Aesthetic experience in the Covid era

Rainbow

This is the third in a series of posts considering the Covid-19 pandemic from the perspective of the various ‘aspects’ proposed by reformational philosophy. Last week Alicia Smith considered the religious aspect of the pandemic – the way it has revealed the underlying influence of religious attitudes and priorities on collective thought and action. This week, I’m focussing on the aesthetic aspect, and asking: what has the pandemic revealed about our views of art, play and beauty? This question is very close to my heart, of course, given my vocation as a musician and lecturer on music (and my particular interest in new music that seeks to engage with contemporary society in a challenging way).

From my perspective, our collective response to the pandemic has revealed a kind of internal tension or contraction in the way we perceive the value of the aesthetic, at least within the UK. On the one hand, it’s clear that the aesthetic worlds of art, music, sport and play have played a particularly visible role in helping people come to terms with the unfolding trauma of this crisis, and in fostering a sense of community in the face of increasingly disruptive societal restrictions. This was particularly evident in the early days of the pandemic: the many viral videos of impromptu doorstep performances, the actors reading well-loved books or plays on Zoom, the hand-drawn rainbows appearing in windows across the country, even perhaps the meteoric rise of Joe Wickes’s group exercise classes, all testify to a collective (and very public) turn towards the aesthetic amid the isolation and fear of the first lockdowns. 

On the other hand, it’s equally clear that those whose livelihood depends on aesthetic production and dissemination – in particular those working in museums, galleries and the performing arts – have been hit exceptionally hard by the ravages of the past year, which have led to swathes of cancellations, lay-offs and closures; and at various times there has been a sense among many who work in this field that it has suffered (when it comes to government support) from a perception that it is fundamentally ‘non-essential’, and thus not deserving of the same level of protection as other areas of society – such as retail, for example. (I could point to specific examples, in particular the banning of amateur singers from indoor rehearsals even as pubs reopen; but I’m veering somewhat to my own particular hobby-horse here. I certainly don’t envy those in government who have to make these kinds of judgements.)

There’s a more fundamental question here. When we as a society are facing a crisis of this magnitude, what value should the aesthetic have? Is beauty (or enjoyment, or imagination) an unnecessary extravagance when society is (or appears to be) battling for survival? That's a difficult question to answer, of course, especially as it pertains to hard fiscal or political policy, but I do think that it’s important when we ask it to be clear what we mean by ‘value’, or by ‘extravagance’. If the ‘value’ of the aesthetic is understood as some form of external social utility – perhaps its monetary contribution to a struggling economy, or its power to foster community or boost spirits – then I’m not sure its role is being fairly presented. As the Christian philosopher Calvin Seerveld points out in Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves, ‘Art has its own kind of worth [… it] is not a means to an end, it is not a function of something else’ (p. 11). Seerveld memorably portrays art as a kind of spilled incense in the world, ‘to be treated like the expensive perfume that the wanton Mary spilled over [Jesus’] feet, which Judas the betrayer wanted converted into cash and given as alms to the poor’ (p. 20).

From this perspective, then, perhaps the value of the aesthetic is in its very extravagance: it challenges a purely utilitarian approach to the world, and stimulates a hunger for forms of experience which resist assessment in strictly economic or goal-oriented terms. In that sense it reflects a core truth of the gospel, which is that there is a core to our lives (our soul) which cannot be evaluated simply in terms of our possessions or social connections or personal achievements, but which we owe to God as our maker – and which Jesus came to redeem and restore. This is not to say that art by itself always points us towards God, of course; as with any other sphere of life, it can be used to draw our attention towards or away from Him. But I do think that the extravagance of the aesthetic is one way in which it resonates with the character of God: it opens up a space within which we might contemplate or respond to His own extravagant generosity. I certainly think that was part of the power of those early lockdown doorstep concerts and drawings and Zoom readings: the sense that even amidst fear, uncertainty and restriction, there were still moments of shared beauty, moments that felt like an unexpected or undeserved luxury. That is certainly the character of our Good Shepherd, who even in the presence of our enemies prepares a table for us, and anoints our head with unnecessary oil (Psalm 23). 

There’s more that could be said here (with thanks to Alicia Smith for pointing this out) about the implications of this extravagance for our own living, too: the ways in which we might be called to reflect God’s generosity not just financially but also in how we share and enable aesthetic experiences. I’ll leave that for a possible future post (or for others to comment on further below!). I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these issues.

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