We’ve spent years watching the end of the world on our movie screens: asteroids, aliens, nuclear explosions, and yes, global pandemic. It’s hard not to conjure Stephen King’s book, The Stand, as we live through these historic times most of us didn’t sign up for. But history isn’t going to spare our feelings: It’s going to sweep us along, willingly or not, and as it does, the job of the artist is to bear witness.
What were you doing seven weeks ago? I would have said things were normal then, but they weren’t.
What are you doing now? Are you social distancing to keep others safe? If you’re a creative, a writer, poet, photographer, songwriter, or painter, whatever your medium, you can use it now to record the events of the pandemic.
Many people are suffering terribly right now, and understandably not everyone has space in this situation to create, but if you can, documenting facts now can help us remember what normal means when we create a better future.
In this strange moment of pause between the pre and post-pandemic worlds, notions of normal are changing rapidly, even as we hear a lot about getting back normal as soon as possible.
But what does getting back to normal mean?
A return to the pre-pandemic normal is a return to the very conditions that created the pandemic. Predatory capitalism and constant assault on the environment were never normal. An unsustainable civilization out of balance with nature created a time of suffering for many, profit for a very few, and the conditions that created the pandemic.
Very few people will benefit from a return to the old normal, nor will the natural world. We’d probably just set ourselves up for another pandemic as we perpetuate the systemic problems that got us here, to begin with.
We can’t go back to the old normal if we want to survive in the long term.
Today, the pause between that old normal and the new normal we need to build is notable for the chaos and lack of preparation evident now in the US and the UK.
This is what artists need to record so we can remember what not to repeat:
The inability to provide basic supplies for medics and the inability of US citizens to access health care in a first world country. Mass graves in New York, a world in shut down, and the resulting unemployment and impoverishment of thousands with no safety net. National budgets that starve the arts, and the rolling back of environmental protections.
In the strangest way, we have been given a beautiful gift in this pause.
In this pause, we can imagine a different post-pandemic world, and artists need to record that, too:
Nature healing itself. While COVID 19 patients struggle to breathe, the planet is taking a deep breath. The air fresh and clean, the pollution clearing. It is quieter than it has been in living memory. We have been given the time to reflect, the time to see what a slower, homebound, quiet life is like. Time to question the rat race paradigm we have been exhausted by and destroyed nature persuing. Time to question the structures that fail the most vulnerable over and over again.
The pause will end.
We will need to come out of our houses eventually. We will return to the streets, and the cafes, we will hug our loved ones and we will appreciate them all the more. And when we do, we need to remember and reconsider the nature of normalcy.
We will need to remember the artistic record.
Because if we do, we can make the post-pandemic time our best time yet.
We can get rid of the things that aren’t serving us — the inequality, dysfunctional government, the lack of sustainable societies — and we can replace them with the opposite.
Equitable, fair, and sustainable lives for people and the planet.
This time of pause is a bridge to the post-pandemic world. We are on the bridge now. Artistic documentation can help us remember the reality of the pre-pandemic world, and the dysfunction of the pandemic so we can build something new and better.
If you’re an artist, write it, sing it, photograph it, paint it, record it, and share it.
In Europe, the Black Death led to the Renaissance. With any luck and a lot of hope, we are consciously planting the seeds now for the next rebirth.