It has long been the purview of contemporary American literature to perfume a work with virtue and yet speak of nothing that hints at ideology. Liberalism, as it is observed in this nation, is an ideological void on whose surface any New York Times reader might see themselves reflected. So, the role of the writer is to burnish that void to ensure its polish is maintained.
Fiction writers, journalists, and academics—writers of every stripe, up to and including the authors of graphic novels and teen sick lit—eagerly contribute. This is the oily vat in which we swim. We carry on amongst our ever-smaller and whiter peer group, discussing our fetid bog as though it were an ocean. Atomized, academicized, and in permanent genteel poverty, as our Obamacare contributions gnaw away at our adjunct professor salaries, we have accepted our lot in life.
So go writers… Unlike our extroverted cousins in the performing arts, our lives haven’t changed much. Now everyone lives like a partially employed adjunct professor. If it weren’t for academia going down in flames, we would be better off than we were before. The publishing industry has enjoyed months of Christmas-level e-book sales, and I’m sure someday soon that booty will trickle down to the content producers. The Bezos checks are in the mail.
Now, we are told, is an excellent time to create. Boredom is supposed to foster creativity. If there is trauma and loss, well then, grist for the mill. Shakespeare, Bocaccio, and Defoe made hay out of their plague experiences. Write about what hurts, say the workshop instructors.
The arts are nothing if not reactionary. Self-abnegation and romantic individualism, traveling side by side throughout them, transform artists into highly imaginative cutthroats. So there is a pandemic? So musicians by the thousands lose their incomes? So, coming out the other side, we shall be leaner and purer. The scrappy survivors will be all the better for it.
With universities purging their adjunct teaching faculty (arts and humanities first, if you please…) and music and theatre and dance venues all shuttered and unlikely to open until there’s a vaccine, that lucky cohort who had previously been able to scrape together a living in the arts is smaller than ever before.
Yet the high gloss of liberalism remains, in spite of the economic turmoil weathered by artists. Liberalism, with its reverence for meritocracy and disruption, loves a crisis. This business-school rationale tells us that chaos and immiseration challenge us to create better. Disaster brings out the best in the best of us. One artist remarked to me that the pandemic would raise our appreciation for beauty—and appreciating beauty is, of course, what we were all put on this Earth to do. When squeezed and restricted, artists perform with new purpose. Positive change is in the air.
Another artist I spoke with was outright delighted that the pandemic was driving all artists into technological solitude. The few solvent oil painters, orchestral musicians, and ballerinas remaining would all have to create experimental virtual content for the sake of social distancing. All artists would be joining the avant-garde. Through perpetual reinvention will the arts be saved. And what could be more conducive to reinvention than living through a global catastrophe?
At the bottom of this ghoulishness lies a fundamental optimism. The arts (and artists, by extension) will persevere because they are essential to a civilized society. It is a part of the social contract that helps maintain the safety and security of all. Our infrastructure is strong, the logic goes, and the rising waters cannot touch me. And perhaps, for a handful of artists, this remains true. The contract hasn’t broken yet, at least not for some, even while evidence of its dissolution is everywhere.
But because cantatas and chapbooks can’t be valued by Sotheby’s, because there are only so many concert halls and residencies that hedge fund managers are willing to endow, the arts as we know them have been failing for decades. The pandemic has merely sent them into free fall. The arts are indeed essential to a civilized society, but we don’t live in a civilized society. To engage with art in the way one must for it to be deemed essential, one must also value joy. One must value the sensory present. These are both current impossibilities. Savoring the moment, especially under coronatide, sounds like a really bad idea. Only quarantine-induced insanity leads one to behold beauty in Zoom meetings and socially distanced socials.
The ruling oligarchy is not civilized. Those who serve them are not civilized. The obscurantism and cryptic temple magic of academia and its associated crafts are not civilized; they are barely fit for human consumption. Besides, as neoliberal capitalism feeds off itself, it devours even these bastions of pseudointellect and artistry that help keep it afloat.
The arts, like the environment and our food and water sources and all things that allow for the continuation of the human species, aren’t sustainable under capitalism. The solution is not to make better, more flexible, more avant-garde works so we might grasp that last rung of a ladder as it’s going up in flames. That jig is up. That game is played. Liberalism has had its last dance with arts and letters.
The pandemic has made the choice between socialism and barbarism clearer than it’s been in decades. The rich are absconding with their stolen treasure. Artists, who had previously contributed to this gilded dragon’s hoard, have been kicked out of the feudal retinue.
Still, the tenured few refuse to relinquish their grip on the final shreds of bourgeois liberal patronage. They haven’t got much choice in the matter. While the schadenfreude will be good and pure when these last guardians of the ancien régime fall, in the meantime, there’s work for the rest of us to do. Inside the rotted husk of liberalism, solvency, to say nothing of career stability, isn’t in the cards for most of us. The great work of solidarity ahead of us is daunting and unfamiliar. For those of us who wish to contribute to a world worth living in, however, it’s our only option. This world is crumbling into ash, and there’s no guarantee that the one being built will be one in which our species survives, let alone thrives and is joyful. ♦
Annie Levin is a New York City-based writer and arts organizer. She has taught writing and literature at New York University and Fordham University. Her recent work has been published in The Progressive, the Indypendent, and Public Seminar.