is burning?

A couple of years ago I came across an article by Lee Camp, who cites a book called My Bright Abyss, where poet Christian Wiman deals with a cancer diagnosis, asking, “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?”

The short version is that poetry, and all art-making, really, is part of what makes us human.

Art is essential to our humanity.

Creating is one of the ways we grapple with our world. It’s how we understand reality and parse it and make sense of it. We make paintings, we write books, we sing songs, we write poetry, we tell jokes, we share silly memes. We capture the world and transform it and express it and share it.

Sometimes we create things to escape the world, or to retreat into a place in our minds and hearts that is better than what we are currently facing, but it always comes back to our connection to the outside world.

Art keeps us connected to each other

Why make art? It keeps us connected. Photo: Abstract painting of gold and white interconnecting loops, showing how everything is connected.

Everything is Connected, 2016. acrylic on canvas, 8×8 inches. Buy here.

Art reminds us we are all connected. There’s a common thread between our various experiences and so many aspects of our society, from politics to religion to philosophy to history. Art touches all of those things, and by extension, all of us. When we look at art, we see that others have similar experiences. Sometimes the art is the experience. And when art is the shared experience, we have even more in common.

I can’t say it’s been easy to keep creating in this weird time

It’s been incredibly hard. My energy has been depleted more than once, and I’ve felt all the emotions (sometimes all at once.) But I think I really have no choice but to make art, especially since it is such a spiritual thing for me.

When the world is burning, art is absolutely necessary

I love how Lee Camp says that “precisely because the world is burning is there so much art to be done, so much poetry to be written and so many songs to sing.”

Art, as “inessential” as it is, becomes the most necessary thing there is.

I’ll close this with a quote from Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.