The Cruel Reminder that the Arts are "Nonessential"

Late in December, while looking through the “Theatre” section of the New York Times, I stumbled across an article titled “A ‘Great Cultural Depression’ Looms for Legions of Unemployed Performers.” I, like many people, have become weary of the seemingly endless stream of negative news that’s come about from the pandemic; however, I was intrigued, so I read the article. There was one sentence that the author, Patricia Cohen, wrote that stuck out to me.

“In many areas, arts venues — theaters, clubs, performance spaces, concert halls, festivals — were the first businesses to close, and they are likely to be among the last to reopen,” they said. It’s a very simple statement, and in many ways, it was a truth that I already intrinsically knew. But seeing it written out allowed it to register fully for the first time.

As a theatre student, I am very familiar with the popular mantra, “the show must go on.” When COVID first started sending cities into lockdown, I saw the industry almost immediately begin trying to figure out how to possibly continue the craft when everyone was quarantined. 

zoom call with friends Photo by Gabriel Benois from Unsplash Radio plays, Zoom readings and filmed pieces have now been produced widely by many different theatrical artists. Still, I think I speak for all artists when I say that it will never be the same as live performance. While one can admire the tenacity of the arts in such a time as this, we are once again facing a harsh reminder — the arts are seen as expendable.

Of course, the great irony of this is not lost on me, as I tune into my Zoom classes and see icebreaker questions asking about what TV shows we’ve been watching and what music we’ve been listening to. Nor am I claiming that theatres should not have closed down for the sake of the community. Rather, I’m pointing out what so many artists internalize over the course of their careers. 

Choosing to pursue art is choosing a passion that will always be seen as extra, something that you have to sacrifice a certain level of rationality to achieve. And as I watched millions of people express awe and admit to the inspiration of Amanda Gorman’s moving poem at the inauguration, I wanted to scream, “The arts matter! You care about them!”

Musical Theatre Photo by Kyle Head from Unsplash I am in no way trying to insinuate that the arts should take some sort of special priority, especially right now, but I am extending a weary plea. To fellow artists, I ask that you reflect upon this time and fight for the recognition you deserve — fight for art to not be a luxury. 

To everyone else, reflect on where you would be without the work of artists. Reflect on who you would be during this pandemic without the comforts provided to you by artists including the shows you watch to pass the time, the music you indulge in, and so on. 

I pray that we will begin to see why putting the arts last, by seeing them as superfluous, is against our own interests. In conclusion, I offer these words from the dramatist Bertolt Brecht.

“In the dark times/ will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing. / About the dark times”