Minding the Arts, and the Artists
Artists under COVID-19. How are they weathering?
Creative individuals alternate, affectively, between order and disorder, chaos and organization, simplicity and complexity in an ongoing movement of positive disintegration and reintegration of subjective experience. Frank Barron, a pioneer in the psychology of creativity, was the first researcher to describe this oscillation, confirmed recently by researchers at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, whose studies revealed that creative individuals scored higher, both on measures of psychopathology and psychological health as well. A recent study from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence showed that — compared to non-artists — artists have stronger psychological vulnerabilities like anxiety and depression, but also have stronger psychological resources like ego-resilience and hope. Their psychological vulnerabilities deeply connect them to their own suffering and the suffering of others, while their psychological resources provide their strength to channel that suffering into their art.
Could these peculiar psychological makeup have an impact in the way artists are overcoming the challenges imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic?
My encounter with artists in my coaching and therapy practice suggests so. The lack of interest in, and even contempt for, a ruly and conventional world, the familiarity with chaos and the new or unknown, the readiness to live in the edges of safety and the use of extreme emotional experience as a source of inventiveness prepared them for the unpredictability and disorder created by a disruptive factor like COVID.
Artists turn to creativity for traversing COVID-19
COVID-19 brought profound social disruption and chaos, challenging us to find ways to comprehend and survive this extraordinary event . Questions at the core of the human experience became foreground when confronting COVID’s imposed contact with loss, death, hardship, and uncertainty. The priorities shifted; we became — if even for a while– more frugal, less frivolous, more empathetic. Finding purpose and meaning became a focus of attention.
It is my claim that artists are better equipped to deal with the disruption and isolation brought upon by this pandemic; in fact, some of them are thriving in it. Some of my clients have finally started writing the book they had dreamed about, or pieces they were stalling; a playwriter and actor initiated her trauma work (revisiting and re-writing traumatic memories) via a storyboard that will become her next play. Plastic artists initiated exhibit projects and have been producing work more fluidly since social isolation and lockdown became a lifestyle.
COVID-19: The incidental muse
Always searching for new wells of inspiration, COVID became, to many artists, a perverted muse. Take, for instance, David Attoe’s “Beached”, depicting an outworldy shape with light pouring through small holes in the darkness, and a small crowd drawn toward it. “It appeals to a deep need in me to see people coming together. I live in a rural place, and I see people getting more polarized, and I actually hear people talking about violence on ideological grounds”, Attoe says. Sensitive to and pained by the division in his community, he draws on that sensitivity and pain to express a healing vision of unity.
How can COVID-19 effect this paradoxical response in artists?
Creative individuals are more at home with disruption, uncertainty, and loss. For some, high psychological vulnerabilities make it difficult to function in the midst of crisis,– being cooped up with children, losing a job, or having a sick loved one take its toll. Artists share these struggles, yet they are able to draw on their versatile psychological resources to face and express the specific emotional challenges coronavirus kindled.
Consider Rashid Johnson’s “Untitled Anxious Red Drawings.” They are abstract renderings of the emotions the COVID crises brings, namely a “sense of urgency and fear.” The drawings are messy, unsettling, and even menacing. Of the works, Johnson says, “I’m just trying not to avert my eyes, to be present in the world that we’re living in.” He offers no resolutions, no attempt to reckon with how we got here or where we will go. Rather, these works are his way of sitting with the emotional difficulty of this time, which is its own way of coping.
It’s well-documented that new experiences are critical to creative thinking. The combination of the staggering new circumstances of this time and — for those that are completely isolated — the time and space to focus entirely on their craft has led to remarkable work that not only addresses the suffering of this moment, but transforms it.
New York artist George Condo, with his series “Drawings for Distanced Figures”, illustrates this point.
Condo takes a different view of isolation than most, saying, “I love to draw and in the usual context of privacy, one doesn’t think of the term isolation or forced separation, rather it’s a space to create without being watched.” The privacy COVID-19 necessitated is allowing Condo to explore possibilities. Of the works in the series, Condo says, “I’m hoping they depict the moment where figures are forced to be separated from loved ones, as I am, and that they show the never ending power of the human imagination.”
The works attempt to capture the difficulties of physical separation, while maintaining a sense of connection that is rooted in imagination. The figures “often appear in pairs, linked by intersecting lines, yet their viewpoints do not connect.” The COVID crisis has brought different emotions for different people, and physical separation intensifies that emotional isolation — our “viewpoints do not connect,” in other words. And yet, the abstract lines that represent the confusion and suffering each figure feels also serve to connect the two. Their mutual isolation becomes, in itself, a form of connection. Through this series, Condo works with his psychic vulnerabilities to feel the pain of physical separation, and to explore the ways in which we remain connected. Creativity, arts and play: Healing practices for all.
Art spawned by COVID-19 shows that our most painful emotions can be transformed into something new, amusing and transformative. Fortunately, arts and creativity needs not be for a few, nor the elites, nor the geniuses. Very close to play, arts and crafts allow us all to reap the benefits of engaging in the creative process, so much so that many therapy modalities center around artistic production as a healing force. Drawing, dancing, knitting, playing instruments, singing, pottery; most arts and crafts are easily accessible and ready to provide any of us with an emotionally transformative experience.