It’s a common refrain when devastating things happen: Creativity will thrive in these conditions. I’ve seen it said in recent days as tours are canceled, TV and film production is postponed and creatives are forced into self-isolation because of the coronavirus.
Just think of all the great songs and books and screenplays that will come out of this.
There’s an expectation that, because artists are stuck at home, they will create amazing things. I understand wanting to find the silver lining in a terrible situation; it’s a natural coping mechanism. But it ignores how poorly designed our infrastructure is for supporting artists.
I am a co-founder of a record label and Talkhouse, a media outlet for musicians, actors and filmmakers, and have worked with creative people in nearly every imaginable capacity for the past 15 years. The last few weeks have been a waking nightmare for all of us. I’ve lain in bed thinking about our community. Not once have I thought, “These artists are going to make some great stuff!”
The observation that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” and “Macbeth” while in quarantine during a plague has frequently been touted as an example of creativity blossoming through crisis. But as Daniel Pollack-Pelzner noted recently in The Atlantic, “Shakespeare’s model provides little solace: Write while you wait out the closure; lean on wealthy patrons for bailouts; exploit your rivals’ demise.” The reality is that artists are losing so much right now, and they stand to lose even more. Many, if not most of them, do not have access to affordable health care. They live paycheck to paycheck.
Most musicians rely on a thriving live performance infrastructure — venues (which are laying off staff en masse as they close), tour managers, lighting crews, sound people, vendors. The shuttering of independent record stores will take a severe toll, and an increase in digital streaming volume (which isn’t borne out yet by current data; in fact, we’ve seen the opposite) won’t even begin to make up for the lost revenue from ticket and merchandise sales.
I cannot think of any other profession in which we expect people’s work output to be greater under worsening circumstances. No one says, “If we take away the majority of this general contractor’s income and damage the livelihoods of the skilled craftsmen that support them, that will inspire them to build a better quality home.” Working better under pressure might be possible for a student cramming for a midterm, but not so much when you have to write a hit song in order to put food in your children’s mouths.
We put a lot of pressure on creatives to make the things that make us feel better, and we sometimes forget they may be suffering, too. As my friend Katie Harkin, who plays with Sleater-Kinney and Courtney Barnett, said at a recent Talkhouse event: “There’s a myth that you metabolize pain into art and art into profit and profit into happiness.”
“That’s something that is just so damaging,” she added. This will be especially true throughout this crisis — artists will struggle to make art and make a profit in the coming months, and will not be made whole. Yes, people have been and will continue to turn to music, movies, theater and other entertainment for comfort. But too many people responsible for creating that content have been left in limbo for the foreseeable future, unsure of when and how their next paycheck will materialize.
This ultimately favors the most privileged artists among us. Shakespeare’s patrons were earls and high court officials. They kept him sheltered and fed and ultimately insulated from the horrors of the plague while the theaters were closed.
Perhaps there’s a more productive lesson to be taken from Shakespeare’s plague years: We need a better patronage system for artists. The website Patreon has emerged in recent years as a way for artists to have an ongoing creative dialogue with their fan base and to receive monthly subscription fees for the promise of a stream of exclusive content. Last week, Bandcamp, a platform that enables musicians to sell merchandise and music directly to fans, waived their commission from proceeds of music sales for a day. Billboard has assembled a list of resources for supporting music professionals in need during the pandemic.
Across the music industry, small and indie companies and individuals are trying to find ways to get artists paid for playing “virtual shows” live streamed from self-isolation. The only safety net is the one that we’re quickly trying to stitch together right at this moment.
There’s also a human element that dispels the “tragedy = great art” fallacy. As I write this, I’m getting worrisome texts and emails from friends, colleagues and loved ones. I’m pausing to look at Twitter every few minutes. I’m bombarded by news alerts, each more terrible than the previous. The notion that creativity can flourish in these circumstances is absurd.
Don’t feel pressure to make the next great work of art during this time — and resist the urge to put that pressure on anyone else. Take care of the artists who take care of you. We’ll need them to get through this.
Ian Wheeler (@PartisanIan) is the co-founder of Partisan Records and Talkhouse.