ART MATTERS ! Now, more than ever

In time of crisis and isolation, the role of art becomes more central to our lives, whether we realize it or not. There are as many of us turn towards the arts for some explanation of these accursed times as there are turning towards the sciences. In the arts, though, we find not only some clues to the inexplicable but also some sort of comfort and solace that many of us can´t find in the graphs and figures and test tube and petri dishes of the science laboratories. For people like me, the healing is in the old John Stewart songs, for others in a Picasso painting, a much loved text, or a jazz riff or the smooth curves of a Hepworth sculpture. And surely there must be more who, like me, visited Another Place at Crosby beach and are now haunted wondering what it was those tin men had seen and what it is they are now all staring towards. So walk with us down socially distanced sidetracks and disinfected detours and follow you art,…because Art matters,….now, more than ever.

My dad considered himself a scientist, and by education qualifications he was entitled to do so, and his career as a Brewer suited him just fine, as he rose to the top of the ladder. He wasn´t much of a religious man, only vaguely saying to me when I was a lad that there must be something bigger than human beings behind this thing we call life.

He was an up here for thinking and down here for dancing kind of guy. Music, song, poetry, painting, dancing, drama were viewed by him as nothing more than entertainment and never as having anything to do with real life. He would read a chemical formula and the ingredients required to brew beer with a passion but would recite Do Not Go Gentle as if untouched by its urgent rage.

photo 1 Louis Netter is an artist with ten years of teaching experience in higher education in the Art and Design and Education field. He has taught in US institutions such as Parsons New School of Design, SUNY Purchase, College of New Rochelle, and Westchester Community College. As a practicing illustrator, animator and printmaker he has a diverse portfolio of published work, selected films, and a CV including several successful group and solo exhibitions. A collection of his illustrated work was published as a book in 2008 and there is an upcoming graphic novel to be published in the spring of 2016. ´Louis´ research has focused on the flexible application of drawing in art and design and how reportage drawing has evolved and sparks highly personal dialogues with people and places. He is currently pursuing an MPhil/PhD at the Royal College of Art.

Research has been focused on reportage drawing, the graphic novel and drawing for ideation. His own reportage work has itself been the focus of several conference papers along with his own practice-based insights on creating a full-length graphic novel. Current research extends reportage drawing into the realms of psycho-geography and a larger meditation on modernity and the changing psychic landscape of cities. Louis netter is also collaborating with a colleague on a short comic which will be submitted as an academic paper. This comic looks at the representation of history, metaphor and the persistent and changeable narrative of history.

When Louis Netter published an article in The Conversation in March, 2021, covid and lockdown had been on-going around the world for a year with every date flagged optimistically for borders and international travel to be re-opened being pushed back, protracted, postponed and, by many, all but abandoned-

People were dying, critical resources being stretched, and the very essence of our freedom shrinking.

Those of us who had always rather enjoyed being Daydream Believers were moving further inward, the writer observed, to the vast inner space of our thoughts and imagination, a place we have perhaps neglected. Personally I very much identified with Netter´s observation. Twenty years ago I designed a creative writing workshop that I called Where Imagination Begins that supplied routes to reach that place. I delivered my first ´class´ on that idea to the resident Creative Writing Group at the Touhstones Arts & Heritage Centre in Rochdale. The significance of that venue´s name was echoed in further comments made by the essay in The Conversation.

Mr. Netters said in that March 2021 essay that ´of all the necessities we now feel so keenly aware of, the arts and their contribution to our well-being is evident and, in some ways, central to coronavirus confinement for those of us locked in at home. (Much needed) momentary joys, even in dire circumstances, often come through the arts and collective expression.´

The essayist is a lecturer in illustration, and says he is ´constantly encouraging students to find an artistic voice and identify, in this crowded world of images, some touchstones to develop their own aesthetic´.

Art critic and theorist John Berger identified, in the act of drawing, something that is inherently autobiographical—a continual process of refining vision, which moves us toward new understandings about ourselves and the world around us. That is surely an attitude and realisation common to all art forms, even those apparently improvised.

´In times of crisis and isolation´, Netters continued in his dissertation, ´the role of art becomes more central to our lives, whether we realize it or not.´

However he acknowledges that ´we can easily take for granted the grand buffet of media that is available to us´, and he pleads guilty of a lack of patience when students find it difficult discerning quality amid a sea of memes and amateur artistic indulgence which, to the unsuspecting, can appear to be worthy.

A lack of curation on the internet has been identified by those of us who value culture and its contribution but who are sadly quickly becoming grumpy old men and women.

Netters is surely correct in saying that ´whether we like it or not our consumption habits, including the media we choose to consume, shape our identity, our values and our inclinations. Such a patchwork of beliefs is also tested in these difficult times.

Surely, though, Art can set us free.

Mr. Netters recalls that he was a high school teacher in Sleepy Hollow, New York, twenty miles away from ground zero, when the 9/11 attacks happened. That time, then, was like this time, now in  that it tested our collective ability to make sense of a new normal and to mourn for the time suddenly gone that would never come back. That dislocation left a schism in the collective consciousness that everyone struggled to frame, even artists.

photo 2 Netter accurately describes Art Speigelman’s graphic novel In the Shadow Of No Towers was less of a coherent narrative about 9/11 than an attempt to reassemble his own psyche through the comfort of his own creations and the medium of the comic itself.

Mr Netter reminds us during The Conversation, that people on social media are sharing favourite Netflix playlists, songs, videos, and even artwork to reach out beyond isolation and share what they love.

I can absolutely vouch for that as I have found myself including lists and categorisations of many art genres, wondering whether I am doing that for my own benefit or the benefit of my recipients. I am even sharing essays and thoughts and opinions of writers like Mr. Netters. I try to convince myself I am doing so in the act of sharing and with a generosity of spirit, but I know that the truth is that in passing on Netters´ essay to others I have to wrestle with it, testing it for where I agree and disagree and trying to find my own meaning within it. Things become sometimes as muddled as they become clear but I find solace in the work´s words and I take comfort in knowing there is a writer out, there, far more capable and eloquent than I, who is worried about all this in the same way as I am, and is somehow leading me out into the light.

So, I feel validated when I read Mr Netter saying  how ´it is naive to think that such lists are mere casual swaps of entertainment enjoyed and recommended. They are an externalization of the personality of the list maker: the romance enthusiast, the lover of comedies, the thrill seeker, the horror fan, and the aficionado of obscure documentaries.

In this time of restriction, TV, film, books, and video games offer us a chance to be mobile. To move around freely in a fictional world in a way that is now impossible in reality. Art connects us to the foreign, the exotic, and the impossible—but in our current context, it also connects us to a world where anything is possible.´

That world is beyond us for now.  The world we wake up in is a counterfeit reality. There is the world of the arts, that some believe is make-believe and then there is the real world of covid.

You say it’s only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make believe if you believed in me
Yes, it’s only a canvas sky
Hanging over a muslin tree
But it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me
Without your love it’s a honky-tonk parade
Without your love it’s a melody played in a penny arcade
It’s a Barnum & Bailey world
Just as phony as it can be
But it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me

I have no idea why I have inserted those lyrics by Arlen Harold, Harburg and E Y, Rose Billy that, having been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, became an American classic, but here in the middle of Mr Nettles´ excellent essay I found again that place Where Imagination Begins.

Mr Netters, nevertheless, reminds us that covid is not a cinema blockbuster.

´Things look the same,´ he says. ´Unlike those now-familiar films, the descent of humanity is not apparent in the slow shuffle of moaning, glassy-eyed zombies. The threat we face feels like those clever horror movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and more recent films like The Quiet Place where we rarely see the source of horror. The current moment is best understood as a kind of low hum of anxiety, like the buzzing of a pylon in a field.´

The cover picture we have used for this post taken by Georges Mboya and owned by Mr. Netter was utilised by The Conversation, when they published Netter´s article in March 2021. It shows the author in Nairobi as part of a research project in 2019 into art and community health.

The writer travelled to Kenya in 2019, specifically to Nairobi, where he drew regularly. He was working on the Tupumue research project, measuring the lung capacity of 2,600 children aged five to 18 from two areas in Nairobi: the informal settlement Mukuru and the adjacent affluent area Buruburu.

photo 3 ´The research team was collaborating with local artists, teachers, and community members to develop participatory creative methods to engage with the two communities in the study,´ he explained in his piece in The Conversation.

He added that ´the drawings I made capture my impressions of the vibrant streets of Nairobi; Mukuru, especially, is a visceral flood to the senses.

During an event in which we moved through Mukuru in procession, testing our creative methods for sensitization, which included puppetry, art making (including graffiti), song and dance etc, a colleague, surveying the crowds of children and people in the narrow, dusty roads, said: “I wouldn’t want to see what a virus would do to this population.”

We are now seeing this unfold, and I worry for all of those people living in such close proximity. Self-isolation and the sharing of Netflix lists is an absurd luxury to the people here who live confined in small, steel shacks. Life was hard before COVID-19. After, it could be unbearable.

´A life in isolation is nothing new´, the writer reminded us.

´Communities like this have been isolated and invisible to, (or at least un-noticed by?), the vast majority of the world for a long time. It is capitalism’s dustbin.

´When capitalism coughs´, said Nettles in a deeply-disturbing phrase, ´these communities perish.´

So what of the arts in isolation?

´It might be too early to write that book and paint that picture that captures the buzz of anxiety we all feel. We probably need more time and artists need more sunrises and sunsets to rise and fall on the full, nervous houses. They need more time to listen to the sounds of life interrupted and to mourn for the “world that was,” watching it drift further into the shadows.´

The prime source for this article was a piece written by Louis Netter, for the Conversation

In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.

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