Navigating the Creative Minefield of Art During Uncertain Times

You’ve heard it before: “So much great art will come out of this!” 

The last time I read this was seriously during the last national tragedy — the conclusion of the 2016 presidential election to be exact. Now, amidst these unprecedented, trying times of a pandemic, we hear it again. 

“Make the most out of this time at home,” they say, as if a quarantine is one and the same as a writer’s retreat. I don’t want to hear another person tell me that this is the perfect time for me to finish my book, and before you tell any of your creative friends the same thing about their projects — don’t. While I may be the definition of the tortured artist, picking up my pen to soothe heartbreaks and ailing, even I find myself at a loss for … creativity, inspiration, the will and motivation to go on in such an uncertain world. Mass suffering, death and economic recession don’t exactly make for an ideal backdrop for creation. Plus, the pressure to create is even worse.

But this productivity-glorifying narrative, rooted in capitalist brainwashing, nonetheless still manages to get under my skin. Something about sitting around just doesn’t seem to sit right with me, so it got me thinking about the nature of art. Does it halt in the face of adversity? Never. To see how other creatives are coping in such a stressful time, I asked a number of my fellow artists, ranging in medium, how quarantine has been treating them and their work. 

“I’ve been definitely more stressed than creative, and have been watching TV shows and movies so much more than I usually do,” said second-year English major Dean Lorentz-Perrone. “I’ve been putting together a story that’s been inspired heavily by the coronavirus pandemic and takes place about a year in the future. For the rich material from which to write about, I’m glad, but I’m also incredibly unmotivated because of being forced to stay in my home all the time.”

Second-year graphic design major Dylan Jacobs has also been using this time to perfect his passion. “I’ve been stressed but also have more of a drive to hone my skills. I’ve been practicing in Illustrator a lot this past week,” he said.

So while the way that some of my friends are keeping busy — and keeping sane — is inspiring in its own right, I also wondered where the line sits between producing and using the means as a way to cope, or even to defeat boredom. 

“I never get bored because there’s always something for me to do, whether it is writing music, working out, working on my next few books, reading or working on my certification exam,” reflected fourth-year English education major Michael Clark. “For me, unwinding and staying busy can mean the same thing, especially since I haven’t had the adequate time to spend reading, writing and researching things that aren’t relevant to my career.”

This urge to use our state-sanctioned time wisely has clearly allowed for a surge in creativity and hope. Going from having almost no time for personal projects to a seemingly never-ending amount of time was daunting. I realized that in some ways I had no excuse left to keep putting off the things I had actually been wanting to do. When this block of “free time” opened up it almost felt wrong. I knew I ought to indulge in self-care and take it easy in this crazy time, but then the thought that I could get to work instead weighed on me heavily. It almost felt like a chore, like I owed it to someone or something to push out more writing, get back into painting like I had been saying and so on. My sentiments were shared with and reassured by singer-songwriter, SUNY New Paltz alum and lead singer of GREENHOUSELAKE, Elijah Bloome. 

“I’m the kind of person who has a lot of trouble relaxing and, after realizing how long we may be in this state of quarantine, I started looking at it in terms of, ‘what if we were given the time to do everything we needed and wanted to do? What would we be able to accomplish given the opportunity to truly engage with our inner artist?’” Bloome said. “And while I feel immense pressure viewing my time through this lens, it comes from within, not from anyone else, and I think and hope a lot of other creatives are feeling that same way.”

“No one should feel any pressures aside from the mandatory requirements of their life. Things are bleak enough as is right now,” Clark said. “Try to get whatever school work or work required for your job done as early as you can so that you can focus on doing whatever makes you the happiest. It’s great in a way that we can dive into our hobbies, but I also know that a lot of people feel more confined, especially by their mental states. That’s okay too. Just like any other situation, I hope everyone can make the best of it.”

The thought of this invisible yet burdensome pressure is what picked at me the most. Is art a response to adversity, or is it a way to cope? Perhaps both? I wondered why there were people binge watching apocalyptic movies in the middle of a pandemic, while I watched Disney’s “Christopher Robin” two nights in a row. While some seek dramatic fictionalization of the events we are currently living through, others may retreat to escapism because that’s what art is, isn’t it? So I wondered what topics and themes others are using for inspiration. 

“When I create art I usually use it as a means to project how I’m feeling in a visual way because I find it hard to verbalize how I feel, especially when I’m feeling things I’ve never felt before such as in this situation,” said second-year art education major Daniella Siclari. “I don’t like to create realistic artworks because I don’t think they accurately portray how complex feelings are.”

Clearly personal testimonials and expressions are why we create in the first place. In a time where there is so much to express about so much that we are all going through, I ask myself, “Do I need to keep a record of this time, my own Covid Diaries? Or should I pretend each and every one of our lives hasn’t been turned upside down and keep working on other subject matter that seems almost menial now?”

“I think the isolation we’re facing can be really inspirational for particular types of work,” Clark said. “Some styles may benefit from the isolation and lack of friendly environments, but for me I’m definitely trying to escape into the worlds I’ve been working on creating for a while now, because I would love to finally wrap them up.”

Jacobs also shared his outlook. 

“On the topic of the context of coronavirus in my own art, for me personally I don’t really try to make art about anything out of fear that it won’t really bring anything new to the table and the same kind of goes for this situation, though it has given me more time to be introspective,” Jacobs shared. 

The likes of Clark, Jacobs and Siclari are opportunistically tapping into the isolation and successfully diving into the creative spaces of their minds, but it’s Lorentz-Perone’s approach  that got me thinking about the present and the future of art in relation to our reality today. 

We know Picasso’s famous “Guernica,” depicting the city’s devastation and loss from bombings, became a symbol of the antiwar sentiment of that era. His love for his country at a trying time resonated for decades after. Egon Schiele, who unfortunately met his end by the 1918 influenza, led a short life haunted by his father’s death from syphilis and depicted the taboo and frustration of sexuality within drawings and paintings to express that pain. His works spoke to his experiences, as well as others’ at a time where people may not have been able to talk about such topics so freely. In both cases their collection of works were an outlet, not necessarily a platform.

I started to think about the age old question: does life imitate art or does art imitate life? Surely there will be way too many movies made about how comically terrible this year has been, many on the pandemic alone … but what is the motivation behind that?

I looked to art history for an answer. It’s only clear to see in retrospect. On the grander scale, the modernist writers didn’t all randomly decide to shape the century to come, or think that war was a great seller, but rather they came back from the Great War horribly disillusioned and wanting to break away from the aged, overzealous styles that no longer seemed fit in a wrecked world. In the same way, photography and painting took over with the social realism movement amidst the Great Depression. People no longer cared for the glitz and the glam, the facade or the rose colored glasses. They came together in the reality of their situations. The beauty of unity is always far greater than any aesthetic a piece can offer.  

“I think people are excited to be part of history and any art that comes out of this time is like a journal entry that validates and documents it happening in the first place. Kind of like the way Neil Young released ‘Ohio’ shortly after the Kent State shooting,” Bloome said. “It resonated with people then because this intense moment became something timeless and greater than us all.”

This is not a great time for anything, but great things can and will come out of these times nevertheless. Art doesn’t thrive in crisis and international turmoil, but it thrives in spite of it. 

The lesson I learned from Winnie the Pooh in my back to back screenings of “Christopher Robin” was that sometimes you’re allowed to do nothing, and sometimes it’s even better for you. But at the same time, if there is a story within you that needs to be told, tell it. Let it out and see what life it takes on once it has left you. 

After a week of grieving I came to realize there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you just keep walking. So if you’ve found yourself in the same rut, stop being so hard on yourself about what you’re not doing enough of, and let this time be for healing, contemplating, being grateful for each day you wake up, talking with your loved ones and sharing the present moments you have. You are under no obligation to “make the most” of this time, but if that is your drive, let it take you. Once we are free of the mental shackles placed on us by society’s pressure to create, we might actually want to. Make your art for you and at your own pace, full of your own content. 

Mahnoor Ali
About Mahnoor Ali 46 Articles
Mahnoor Ali is a fourth-year English major with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. This is her third semester with the The Oracle. Previously, she has worked as Assistant Copy Editor and Features Editor. Her favorite stories to both read and write about are Culture, Entertainment, Lifestyle, and Columns, with an appreciation for News and social issues.