Not too long ago, I had a clearer picture of what I wanted to talk about: my passions for travel, photography, for exploring new cultures while working remotely and living a creative life… but over the last four months I have found myself, like others, morphing into the role of an expert armchair scientist, politician, psychologist, sociologist, public health official... It’s not an exaggeration to say we are living in an age where where everyone of us is a news reporter, photojournalist, or political pundit.
The minute-by-minute urge to join the many arguments raging online, to raise the flag and to chime in on the issues of the day is overwhelming. We all want to act, in a world that offers little room to act. We all want to add our own rational voice to the conversation, to help humanity manoeuvre through this terrible pandemic or rebalance the great social injustices we witness online every day - as amplified with cruel clarity by recent events in Minnesota. While we are still living in a democracy, it feels like an obligation to offer our opinions, to ruminate, to stay up late into the evening transfixed on twitter feeds about race riots or the latest outrageous ejaculations from the thumbs of the American President.
But it’s also exhausting. Especially when so many of these events fall beyond the scope of any meaningful impact we can hope to make. As I sit hidden away on a tiny island bubble, it’s a struggle to find much to offer that doesn’t feel like trite observations from the peanut gallery. It brings to mind the story of Sergei Krikalev, the Russian cosmonaut who was stranded in space for nearly a year aboard the Mir space station while the Soviet Union collapsed 358km below him. I wonder what went through his mind each time his craft drifted high above the Baltic Sea, and what opinions he may have formed about the fall of communism.
My sense of contribution is further complicated, I suspect, by something I share with other artists and creatives. While many of us may see our roles as recorders or commentators about our world we inhabit, we are not traditional reporters or journalists. We have have another job to do; one that maybe considered a little trivial when placed against the backdrop of a global crisis. The job description is admittedly, nebulous, and one that every artist is constantly in the process of re-writing for themselves: create things that didn’t exist before, find beauty in the world, study the light dancing of the surface of a calm ocean and notice how the colours behave, and so on. Or, as the producer and musician Brian Eno once described it: create the things that serve no purpose.
Whatever the role of the creative is, surely it must involve something more than just joining in the chorus. It must involve some attempt to at least find the harmonies, the counter points, or to find another tune altogether.
But I wonder if there a time for such concerns given all that is going on in the world today? As Bono sang in the song Miss Sarajevo, in the wake of the Bosnian war: Is there a time for beauty queens‘?
Does anyone currently need a post about the fortress walls of ancient city, or a funny picture of a dog happily perched upon pretty girl floating along the edges of a salty Mediterranean shoreline, when back in the real world it appears western democracy is stumbling blindly through the darkness towards the edge of a cliff? Surely there are political posts to write, social comments to make, actions to be taken, wrongs to be put right? Am I, as an artist, blissfully painting cherubs on the ceilings of The Palace of Versailles as the revolution looms?
It occurs to me however that revolutions, like viruses, are often blind and indiscriminate and that the act of producing art, good or bad, is in itself of an act of rebellion, something to be embraced as an antidote to all the ugly static and noise that permeates the collective experience. Maybe it’s the least important thing to do; maybe it is the most important thing there is.
I think the refusal to stop attempting to create and produce beauty is one of the strongest defences against both adversity and autocracy, because beyond the truncheons and the tear gas and guns, one of the most effective weapons of the tyrant is their ability to gain and maintain the continual hyper-focus gaze of the people, so it becomes less about the rights or wrongs of what they do, and more about whether we are watching them. It’s about ensuring they have our complete and undivided attention. The American President’s late night baby tweets have much in common with giant portraits of Kim Jong Un being paraded in front of enormous crowds in North Korea. All eyes on the must remain fixed on the figurehead. We are either bowed down in messianic devotion or contorting ourselves with angry social media posts, but either way, we are entranced.
But best way to reveal the secret behind a magic trick is to not be paying attention to the magician.
I’m not advocating that just because we are creatives we should become indifferent, or that art doesn’t have a role to play in politics. I’m just reminding myself that it’s ok, even beneficial at times to allow ourselves to step back, disengage, to rest our minds and allow ourselves to recharge the batteries and take in some of the beauty around us. We can, and should, still have our opinions, but when not succumb to hate and anger about world events over which I have little influence - something I have admittedly struggled with even while sheltered, for a time at least, outside the clutches of the pandemic and the dangers of civil unrest. I am going to try to do better from now on; I’m going to spend a little less late night trawling news feeds and a little more time trying to create beautiful things.
I realize this is easier said than done, and it is an irony that this global time-out has offered many of us more downtime that we should be able to use productively, an opportunity to finally get on with writing that great novel we all talked about, while at the same time putting up so many obstacles to taking advantage of it. It seems like a vacation, and yet it’s nothing like a vacation. If you are like me you may have found there are still a myriad of chores and tasks to get on with. Life hasn’t stopped, it has just moved indoors for a while. Even beyond our global concerns, many of us worry about our relatives, friends and colleagues who are vulnerable. Families pushed into close quarters feel the strain on their relationships; every day our children remind us of our failings to be the perfect parents, mentors, role models and friends. We are surprised to find previously light-hearted work and personal associations become weirdly intense when brought into the realm of daily face-to-face zoom calls and instant-messaging threads. Our lives now seem in some ways less private, with an increase in forms of communication that once more persistent while at the same time devoid of the countless physical and emotional subtleties that form the way we meaningfully bond as humans.
It’s also hard to find the time to remain creative and productive when we feel constantly in a code red situation. In the UK, the government appears to be in great pains to remind its population that they should remain alert, reinforcing this message with posters more suited to five lane-highways than social media. We all are continually bombarded with stories reminding us to be afraid, be vigilant, be prepared to react, to remain balanced on a knife edge.
I think one thing we can do in response to all this is to take time out on a daily basis to forgive ourselves, and to acknowledge and even to be ok with the reality that most of our outrage and our need for moral superiority ultimately is going to amount to little more than screaming into a hurricane. Not that it should stop us from responding to the crimes and injustices that we witness first-hand, but it should allow us to do so in a more calmly dethatched way. The fact is no one planned for there to be great pandemic, it just happened. It’s funny that seems to be an outrageous thing to say given how focussed we have all become on how this country is doing better than that country in containing the virus, or how this leader is doing better job than that one at guiding us through it all. The truth is we aren’t on all the collective naughty step. Yes, the human race has much to address if we wish to secure our own survival, but as much as it may suit our respective narratives, we didn’t all do something which caused us to deserve this global punishment. This one just happened.
We are all feeling a lot of anger and frustration, and with good reason. But I think it is important to reflect - as the mantra goes - on the things we can change, and the things we can’t, and the courage to know the difference.
For myself, one thing I can do is focus on getting back to work. To do my bit, as trivial as that may be, making pretty pictures or jotting down my thoughts what it is like to spend my first leg of the pandemic on a crazy little island nestled between Europe and Africa.
So on that note, how is Malta you ask? Well, it’s very nice actually. Super friendly people, great food, crazy drivers. I’ll tell you what, look out for my next post where I plan on sharing more about that. In the meantime: take a break, make art, heal.