Role of Art during Quarantine

The world we knew is no more. The line between reality and illusion has been blurred beyond recognition. We live in a high-resolution sci-fi movie and what we thought was our reality seems illusionary now. The Covid-19 outbreak has affected our social, cultural, existential and economic realities in such a way that the human race has come to a standstill where the notion of progression we all believed in has lost its fundamental meaning. Isolated together, we occupy a bodily existence that is charged with chaos and disorder. How do we survive living in such disarray? What do we rely on as the nexus amidst this global pause? Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, gave an apt and adequate answer introducing BBC’s culture in quarantine programme. Art, he says, is a valuable part of the human life, “It is a way of stimulating imagination, thought, and escapism. It’s a vital part of who we are as individuals and part of our identity as a nation.” Art is, and always will be, the one uplifting venture we turn to when everything else falls apart. A song, a book, a painting, a performance. What more to offer you a safe passage to a far-away land during this period of quarantine and occupy your thoughts during this period of isolation? As humans, we always turn to art whenever normalcy is challenged; we find solace and escapism in art so that our notion of routine is protected. The history and the present bear evidence of how art has served as the sole coping mechanism in periods of trepidation.

Humans have inherently been sociable; we are sustained through the many social interactions we engage in throughout the day. Mutual existence and the sense of togetherness are fundamental to us; we have flocked together since the Stone Age, relying on the community for survival and evolution. What would happen if we were denied of community? To answer this, we need not look further. Living in these detrimental times, we are increasingly experiencing life detached from our fellow humans. With entire provinces locking down and more and more cities going in to quarantine with every passing day, we are forced to live without the human contact. We can no longer enjoy the luxury of going out engaging with our friends, hold events that gather hundreds of people. Covid-19 has redefined our life, imprisoning us in our homes, our worst nightmare come alive. And this is where art comes in. Art becomes the component that holds us together in this time of isolation. Our collective existence is sustained through art and only art. Shared art, be it visual, performance or written art, has become the agent that connects us with the rest of our tribe. Italy is the epitome that shows us how powerful and strong a connecting agent art is in times like this. Heartwarming footage of people performing from balconies that circulated through social media demonstrate that art, in times of isolation, becomes multi-functional. It is not limited to art for consumption but is furthered into art for connection as well. Italians play and sing for each other, ensuring that their community is sustained even amidst the prevailing tragedy. The street becomes the theatre, the balcony becomes the stage. Everyone and anyone is both the artist and the spectator. Singing music known to each other, they remind themselves that survival is possible through humanity. Even though physically apart, they become one through shared tunes and notes.

The Sri Lankan community living in Italy was seen singing Sinhala songs during the quarantine. Living continents away from the homeland and facing such a hard time, it is only natural that they yearn to connect with their motherland. It comes as no surprise that they turn to art, music precisely, to escape from the chaos they experience on a daily basis and to reach the Sri Lankan national and the sense of connection. Sinhala baila songs, the highlight of any Sri Lankan gathering, brought them closer to home, its people and the mother tongue. For them, these songs are compacted with familiar beats; beats of home, beats of warmth, beats of safety. It is through these beats that they sustain their connection with the home and thereby survive the quarantine isolation and its many impacts. 

The devastating present – the Covid-19 outbreak is not the first time we as the human race faced such a threat: the Plague in the mid-1300s and the Spanish flu in the early 1900s. People were forced into quarantine during these global disasters too. And there is one striking common feature shared by them: they all turned to art to find solace. William Shakespeare supposedly wrote King Lear and Macbeth while isolating himself in quarantine. Earnest Hemingway, quarantined with his sick toddler, his wife and the mistress, found it a “splendid place to write.” They found art to be an ideal coping mechanism that helped them through the isolation. The mental torment of being detached from the rest of the community and the absence of the regular lifestyle were overcome with the aid of art. The Globe Theatre was closed; theatre companies were dispersed. The actor and the playwright in Shakespeare had no purpose; this is where the writer found purpose in creating art. This is precisely the role of art during a period of quarantine isolation; it serves as the center that offers stimuli, purpose and thought. Even in the present day, turning to art and creating compel us to reflect, both in retrospect and in foreseeing. Creating art essentially means pondering the past, the future and the present. Is there a better time to do so than today?

Art has always been a mystic element capable of offering much more than we expect it to; consolation, purpose, and thought. The role it plays in times of tragedy is vast and multifaceted. Especially during this period of isolation, it is the single point that provides us with escapism, connection and sanity in this redefined Waste Land we live in. It propels reflection; it prompts us to think of the absence of human contact, of the bleak past and of a better future. It is not hyperbolic to say that life in quarantine sans art would be a sentence of imprisonment with no escape, minute or grand, at all.

2nd April, 2020 Visual Art | Paintings