Why Arts Are Important in Our Lives
As we have moved to Level 3 lockdown, some more elements of what used to be our normality are coming back into place.
I see this very clearly in the centre of Durban, where I am.
Most shops are now open, many more people are able to work, our streets have definitely started getting busier again—though the level of social distancing is very inconsistent.
But there are three important aspects of city life that are still missing—our religious celebrations, our sporting events and our artistic gatherings.
All of these are traditionally premised on the ability of large groups of people to come together and share an experience: and that is the one thing that we do not want to encourage.
So our churches, mosques and temples are still mostly empty or have chosen to stay closed despite the permissions that have been given; our stadia are completely empty; and our theatres, music venues and art galleries will remain shut.
I am especially anxious at the moment about the state of the arts and of artists.
One of the upsides of lockdown, for those who have good WiFi connection, has been the profusion of free high-class artistic performances available on the internet.
I am pleased that I have been able to find the time to enjoy theatre from London’s West End and opera from New York, though I have not yet had that free afternoon to do a virtual tour of the Prado or the Louvre.
In these ways, I can still be nourished with the words, music and images of artistic visionaries.
Missing the joy of the arts But I do miss the joy of our local arts scene.
Here in Durban, we would, by now, be in the middle of a KZN Philharmonic Orchestra season; various dance and theatre groups would have been lighting up the stage at one or other of our theatres; our galleries should have been filled with fascinating and provocative exhibitions, together with crowds of art lovers to appreciate them.
The arts are a critical part of what gives a city life.
Creators and performers can draw on the multiplicity of cultural and religious threads that make up our history and, from those, weave productions that are a unique statement of who we are as a nation.
It is frustrating for all us during lockdown.
But imagine if you were an actor or a dancer or a musician whose very lifeblood comes from collaborating with others to produce something beautiful.
Many of us reading this (myself included) are regulars in choirs, and so we have some small insight into this sense of loss.
Yes, I can sing at home, or I can even try and team up with an on-line choir; but for the performer it is a pale imitation of the usual pleasure of artistic interaction.
It will be some months probably before we can return to church choirs, or indeed any form of public performance.
The sung Mass that we had planned with all the Catholic Junior Schools to celebrate Mary during her month will have to wait for another May.
My annual pilgrimage to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown/Makhanda will have to be a journey to the website instead.
My interaction with Durban musicians who make my life so rich will have stay as a nod when I pass them cycling on the beachfront.
Though I must thank them for the attenuated pleasure they have given through on-line benefit concerts they have organised for the Denis Hurley Centre (DHC).
Art needed now more than ever But it is important that we hold on to the idea of a return to live performance.
The arts help us make sense of our world; we will need that more than ever in 2020.
Sometimes they do so by giving us a chance to escape to another world; sometimes they help us bring together complexities of competing ideas; sometimes they help us access the emotional resources that we need when we cannot comprehend a situation by reason alone; sometimes they help us imagine new possibilities and collectively create a vision of what could be.
Again, this year more than any other we will need those elements as we rebuild our world.
In the meantime, we can get some comfort and sustenance from on-line arts.
An unexpected example of that has emerged at the Denis Hurley Centre: some of the homeless men in residence here worked together to produce a short film expressing their worries and hopes.
While assisted by professional videographer Michael James, they personally took responsibility themselves for the script, the acting and the directing.
The result is No Kings of the Street, which reflects their very personal stories of dealing with drugs and with drug dealers.
This is now available on the DHC’s Facebook page.
Let me encourage you not only to enjoy the vast offerings of the world wide web but also to seek out local ones.
Many of our South African venues are offering on-line video performances.
And if they ask for a small contribution, please don’t shy away: that way you can feed your soul but also (literally) help feed the artists that have created them.
It is critical that our artists, and the people who enable them, survive economically.
We need to make sure that they are still there to serve us, inspire us, entertain us and challenge us with the creativity and vision that we will be seeking for life after lockdown.