The Band Plays On

Life is full of contradictions: as an artist, I rely on people to fill their homes with things of beauty to make a living. At some point, as we collectively trend towards smaller homes and fewer things, art consumers will inevitably run out of space for art. Where does that leave the artists? Existentially speaking, what is the value of an artists’ particular set of skills if there is no more wall space left to hang art?

I recently read a novel: Station Eleven by Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, set in a post-pandemic world in which 99.7% of earth’s residents have been killed by a deadly virus. The remaining people are left to eke out a living in a crumbling world with few resources. Unexpectedly, the timbre of the book is quite hopeful: it takes a worst-case scenario and imagines how we humans might find our way through it with dignity. The story follows a travelling symphony that moves from settlement to settlement playing Beethoven and performing Shakespeare, raising the spirits of the survivors. On the side of their caravan is painted the words ‘because survival is not enough’—a sentiment that struck me as pointedly true. 

As we head into times of some uncertainty, my thoughts occasionally turn to questions of existence, and with them comes a wave of anxiety. The temptation may be to cull the unnecessary parts of our lives: art, music, festivals, and lean in to the business of making sure we are prepared for whatever is ahead. Let’s make sound decisions, certainly. Let’s work towards sustainability, yes. But along the way, we have to be careful not to lose our humanity. So what makes us human? 

There are many life forms on the planet, but one thing that humans alone are good at is creating: we can imagine things that have never been made and find ways to make them. Our art, music culture makes us unique, and worth saving. Moreover, it is those created things that will bring the hope we need to keep moving forward. 

I understand the temptation to de-empathize things like music and art programs in schools, underfund arts foundations, and spend on ‘practical’ things, but what are we fighting for if not the things that bring joy into our lives? We don’t fund arts in schools so we can raise a bunch of artists, we fund them so we can raise balanced humans. My friend’s grandmother, a stout woman in her eighties and a life-long lover of rich treats, went to the doctor who told her she needs to stop eating so much cream. Her priceless response was: “...but what kind of life would that be?” Every Titanic needs an orchestra to play—to help us find hope in dire situations. 

A time may be coming when we artists have some decisions to make. Maybe not this year or next, but in ten or fifteen for sure. One of the things I’ve always loved about art was the idea of leaving a legacy of some kind, something that out-lives me—a battery of paintings lovingly hung in honoured locations in homes across the land. A legacy inspires me to work towards making a great future for us all, but lately, I’ve been thinking more about the value of art now. I’ve taken to prioritizing the happiness I see in people as they take a new piece home. I focus on the love I have for the process of creating: I feel blessed every day I get to make art as a living, hopefully bringing richness to the lives of as many people as I can for as long as I can. As artists, we have a responsibility to give people something to live for. 

In the long term, I’ve been looking for ways of creating art that doesn’t take up as much space on walls: paper prints are more temporal, sculptures can be set out in public where they enrich all our lives, and murals have a designed life span of ten years give or take. All of these are simple ways of making sure a spirit of hope runs parallel to our practical choices and emphasizes our continued investment in and support of our public art institutions. 

As our collective cultural anxiety about the future grows, we will need the writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and actors to continue to remind us how we can really feel alive, because survival is just not enough.