The Case for Art in a Crisis
I can’t remember a time when art seemed more crucial to our collective survival.
Right now, it’s one of the few things keeping people from going off the walls, as we are cooped up in our homes for an undetermined amount of time. We are watching movies and TV shows - sometimes even together. Groups of friends are using Netflix Party or scheduling group watches. Organizations are figuring out how to livestream their usual programming, like fiscally sponsored Brooklyn movie theater, Spectacle. We are watching DJs spin from their home studios. People are going on virtual museum tours, watching livestream operas, and plays. We’re watching Patrick Stewart read sonnets.
Stuck at home, art is how we are passing the time. But more importantly, art is how we are staying connected to one another.
When we are able to tune into the same live arts programming, we feel more connected to one another. When we have similar points of reference or shared cultural experiences to talk about, we feel more connected. When we can point to a particular fictional character and identify with them, we are using art to help others understand where we’re at. And who knows? Maybe they’re in the same place.
There is space and need for all different kinds of art right now. People are reading books like Ling Ma's Severance to understand pandemics and late capitalism and Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell to see that throughout history, people orient themselves towards mutual aid in a crisis. People are watching Tiger King for the prurient pleasure of being engrossed in a parallel universe of crime, ego, and sardine oil.
We need art to help us figure out what this moment means. We also need creative work to provide a distraction or a balm for our frayed nerves. We all need different kinds of art at different moments. But the thing is, we need it.
Art is important in this crisis. And that means that artists are important in this crisis.
This isn’t to say that artists are the same as nurses, sanitation workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, or the other people whose day jobs are helping us survive this crisis. But it is to say that we hope that in this moment, you recognize that you aren’t expendable. Your work is important and needed. Art is one of the ways that we make sense of our lives. With our whole lives so up in the air, there’s a lot that we need help making sense of.
One thing that this pandemic is proving, in addition to how important art is to our daily lives, is that art should be more accessible. We’ve seen that people want to consume art that is sometimes thought of as elitist or rarified. Tens of thousands of people tuned in to the Met Opera’s livestreaming of Carmen, crashing the site. Creative disciplines that we’ve been taught are too niche for a mainstream audience turn out to be what a lot of people are looking for.
We hope that the popularity of the Met livestreams show that there is a market for “niche” art. Moreover, we hope that it shows institutions with the resources to make that art more widely available take note. Their potential audience is much larger than just wealthy folks based in urban centers.
This pandemic is also proving that artists should be paid for their work. So many of us are relying on books, podcasts, movies, tv shows, radio programs, and more to get us through the day. Because the work is pleasurable or satisfying for the creators, we still have the underlying societal expectation that they should do it for free, or we should get it for free. But ultimately if we’re going to keep getting art from people who aren’t independently wealthy, we’ll have to start shifting our cultural mentality around artists and money.
Independent artists will need serious financial support to recover from the financial losses they have suffered as a result of freelance jobs drying up, service industry work shutting down, and more.
Right now, it feels like there isn’t money for anything. There isn’t money to keep museum staff employed or money to keep independent theaters running. But that won’t always be the case.
There is increasingly aid coming to employers and to organizations. Aid is coming from the government, from banks, and from philanthropies. While there is need across industries and in many sectors, we hope that governments, banks, grants, and other philanthropists remember artists when they think about allocating support.
We’ve already seen it start to happen. Berlin has already started giving out up to $320 million is available for artists and freelancers.
Your work as an artist is important, but it isn’t required. You don’t need to be productive. You don’t need to have a self-isolation residency. We don’t want artists (or anyone!) to feel pressured to do anything beyond taking as good care of themselves and their community as possible. That is enough.
But if you are ready to get back to your creative practice, we want to affirm to you that making your art is an important way to spend your time and energy. If you want to share it, wonderful. But it is still important even if it’s just for your own pleasure or distraction. Art is a survival tool and right now we need all the tools we can get.
If you’re at a place where you are looking for financial support to make your work, we understand how challenging it can feel to ask for money right now. Why should someone donate to support your art when they could be donating to mutual aid funds or sending meals to emergency medical teams? How can you ask for money when record numbers of people have lost their jobs and aren’t sure how to pay rent?
These are real questions, but ultimately you don’t have control over how people decide to allocate their money. You can’t know what other people’s financial situations are like. But what you can do is remind people how crucial other people’s creative visions are to the day-to-day of self-isolation. If they are spending their time watching indie documentaries, shouldn’t they consider supporting that documentarian whose work is keeping them from feeling so bored, scared, and alone?
Further, there’s a real limit to how much we can do to support each other. Sending money to the individuals and organizations we care about is one of the few tools we have at our disposal right now. We can’t have big parties to raise our spirits or to fundraise. We can’t spend extra time visiting our elders. We can’t host potlucks for our friends and loved ones. We can’t buy a friend a drink at a bar or give them a hug if they lost their job. Any aid we can provide to one another has to be no-contact - dropping off food or medicine to neighbors whose face you never get to see.
All of the things we might ordinarily do to feel better, to feel connected, to feel useful in a crisis that will only exacerbate the crisis. People want to help, there just aren’t a lot of ways to do it. We can’t offer to help take tickets at the door to our friend’s poetry reading, but we can contribute to a fund so that when we can safely gather, that reading series still exists.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the help that you need. Don’t be afraid to make the case that art, like the work that you make, is what’s helping us all collectively cope as best as we can with this mix of anxiety, boredom, uncertainty, and claustrophobia. A handmade mug makes yet another coffee brewed at home feel a little more special and a drawing to hang on your wall brightens up a self-isolation apartment.
If you are in a place to create work and to ask for support, we’ve put together these fundraising templates to help you make the case for art in difficult times.
As an organization, Fractured Atlas is here for you. We will keep affirming that your work is valuable, that your self-care is paramount, and that whenever you are ready to be in your creative practice, we are here to help you with the tools you need to support it. And as a team made up of artists ourselves, we’re in it with you.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.