I’ve been trying to put my finger on an apt way of describing what this global pandemic is like in the context of the arts. Not the grief, anxiety or strain part. Not the pressure in coping or hanging on part, nor the momentary landing upon relief whenever it arrives. These are universalities that have been unevenly racing through all of our lives, while also stretching off in directions we don’t have a compass for. Instead, and not through an exclusionary impulse by any means, I want to describe something about what those of us who make art and work in the arts are doing through this and what that doing is about. I think it is useful and believe it matters.
As of today, two-thirds of the nation’s artists are now unemployed. Not-for-profit arts organizations have an aggregated loss of $5.5 billion to date, and only a tiny fraction have any real reserves to help weather the storm. Looking ahead is therefore not for the faint of heart and rather like accepting a dare to not flinch or wobble at the knees as you fix your gaze on an incoming future. Our livelihoods and operating capacities are shaken. At the same time our willingness and instinctual resolve to outwardly give everything that we have available to us has accelerated.
The voluminous amount of sharing going on in the arts is evidence of an empathetic logic we seem to retain in ample supply. A principle that goes like this: when having almost no income (and scarcely any idea of whether it might return), lean straight in and give as much as you can. This is what we are doing in the arts with our archives, with time, with ideas and problem solving, with our works and creativity and labor. The very things from which we derived our economic means are flying freely out the front door. We are up into the wee hours with colleagues around the world comparing notes, budget models, responses, speaking with one another’s supporters and advocates while generating plausible frameworks. We are working throughout the daytime to tackle yet more new planning, preparing for scenarios beyond our control, researching and listening closely to signs of silver linings. We are generating testimonials for one another’s fundraising efforts, dipping the credit card into each other’s tip jars and learning digital terminology like a crash course in a foreign language that we know we will have to be fluent in by yesterday. We are collaborating together while reminding each other to eat something before our night shift starts again.
The day of the 2016 November election, I arrived in Paris from Los Angeles (I had voted by mail). There was just enough time to splash my face with water before sprinting off to see a French play at a venue on the outskirts of the city. I was jet-lagged and hungry. After the 3-hour experience in the theater with a neglected phone battery, I was immensely grateful to find a tiny creperie stand that was still serving. The menu listed traditional French and Middle Eastern ingredients, and the aromatic spices in combination with masterfully folded crepes were a reflection of the adaptive and creative acumen of the owner-operator-cook. He offered me a glass of his hot cinnamon tea at no cost if I could place my order in French. After his jovial adjustments to my pronunciation he handed me a cup of delicious perfection. As he cooked, he insisted on calling me a taxi driving friend he knew to ensure I would be safely returned to my hotel. The warming tea on a very cold night continued to flow.
We talked as if we had been long acquaintances, and in the course of our discussion he told me that giving away tea to people was part of his culture, his identity and his enjoyment of his work. That ensuring I had a trustworthy ride to my hotel was “a simple act of common care.” I thanked him of course, and we went on to discuss the nature of kindness — what strains are put upon it and the need to uphold it. “We must act from the heart,” he said. “This solidarity is what makes life have meaning.” He then casually ensured that I understood in advance that if I tried to pay for the several glasses of tea I had consumed by then, it would injure his intention. “For the crepe, of course! It is my livelihood and a service. But for the taxi, the tea, and the pronunciation lessons… no. That is my independence, my liberty and my expression of solidarity with you.”
Before the taxi arrived I took a napkin from the small stack by the hot sauce bottle, made a drawing on it, and gave it to him as I left. I knew it would best carry my appreciation and express my solidarity with him.
This is what we are doing in the arts and it is what the doing is about.
Without question, we urgently have to configure how to repair the economics for restoring livelihoods. As an arts community we have a unique and important role in that national effort. But the outpouring of what we are extending through every available means is about something else which we play a role in sustaining. With the floor having dropped out of our economic bottom-line, we have a cultural bottom-line to uphold and exchange. It involves the liberty to express solidarity from the logic of our common care and to act upon it without hesitation.
Here’s to the late-night cooks, drivers and artists. To resuming our chance encounters with useful wisdom extended by people whose names we don’t know but with whom we share feeling.
Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance