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18 May 2020

What are the arts bringing to humanity right now?

By Kate Powell, cultural critic columnist
Image: Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 1919, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.

The arts are not bringing anything new to humanity right now.

Regardless of medium, creators are still using art as a platform to express our idiosyncrasies, celebrate our commonalities, to question the status quo, to reminisce on a bygone era, to herald a revolution, to comfort or disturb depending on who the artist is speaking to.

The arts are not bringing anything new to humanity right now.

Rather, humanity is bringing the impact of an almost world wide pause to the arts.

The benefits the arts bring to the physical and psychological well being of individuals and communities is becoming increasingly well documented:

A recent study by Arts and Minds, a leading Arts and Mental Health charity in the United Kingdom found that participants who undertook art therapy found a 71% decrease in feelings of anxiety and a 73% fall in depression; 76% of participants said their wellbeing increased and 69% felt more socially included. Studies have also shown that the act of creation can lend itself to lowered blood pressure, increased immunity, chronic pain management and slow cognitive decline. On a communal level, the arts strengthens a sense of identity and celebrates the differences that make up a collective whole.

Despite the importance of the arts, those within its ecology have been struggling to make ends meet for years. 2019 saw Creative New Zealand release A Profile of Creative Professions, the first survey of its kind in two decades. Of the 1,500 people surveyed across Aotearoa, the average wage was $35,800 p.a, compared to $51,800 p.a for all New Zealanders. When you took away supplementary income, the median income from creative work was $15,000. Just 23% of respondents felt that they were living comfortably.

It doesn’t add up.

Perhaps this is because in a pre-COVID world, art was undervalued by a culture that put productivity and the ability to make a profit on a pedestal. Regardless of the intent or the medium, the arts struggled to be seen as anything other than a luxurious extra, a frippery to wile away an evening that rarely made dollars or sense to those holding the purse strings.

It has taken a pandemic for us to pause. For us to realise the depth and breadth of what art already brings to humanity and question the structures that have kept it on the societal backburner.

While we have been in lockdown, Netflix series, books, albums, live streaming of opera have all allowed us freedom of movement in fictional worlds in a way that was impossible in our real one. While art continues to fulfil all of the aforementioned intents in an embattled world, it also opens the door into a world where anything feels possible – a notion that perhaps feels like the real work of fiction right now.

In a pre-COVID world, artists found themselves contorting their creations into business models. When the Sisyphean need for relentlessly profitable productivity was paused for many, we as a collective discovered our creativity – Banana bread, singing to our neighbours, dance parties in our kitchens, diving into the costume box on formal Fridays. The boundaries of what it meant to be ‘productive’ became elastic. We became producers and consumers of art who valued the emotional impact of an artistic endeavour over profit.

But this isn’t the first pandemic the world has seen.

In 1918, blood red poppies bloomed in battlefields across Europe in the wake of World War I. Political unrest began to stir as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire saw the rise of Communism. Frustrations around income and gender inequalities had reached breaking point.

Then came the Spanish Flu.

As it swept around the world, many artists felt that it only added to the absurdly hopeless situation society found itself in. This spiralling sense of chaos meant that everyday life as they knew it felt ridiculous. Arts movements borne out of that moment explored this sense of collective hopelessness, using it to document how people were coping and presenting ways to move forward.

The Dada art movement* embraced the absurdity of the situation. They held the existing societal structures, government and morals as responsible for this ridiculous predicament called existence.

Their response was to rip everything up and start again (literally). They created a whole new form of art – collage. By cutting and reassembling mass media – magazines, newspapers, posters ripped off the street – artists were attempting to process the horrors of war while imagining an alternate reality.

Within the world of Dada, God had fallen from grace but they graciously depicted him as an Sbend. Fine art could be a urinal, signed, dated and put on a pedestal in a gallery. Art was a joke, art was meaningless, art meant everything, art meant nothing.

Given when Dada was active, the nihilism that underpinned much of their output is understandable. But if you pause and peel back a few layers of debris, you will find an idealistic spirit at the heart of this movement. One that called for revolution, to shatter the status quo and create a whole new world.

Like the Spanish Flu, COVID-19 will be a zeitgeist. It is flourishing in a world led by a sentient Dorito and a limp crumpet. A world that up until two months ago was literally on fire due to capitalist greed and global warming. Furthermore, COVID-19 is not a leveling crisis. It has not impacted everyone in the same way. Inequalities have been exposed rather than caused by it.

While it remains to be seen how COVID-19 will impact our artistic output in years to come, we are already seeing some shifts. Solitary walks mean that people are beginning to discover the melancholic beauty of empty metropolises. We are connecting people via their collective loneliness.

Despite Dada’s intentions, the world still found its way back to a version of the status quo. Over 100 years since its inception, we once again find ourselves with the opportunity to rebuild our world. Because the systems that propped up our sense of normalcy are fundamentally broken.

So let’s not waste it by “going back to normal.” Because that is too easy and has proven to be damaging.

In order for humanity to continue to benefit from what art gives us, we need to keep what the pandemic reminded us of – namely ‘how’ and ‘why’ consuming and producing art is important -at the forefront of our collective and individual minds as we move forward into this brave new world.

Capitalist structures that cram creativity into business models have an opportunity to be broken down. There is a chance to explore new ways to measure the significance of a work – for example, how it impacts or inspires an audience focus group rather than solely focusing on profits or the need to fulfil a quota.

We have the opportunity to make boardroom meetings more diverse, with decisions being made about the future of creativity by those who help to shape or support the notion of it. Because their day to day lives will be most impacted. To tear down power structures that benefit the few and rebuild them to benefit all. Because a truly diverse arts sector is strong and adaptive in uncertain times and gives space for the myriad of stories that make up our world.

The lockdown period has been a boon for accessibility in the arts, with technology allowing new audiences to access performances or exhibitions that might otherwise be out of reach for them physically, geographically, financially. While for many arts practitioners and organisations this isn’t sustainable long term, it would be good to see a version of this moving forward – for example, a free live stream of a full dress rehearsal of an opera, or a play. An artist or curator can do an Instagram Live walk through of an exhibition.

At the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared that “the arts should be at the centre of our revitalisation.”

But in order for this sentiment to be more than lip service there needs to be a coherent vision that supports a considerable investment in all levels of Aotearoa’s artistic ecology. It’s been a real shame that our major media outlets have failed to focus on the value art is bringing to society. (Perhaps they were concerned it would cut into another hastily cobbled together piece about the Warrior’s flight to Australia). Now is the time to bring the arts out of the sidelines and into the mainstream, into our media, into our classrooms, into parliament.

Given the importance the arts have always brought to humanity, it is a crime we have allowed those who have chosen to make it their lives, work to struggle for so long. In the wake of this pandemic, we have the chance to make a lasting change; because centralising art in society ultimately benefits us all. But in order to achieve this, we must first make uncomfortable decisions that challenge the cornerstones of a pre-COVID world.

Like the Dadaists, we need to look at what is broken or no longer beneficial with a critical eye. To find the opportunities to add, subtract and refashion our foundations on which we rebuild with the view to create sustainable change.


Notes: *Dada was a European avant-garde art movement that began around 1915 and ended in the mid 1920s. Its main centres included Zurich, Paris and New York. It spanned literature, visual, sound and performance art and is accredited with developing collage, the cut up technique, assemblage and readymades. They rejected then-modern capitalism, religion and aesthetics. Their works embraced the ridiculous and irrational and had a strong anti-bourgeois, anti-war, anti-violence and anti-nationalistic messages. Politically, they were considered the radical far left.

One of its key figures, Marcel Duchamp is considered one of the founding fathers of modern art. The ethos and techniques developed by the Dada movement helped inform Surrealism, Assemblage Art, Pop Art and Conceptual art.

Writer Bio: Kate is a cultural critic columnist, curator and gallery essayist. Over the last seven years, her work has been published in the Waikato Times, New Zealand Herald, Rip It Up magazine, Audioculture and Webbs Auction House to name but a few. Currently, Kate is a regular contributor to The Big Idea. She has also held a variety of community-art focussed roles as a social media strategist, artist liaison, artistic director, and publicist.

Kate has studied at the Sotheby’s Institute (London), Victoria University (Wellington) and AUT (Auckland). She currently works in Public Relations and Communications. Kate Powell. Please use Photo credit: Reuben Raj for both

Facebook: @katepowellwriter
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