It is a truth universally acknowledged that David Bowie’s death in January 2016 was a harbinger for a year of dismay. I won’t provide the litany of gruesome and seemingly hopeless events that have occurred around the world since January—suffice it to say that things these days seem bad. Pretty much everywhere.
In light of recent events—and as I sit idly by, dreading the next disheartening disaster—I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of being an artist in these troubling times.
I work a day job in Social Services, and I guess objectively I should feel good about being a civil servant. There is little beauty in the profession, but it is ultimately a good profession very directly aimed at helping other human beings. But on a personal level, I don’t know that it is the best use of my goodness and the skills I need to share with the rest of the world.
Then I wonder, is it shameful to long to be on stage instead of in this desk chair? Is it shallow, less productive in some way, to wish to sing? Or write something other than Case Conference minutes? Or to want to make people laugh? And especially to wish to do these—dare I say frivolous—things amidst the crumbling edifice of our current world?
At 18 years old, I left the nest and went off to an Acting Conservatory in Boston. I had always felt it was important that I became a professional actor but the reasons for this feeling were ineffable—I had never really thought about why it was so important. Then I remember sitting in a circle on the studio floor with a class of fellow actors discussing our duty to produce and share art with the world. America had recently been thrust into of a new phase of war that seemed to us terrible, and we were all searching for a feeling of relevance and worth. Over the course of the conversation, a rallying force seemed to take hold of the young group of artists and I remember suddenly feeling very powerful and valuable. I felt proud to be an actor and glad to be a part of something that seemed imperative. We felt it was our societal obligation to create theatre.
I’ve been thinking about this discussion lately and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Percy B. Shelley’s essay ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821). Shelley argues that poets (and here I insert ‘artists’) serve as barometers of moral goodness and bear the responsibility of harnessing and rendering human ‘imagination’ tangible. In Shelley’s reasoning, art is more than just a pleasant distraction during hard times; beyond that, in his eyes poets have the ability to change and elevate the moral fabric of society. It’s a very idealistic essay, but I find it both stirring and important.
Now more than ever, I feel it is essential to ‘[lift] the veil from the hidden beauty of the world’. As hopeless as it sometimes feels, I think it is necessary for us artists to continue contributing our gifts and raising our voices, ‘creat[ing] anew the universe, after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration’.
Shelley explains, ‘The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own’. How crucial is the revelation of the collective human spirit in these trying times? How crucial is the nurturing of love and beauty in a world that appears so ugly on the surface? How much do we need art to ‘[redeem] from decay the visitations of the divinity in man’?
Badly. We need it badly.
So I’m going to borrow Shelley’s battle cry in the hope that it inspires and drives us to go out and change the world the only way we know how:
Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
This is why I write. This is why I sing. This is why I act.
Artists, we are important, we are essential, and we are powerful. Take heart, feel your own value, and share your talent with the world.