A Note for the Struggling Artist in light of COVID-19: 

As a member of the theatre arts community, I am constantly faced with the question, “What is art?” In fact, that is what my professor asked us on my first day of graduate school. People tend to quote Hamlet, to “hold a mirror up to nature,” and that may be true for some mediums, but not for all. “Art is whatever you want it to be,” is also a true declaration, but seemingly too broad for my taste. Attempting to answer this prompt, it is incredibly easy to get pulled into the defensive position and to philosophize a well-orchestrated statement that satisfies every sense of the word.

 

With the COVID-19 pandemic (and it is a pattern in the history of global crises), artists are facing the threat that art is not essential. We are forced to come to the defense, and the previous sentiments that answer, “What is art?” do a poor job of justifying just what it is we do, because this time our livelihoods, including those of non-artists, are at stake. 

 

Before the pandemic, I studied in London in my final year of graduate school. I spent a few days under the tutelage of Patsy Rodenburg, for which in many ways I am grateful. One of the first things I heard her say, and with such piercing clarity, was, “Art is to comfort the discomforted, and to discomfort the comfortable.” I scribbled it down quickly so as not to forget it, but I have never needed to look at my notes to remember it. I believe I have not forgotten it because it has a universal resonance, showing both sides of the coin.

 

The weight of this definition has proven true all year long.  People have turned to writing, Zoom play-readings, Zoom play-productions, Zoom films, binging Netflix and HBO series etc— all to process their experiences when it comes either to the current global crisis, or to this momentous pulse in the Civil Rights Movement in an election year. The hope that I lost in March (and over and over again as each month passes and I am not working as an actor), is rekindled with the knowledge that Art will find a way, because we will always have an obstacle to overcome, and we will always need a shoulder to cry on. There is tremendous power in having the space to be seen, to having our truth witnessed.

 

It is our duty now to cultivate the arts and education through the arts. Together we can bring hope to those who have experienced different kinds of loss and pain, and we can shake the Earth under the feet of those who have gotten too comfortable to notice. 

 

So, with all this in mind, the question for me this year is not, “What is Art?” but,

 “What the heck would we do without Art?”

Stay in Your Magic, dear artist.

Jillian

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