• John Michael Cooper


Updated: Apr 10, 2020

It will take creative imagination to build a better world after COVID-19. The arts will provide that.

It is a phenomenon both curious and historically unfounded: from earliest youth we are indoctrinated to a world-view that positions the arts in the margins of “the real world.” In this world-view, the arts are the beneficiaries of the largesse of the sciences and commerce; they are niceties which develop empathy and offer entertainment, but only on the sidelines of the supposed real-world work of commerce and the sciences. The arts, we are taught, are dispensable, maybe disposable. And when (so this world-view teaches) there is a “real-world” problem to be solved, the sciences or business will solve it and the arts will benefit.

But history teaches differently. History teaches that in times of trouble – disease, economic crisis, famine, war – it is the arts that have lighted the way and led forward. Literature, music, painting, plays, and poetry have been the safe and fertile soil where the embattled human imagination has gone to take nourishment and root, then to rise out of the soil, spreading its branches and bearing fruit that nourishes every facet of human enterprise.

The evidence is abundant throughout history and across cultures. Historically, economic and scientific manifestations of resuscitations of the human spirit after times of crisis have been short-lived or transitional, while artistic responses to crisis have endured and inspired for centuries to come. Three examples, chosen from among many, will make the case.

1) After the turbulence and violence of the fourteenth century – the bubonic plague, the first few generations of the Hundred Years’ War, the papal schism, and more – the European Renaissance was born of a conscious return to the arts and letters of Classical Antiquity. Changes in economics, politics, and the sciences attended this “rebirth,” but those changes have faded into historical obscurity. Meanwhile, writing in the vernacular has become the international standard in the sciences as well as the arts. The Renaissance’s revolutionary rethinking of musical consonance and dissonance not only legitimized triadic harmony, but also paved the way for subsequent breakthroughs in acoustics, which in turn facilitated recording and broadcasting sound. And perspective drawing and painting are central tools of scientific and technical illustration as well as the visual arts.

2) The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the central element of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” that would bring about national and worldwide recovery. Federal Project Number One within the WPA was devoted specifically to the arts. It comprised the Federal Art Project, the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, the Historical Records Survey, and the Federal Music Project.

It succeeded brilliantly. The Federal Music Project alone commissioned 7,332 new compositions by 2,258 American composers – Blacks, Hispanics, and women among them – resulting in a total of 224,698 performances before an estimated 148,159,699 American citizens in less than a decade (1935-1943). Through the Historical Records Survey many former slaves were interviewed – making the voices and experiences of those enslaved and systemically oppressed individuals an official and indelible part of the U.S. historical record once and for all.

3) Today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement descends from the Civil Rights Movement (which would have been unthinkable without the spirituals and freedom songs that moved millions to the cause of addressing racism in the U.S. and strengthened them in the face of White-on-Black violence), and that movement in turn traces its roots back to the Harlem Renaissance – a movement that was driven not by economic determinism, political strategy, constitutional rhetoric, or military strength, but by the creative arts. Triggered by a wave of legally sanctioned anti-Black racial violence in the “Red Summer” of 1919, the Harlem Renaissance gave millions of Blacks the courage to embrace the (for the time) revolutionary concept that their imaginations, their minds, their humanity could produce art that would validate and valorize their human imagination, their human spirit. Its artistic affirmation of the beauty and majesty of Black humanity and imagination fueled the Great Migration that broke the economic back of Jim Crow society. It began in the Northeast but then spread majestically across the country, re-centering to the Midwest in the 1930s and then to the West Coast in the 1940s and beyond. It ultimately transformed itself into the mature Civil Rights Movement and then into today’s #BlackLivesMatter movement.

And the arts led throughout. The Harlem Renaissance and its offspring redefined modern life in the United States. Despite recent years’ resurgence of racism and racist violence, there is no going back – and persons of good will everywhere continue to draw strength and inspiration from the artistic affirmations that the Harlem Renaissance stamped indelibly into the American experience.

There are countless other examples of this historical lesson – but we should also note that the scientific contributions of many of history’s great polymaths have faded, while their art endures. Leonardo da Vinci was a brilliant and sometimes prophetic scientist as well as an artist, but his scientific work is a historical footnote, while his art – Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, Vitruvian Man -- continues to inspire. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe made his living as a natural scientist, holding a collection of nearly 18,000 specimens of minerals, studying morphology (the later discipline of homology), doing extensive work in meteorology and barometrics (popularizing the so-called Goethe barometer), and developing a theory of color. Yet Goethe’s contributions to the world of letters are what endures and inspires today: Faust (especially Part I), The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship, and many poems. Goethe’s science has faded, but his plays, poems, and fictional prose are integral parts of the modern condition.

All this is not to say that the arts themselves end wars or fight disease: a painting will not end the conflict in the Middle East, a song will not discover the cure for cancer. Nor does this historical lesson in any way diminish or downplay the critical role that the sciences are playing in addressing our current crisis. What it does say is simply that times of crisis are precisely the times when we need to celebrate the arts, not marginalize or pooh-pooh them. Because the arts are where the human imagination goes in times of crisis. It is in them that we develop understanding and resolve, in them that our imagination grows the strange new fruit of new world-views that in turn open the way to a brighter future. Imagination manifests itself first in the arts and is then followed by innovation in the sciences and technology. The arts are the essential condition, the first responders to crisis, and the sphere that offers inspiration for other solutions. They are the embodiment of hope and imagination.

Our world is currently in the midst of a global pandemic, a dark night of crisis and chaos the likes of which none of us has experienced before. But history teaches that sooner or later this dark night will be followed by a new gloaming and then by the clarity of a bright new day. History also teaches that when the throngs of humanity step into that new day, artists and artworks themselves will be at the forefront – because these are the purest and most resilient manifestations of human creative genius. The narrative that the arts are the beneficiaries of the largesse of the cultural deities of science and commerce is familiar, but it is also false – for while scientific discovery and wealth are ultimately ephemeral, art endures.

The arts lead.

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