In the darkest of times, art is not an indulgence

Image by Gerd Altmann, Pixaba

We are living in dark times. While the ecological disaster worsens daily, we’re distracted by politics that trades on setting up divisions, hatred and fear. In the UK, the welfare of the most vulnerable is increasingly shaky and everywhere news turns out to be some vested agenda.

A family member recently told me about a mutual friend involved in an accident in which she and her six month old baby were hurt. The baby had a potential head injury. They live in a large town with a big hospital. A shopkeeper called for an ambulance and was told that the young mother, herself in shock and with an injured arm, should phone around her friends to get a lift to hospital. There were no ambulances available.

The same day a health care professional told me about shocking and unsafe practices in the hospital where he works. The staff were working flat out but with too few of them and increasing budget cuts, patients were suffering. In a time when the word ‘austerity’ hangs over many essential services as a real and present threat, it’s easy to feel that funding the arts is a ridiculous luxury. It’s easy for those of us who are writers, musicians, artists or artisans are fiddling while Rome burns.

But this is a dangerous delusion. In the darkest of times, art (of all kinds) is not an indulgence or an ego trip, but a mark of our deepest humanity. It is essential.

Art and humanity are integral

Art is not an indulgence but a sign of and integral to our humanity. In Underland Robert McFarlane writes about a journey to see cave art in one of the most inaccessible spots on the planet. It was inaccessible when the art was made and we can only conjecture that getting there was a dangerous rite of passage.

We have been making art for as long as we have been human, perhaps even before that. We have left hand prints deep in inaccessbile caves and covered walls in living scenes that have lasted hundreds of thousands of years.

Art and humanity are inextricably linked. In The Source of Self- regard Toni Morrison wrote:

Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to. […] Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Art is not an optional extra for times of luxury. Art and story change the stories that a culture can tell. They do this, as the writer Ursula Le Guin insisted, by giving:

people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.

Language, whether in words, visual media, clay or movement is powerful. It dignifies experience and universalises it through communication that dives deeply under the surface of things.

As Iris Murdoch notes in Existentialists and Mystics :

A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.

Art undermines the accepted wisdom

When we have rich languages of art in all its forms, we don’t simply accept that ‘there is no alternative’. Instead we are more likely to live out those alternatives or to make and write in ways that challenge the accepted wisdom of comsumption and nihilism.

In The Fat of the Land, writing about leading a self-sufficient life, John Seymour discusses how, despite being certainly cash poor, he and his wife, Sally, felt that objects of beauty mattered.

Sally was a potter who refused to allow her work to become a production line to make more money. They would only sell what was crafted, high quality and as beautiful as it was useful. Similarly, they traded, or bought with the little cash available, things of similar craft. Living simply and authentically didn’t mean, for them, making do with what was merely functional but ugly. They did this in order not ‘to be overruled’ by the accepted mores of their time. Their lives were worth dignifying as are all lives.

Bertolt Brecht put it powerfully:

Art is not a mirror held up to society but a hammer with which to shape it.

Brecht put this into practice in his writing. His work poses difficult questions and engages with difficult answers. It undermines the supposed order of things that allows atrocities to happen as though they are business as usual. He challenges readers to consider other possibilities and to make alternatives happen. He is one of many great writers who demonstrates that in dark times art can change everything.

Art is transformative

Iris Murdoch goes on to argue that art is not to be confused with fantasy, rather it is the imagination capable of shaking us up to see the world differently, to adopt a wider perspective beyond our own fears and anxieties. But this does not make art didactic or utilitarian. Rather, she observes that:

A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.

Revealing truths, particularly of ‘the mystery of the human being’ is the responsibility of the artist, according to James Baldwin in The Price of the Ticket.

Society must accept some things as real; but [s]he must always know that visible reality hides a deeper one, and that all our action and achievement rest on things unseen. A society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and [s]he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven. One cannot possibly build a school, teach a child, or drive a car without taking some things for granted. The artist cannot and must not take anything for granted, but must drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides

Art is the story of all, for all

Our ancestors didn’t wait until they had fast cars and rich diets before they began making art. Art is for all people in all times and circumstances but perhaps most crucially when times are dark.

A few years ago I visited one of the most heart breaking exhibitions of art in Prague. It was by Jewish children deported to the Terezín ghetto, most of whom died in Auschwitz. Their teacher, Bauhaus student, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who also died in Auschwitz, held secret classes to teach drawing as a way of communicating experiences and emotions in terrible conditions.

Such art is the antithesis of ‘indulgence’ and completely exposes the lie that in hard times we have to make a choice between art and other necessities of life. We don’t need either a decent and caring health system that empowers patients or access to art and literature. This is a false dualism that fails to see what it means to be human.

One of my dearest friends is currently living with enormous grief after losing both her daughter and mother within a few weeks. She is also a writer and on the days when they grief allows, she is working on her next novel. Her art is not an indulgence or a luxury, it is soul-saving in the midst of a dark time.

When we live in dark times, we must make art. We have a responsiblity to keep writing, to keep making things of beauty, to keep interpreting the world in clay or paint or sound or dance … Art is not an indulgence at any time, but a way of forging hope, asserting our humanity, undermining limited perspectives and transforming the story we live in.

Becoming a different story

Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @