Why We Need Arts in Times of Crisis

How does art help? You can’t wear it. You can’t eat it. And it certainly doesn’t make you much money.

Life looks like an Edward Hopper painting nowadays. ‘Morning Sun’ (a 1952 Hopper painting) comes alive in my room when I draw the curtains. My mother brings a cup of milk, which I drink in tranquil silence trying to feel the golden warmth on my skin. Then, I sit at my desk, switch on the laptop and tie my home-chopped hair sloppily, getting ready for another day of classes and work.

This extended pause, taut with tension, saw me finding comfort in art overcast by moroseness but not abject despair; brimming with anger, but not devoid of hope.

The honeycomb of middle class dwellings with fire-escapes acting as balconies in The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams hits close to home. A family cramped into a small living space teeming with loneliness and disillusionment. Mr. Wingfield’s portrait reminds me of my father – a passive viewer of our histrionics. He goes to work and returns in the evening with an odd drumstick or some gourd that mom did not write in the grocery list. Too tired from a day of caution and working, he sleeps earlier than the rest of us.

The Wingfield family’s different character traits – Amanda’s obsession with the past, Laura’s identity crisis and Tom wanting to break free – and their collective anxiety came as an unsolicited source of relief.

Tom, in his iconic opening monologue, says, “In memory, everything seems to happen to music.” What song will gush into the vents of our mind when we remember these days? Perhaps, ‘All You Need is Love’ by The Beatles.

A few weeks off the internet with my nose buried in books helped me learn a lot about humanity and the power structures we have created. I became intensely aware of how hatred is festering the world, how I did not seek out answers to a lot of questions because a clash of opinions seemed like the end of friendships back then. ‘Agree to disagree’ is not a favourable option anymore.

The farmer bills passed in a tearing hurry in the Rajya Sabha last year reminded me of the plight of the farmers in The Grapes of Wrath. It depicts the dust bowl farmers who ‘tractored’ off their small farmlands to rich landowners and banks. A turtle on its back flailing its arms struggling to get up is the perfect parallel to the working class. A few pages later, the preacher and young Tom watch the turtle go south-west. “I seen turtles all my life. They’re always goin’ some place. They always seem to want to get there,” remarks the preacher. A searing metaphor for our crippling economy, helpless students made to sit for exams, hungry and sleep-deprived migrant labourers, and protesting farmers and students jailed for dissent.

A person in power setting up a relief fund encouraging private charity to combat a huge disaster. Does it ring a bell? Narendra Modi’s PM-CARES fund for COVID relief is eerily similar to Herbert Hoover’s wildly unsuccessful and incompetent President’s Organization for Unemployment Relief (POUR) to tackle large scale unemployment, a ripple effect of the Great Depression.

History is repeating itself one gnarly twist at a time. Whether it’s the pandemic or rise of hate-infused populist politics. What do we do this time? I try to find scraps of hope in the landfill of my anxious mind.

“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed,” wrote John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.

I knit these scraps to make a blanket of words that is revelatory and comforting. Maybe The Social Dilemma, a documentary, will make people aware of the dangerous impacts of the internet. Maybe all this time on our hands will make us think and claim our individuality from corporations and governments that are profiting off the lack of it. Maybe people will try to maintain the democratic status of the country. Its vibrancy. Its colours. Maybe human resilience will shock us again.

Derek Walcott’s beautiful poem ‘Love After Love’ was a chance discovery. A poem that tells you to return to yourself. You have done so much – going out into this big world, giving your heart to other people, falling and getting up only to fall again. Every now and then, say the last line of the poem to yourself: “Sit. Feast on your life.”

So how does art help? It does not produce something tangible or measurable. Art confers meaning to our lives and the world around us. It makes an anxious girl cramped in her room reflect and learn so many things. It gives her comfort and solace that she is not alone in her loneliness, anger and shame.

Aashima Prasad is a third-year undergraduate student at the Delhi University. She is a content writer and calls herself an occasional YouTuber because of her channel ‘My Book Den’ where she rambles on about books in spurts.

Featured image: Fakurian Design/Unsplash