In a crisis, we need to see the bigger picture

Grayson Perry: The artist is missing the chance to dress as his alter ego, Claire (above). © Getty

Can the arts save your life? Books, films, music, and paintings are helping many people through the lockdown. But not everyone considers them essential, and artists are struggling to get by.

For one TV cameraman, it has proved the weirdest of assignments. He is living in a tent in the London garden of Britain’s most flamboyant artist, Grayson Perry, best known for avant-garde pottery and cross-dressing.

The TV company has even supplied him with a Portaloo for the month-long project. When filming is underway, the director has to shout directions at him through a window.

The programme, Grayson’s Art Club, is about encouraging people to be creative during the lockdown using whatever comes to hand – from bottle tops to magazines. Art, argues Perry, is a useful distraction in a crisis, but he also wants to explore “why we do art, and what we’re doing it about, and what that says about the times we’re living in”.

The lockdown has changed the way many people experience art, from Zoom book clubs to the streaming of plays from leading theatres.

It has also raised the question of how much we value art, with thousands of artists suddenly unemployed, and theatres and galleries haemorrhaging money while they stand empty.

One company, which owns six theatres, estimates that it is losing £150,000 a week. Britain’s most successful producer, Cameron Mackintosh, claims that the lockdown is costing him millions. Stephen Fry and Philip Pullman are among the signatories of an open letter asking the government to support artists financially during the crisis.

The government’s main focus is obviously on the victims of the pandemic and those who care for them. But it announced yesterday that cancer treatment and mental health were the NHS’s next priorities – and Grayson Perry believes his programme can make a vital contribution to mental health.

“We want fun, but we also want to concentrate on the more contemplative, serious aspects of what people are going through at the moment. I’m not going to pretend that it’s not upsetting.”

Art has had a significant role in other crises. In 1942, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony was played in the city by an orchestra of half-starved musicians and broadcast to the besieging German army. A German soldier later said that he and his comrades realised then that the Russians’ spirit could never be broken.

Can the arts save your life?

Art surgery

Some say, of course not. The arts are a luxury – even in normal times, many of us cannot afford to go to a concert or to the theatre. They are the last thing on people’s minds when they are feeling ill or hungry, and the last thing the government should be spending money on at a time of crisis. They are certainly not going to keep anyone out of a Covid-19 ward.

Others argue that the arts are the highest expression of our humanity, and can be relied upon to cheer us and console us in difficult times. Everyone knows what it is like to be uplifted by a beautiful picture, and there are numerous accounts of people being awoken from comas by a favourite piece of music, or helped through a depression by poetry. Without art, life would not be worth living.

You Decide

  1. What is the happiest song you know?
  2. Should the government pay artists a wage?

Activities

  1. Using pictures from old magazines, make a collage portrait of Grayson Perry.
  2. Write a one-act play set in a theatre which has been closed down.

Some People Say...

“Life is very pretty, but it has no shape. The object of art is precisely to give it some.”

Jean Anouilh (1910-1987), French playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Art therapy is increasingly recognised as an effective way of helping people cope with traumatic experiences. It is used by the NHS, social services, and prisons. One British charity, Art Refuge, has been working extensively with refugees and asylum seekers in Calais, and has now started a ‘Coronaquilt’ project, for which people around the world can make quilt squares to be stitched together when the crisis is over.
What do we not know?
When normal cultural activity will resume. London theatres are officially closed until the end of May, and New York theatres until June, but nobody expects them to reopen then. Andrew Lloyd Webber has postponed the opening of his new musical, Cinderella, until October. It has been suggested that social distancing could be used in theatres, but that would mean reducing audience sizes so much that it would be almost impossible to make money.

Word Watch

Avant-garde
Innovative or experimental. It is usually applied to art, but was originally a French military term for a small force sent ahead of the main army.
Zoom
Software platform that allows simple online meetings and gatherings.
Haemorrhaging
Losing a huge amount. In medicine, it refers to a severe loss of blood (“haima” is the Greek word for blood).
Cameron Mackintosh
The producer of hugely successful musicals, such as Cats, Les Misérables, and The Phantom of the Opera. He is thought to be worth more than £1 billion.
Stephen Fry
An English actor and writer whose recordings of the Harry Potter series are among the most popular audio books ever.
Philip Pullman
An English author (and former teacher) whose books include Northern Lights and The Amber Spyglass.
Signatories
People who have signed something. For example, there were 59 signatories to Charles I’s death warrant; eight were hung, drawn, and quartered after the restoration of the monarchy, while some (already dead) had their bodies dug up and their heads put on spikes.
Shostakovich’s
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was a Russian composer, who found fame with his first symphony when he was just 18. He loved soccer and was a qualified referee.
Leningrad
The name for St Petersburg, Russia’s second largest city, during the Communist era. The siege lasted for nearly two and a half years, during which time a third of the population died.

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