Kay: Art in Turbulent Times


Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Do turbulent times create an environment that produces great art?

“Art has always [forced people to confront a dark reality], and it is a really powerful space for expressing anger,” said Genevieve Gaignard, a photographer and installation artist, in an interview for the Huffington Post. “If you’re not the type to protest on the streets or don’t have the words to express your outrage, your voice can still be heard through your art.”


Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix, 1830

Plenty of examples back her up. Picasso painted Guernica, probably the most famous anti-war painting ever, only two months after the bombing of that Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War. Eugene Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People to commemorate the July Revolution of 1830, which toppled King Charles X of France—a painting the French government thought was too inflammatory in its glorification of liberty, so they bought it and removed it from public view. It was roughly in that same period that Victor Hugo wrote the novels Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

And of course, the theory is that the artist has to starve in a garret while writing or painting the masterpiece, because genius flowers only when it’s drunk, high, unhappy, destitute, or emotionally scarred.

But many artists would prefer not to suffer. In an interview in The Atlantic, the Danish writer Dorthe Nors, author of Karate Chop and other novels, said such ideas are self-destructive, and glamorizing suffering is dangerous. “We can separate artistic pain, the experience of feeling deeply, from leading a painful life,” she said. It’s because art is painful that she strives to keep an even keel, because the work itself is hard enough.

Are we entering turbulent times—times when the political climate could lead to a diminished quality of life for people, including artists, who might be marginalized? Some artists think so. They’re worried about it—and they’re wondering what they can do to stay on an even keel and produce their work.

John Scalzi is a novelist (winner of the Hugo award) and “critic at large” for the Los Angeles Times who feels “knocked for a loop” by the election. He wrote a 10-point plan for how to create art in turbulent times. Actually, it’s good advice even for peaceful times. It starts with “Acknowledge it’s bad, and other facts of life” and ends with “Remember: Your work matters.” For the full article, go here.

Are the times turbulent for you? And are you finding the time and bandwidth to create anyway?

12 thoughts on “Kay: Art in Turbulent Times

  1. Oh, I do think that great art often depends on great motivation (unless it’s surreal, and even then, motivation helps). Protest and consolation — two of the greatest motivators. Do not go gentle into that good night (or however the quote goes) seems to cover both. Oh, and of course, to get women to go to bed with you. (Somehow, I never hear of a man being seduced by a pretty poem, unless there’s a pretty girl behind it. Please prove me wrong! I’d be delighted to be proven unfairly cynical about this.)

    • Protest and consolation are big motivators for creating art, I think. Whether they’re *necessary,* I don’t know. AS for whether men can be seduced by poetry, maybe it depends on the man. Not that I can provide any specifics!

      • LOL, there are so many documented instances of men saying they write or they do art in order to get girls. I wonder if any man was every wooed by a really remarkable embroidery screen. Saw it and said, “Damn, a girl who can capture the Battle of Whatever in thread is the girl for me!” Pretty would help, of course. It always does, even in the case of men creating.

  2. I’m still in a place of having moments of great despair about the world’s shift to embracing greater inequality and intolerance. I am joining IRL groups to organize on the ground and trying to find empathy for people who seem okay with the turbulence and the part they play in it (that second one is not going so well for me).

    Beyond that, I am clinging tightly to my loved ones and personal joys of the new year (like my daughter’s upcoming September wedding :-D), and just as you and Scalzi and so many others recommend, focusing on the art. If all that fails, I have enough Bourbon to get me through at least this next year…

  3. Art and bourbon! That’s a slogan that works for me. And congratulations on your daughter’s wedding! That surely is also something to look forward to.

    Otherwise, I hear you about the uncertainty and fear—and will to organize. Time will tell. Just today I was talking with a friend about going to the Women’s March on January 21. That might be both fun and powerful…

  4. Pingback: Elizabeth: January Short Story – Eight Ladies Writing

  5. I am in a stand still in my work on HOW to produce the feelings I see..I don’t want to do the usual photograph the marches(unless I can do it differently)

    • I think no matter what we do, these times are going to come out in our art. The trick is just to do it. For photographers, I don’t think it hurts to try the “photograph the marches” — there may be something in seeing the real thing that triggers your creativity when you go to photograph, say, crop circles, with every blade bent down except one, or some sort of time lapse that shows all the blades popping up again . . . . Creativity must be fed.

      I live in a rural area of Japan, so I don’t know when or where marches are taking place at a reasonable distance from me, but just following the news is part of feeding the creative process. I don’t know when or where or how, but all those hot pink knit caps are going to come into my work somewhere. I just know they will. I’m not entirely happy about it either at this point because I don’t know. But there’s something powerful there.

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