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The swathe that Covid has cut through the arts


LISTEN to politicians and commentators on radio and TV and read the daily newspapers and it’s clear, in addition to our health, Covid-19’s economic and financial impact are centre stage. Although rarely mentioned, equally important is the impact of the pandemic on the arts.

As a result of the lockdown musicians, writers, dancers, performers, actors and actresses are no longer able to appear live, companies have been bankrupted and nearly a year’s worth of events and productions cancelled. 

Music, dance, drama and literature are critical to our culture. Without them society becomes sterile and impoverished, and individuals are denied the emotional, spiritual and aesthetic experiences vitally important to live a meaningful, enriching and fulfilling life.

As an example of the life-affirming impact of the arts the Australian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans in his 1996 Boyer Lectures describes the experience of the author Primo Levi imprisoned by the Nazis in one of their death camps.

Despite being starved, brutalised and surrounded by death, Levi recounts reciting the lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy to another prisoner. Lines that sounded like ‘the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God’ and that united and strengthened their common humanity. Years later Levi wrote: ‘Culture was important to me, and perhaps it saved me.’

Ryckmans also details the experience of a Chinese scholar imprisoned for 30 years during Mao’s oppressive and totalitarian regime. The scholar Wu Ningkun taught literature and while in prison survived by reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tang dynasty poetry.

In both cases, as observed by Ryckmans, to be able to deal with such demoralising and life-threatening conditions ‘physical resilience alone was not enough to stay alive – one needed spiritual strength’.

While nowhere near as terrifying or brutal as the conditions suffered by those in Hitler’s concentration camps and Mao’s prisons, it is increasingly obvious that many in the West, especially the young, are also suffering as measured by rates of despondency, depression, self-harm and suicide.

What’s to be done? As stated in the Bible, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’. To be human is to thirst for a more spiritual and transcendent sense of life, one increasingly absent in this materialistic, self-serving world consumed by transitory and ephemeral appetites and pleasures.

By disrupting work cycles, the daily routine and how we interact and live our lives, the pandemic has stripped away the veneer of contemporary society, revealing a hollow and superficial existence where many are now struggling to find a deeper and more lasting sense of existence.

This is what art at its best and most enduring and sublime offers. D H Lawrence, when detailing the importance of art, writes: ‘The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his circumambient universe at the living moment.’

When reading a novel, listening to a Bach concerto, admiring Monet’s Water Lilies or watching the ballet Swan Lake, one is transported to a world far removed from the harshness and practicalities of everyday existence. 

Watching ballet dancers move with consummate ease and grace in tune with the music enthrals and transports one to a world that refreshes and enlivens. Listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending also refreshes one’s soul and renews one’s sense of living.

In his poem Four Quartets T S Eliot describes this experience as ‘the still point’. A time when there is a sense of grace and an ‘inner freedom from the practical desire’. Prayer, chanting and meditation offer a similar experience.

Art also holds a mirror to society by exploring and bringing to the fore vital issues and debates. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible reveals in a striking and dramatic way the destructive influence of mindless group hysteria.

George Orwell’s 1984 vividly portrays how totalitarian dictatorships are able to subjugate citizens by controlling language and enforcing group think and mind control. Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago provides a detailed and comprehensive account of the brutality and ruthlessness of communist-led Soviet Russia.

Every day the media is awash with statistics about Covid-19 detailing how many are infected, in hospital and have died. Politicians and commentators consistently stress the economic and financial damage being caused and how we are facing ever-mounting public debt.

Ignored for far too long is the impact of the virus on the arts and the reality that so many gifted, creative and talented people are denied a living. Also ignored is that a society bereft of the arts denies its citizens what is most beneficial in these times of despondency and gloom.

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Dr Kevin Donnelly
Dr Kevin Donnelly
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s PM Glynn Institute and a conservative author and commentator.

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