By Brian Panowich
I worry about the artist.
Maybe because I am one, but mainly because art in all its forms has taken a back seat lately to pain, politics and world-wide strife. The painters who have been reduced to showing their work online as opposed to gallery openings. The writers whose book sales have plummeted because most working-class folks can’t afford the luxury of buying books. And don’t forget the publishers who print those writers being even more cautious and extreme than ever about their selections due to the massive dip in print-runs. I worry about the singers and the songwriters who don’t make their money from CD sales anymore now that streaming services are all the rage, but instead forage out a living from the live shows and the ticket sales, which have come to a screeching halt and have been reduced to virtual shows that people have to watch or listen to from the confines of their homes. Missing is the roar of the audience and the elbow-to-elbow connection with other fans celebrating the love of the music. All that seems like a thing of the past.
What about the actors of stage and film? I don’t know any famous ones personally, but I listen to my daughter upstairs in her room singing, dancing and practicing for the part in her next school play, alone, but still filled with vigor, when she should be on a real stage with her friends experiencing it as it should be — joyfully.
It makes my heart heavy to know that a significant number of creatives in the world aren’t being afforded the ability to do what they do. And that is to provide art that lifts people out the mundane or to add color to the gray of life, especially when we need it the most.
So, I worry, but every now and then, I see things that alleviate that worry and I remember why artists exist in the first place. Art at its core is in some way custom made for tragic times like these. Yes, it’s a new and daunting way that we are all forced to experience it, but it’s out there, and in some cases just, if not more, vibrate than ever.
I have a childhood friend who has used the downtime from his business taking a hit financially to return to his pen-and-ink roots and produce some of the most gorgeous renderings of powerful women I’ve ever seen. Art that could possibly become some of the finest work he’s ever done.
I’ve found myself on social media staring at his portraits, one of which accompanies this very column, and feeling breathless. And for just a few minutes, the world is as it should be — that’s what art can do.
I have another acquaintance who picked up her camera this fall and took a road trip across the Midwest to photograph the boarded-up storefronts and plywood-covered windows of small-town America, which business owners had hung signs on that read, “We love you”, and “We’ll be back”, and “Take care of each other.” The subject matter was harrowing, but the artistic expression of hope was booming through the sorrow — that’s what art can do.
I also attended my first two virtual concerts; Lindsey Buckingham live from his home and The Jayhawks performing The Sound of Lies record in its entirety. It wasn’t just the music that swept me away, but the intimacy of the stories told between band members about how the songs that shaped my life came to be. Again, just for an hour at a time, the world was peaceful again. No arguments about red or blue states, no rising or falling death tolls, just music, magic and joy. That — is what art can do.
I even bought tickets to see one of my favorite comedians, who would never travel this far east, perform one of the funniest sets I’ve ever seen him do, and not once did I think of the stack of bills collecting on the counter or the dwindling amount of money in the bank. I just laughed — deep, and with my whole belly. All while sitting on my back porch. That, my friends, is what art can do.
So, yes, I still worry about the artist. I worry about artists’ ability to maintain doing what they do for the rest of the world, but with a little hope, common sense and solidarity, they — we — will be able to get back to doing the things we were born to do in order to make the world a better place. And with just these few examples, maybe they can show us how art can prevail during chaos if we only look for it — if we make the attempt to need it.
Art is the light that transcends the darkness, no different than love will always conquer hate — and if you think that sounds cheesy, well, go watch what Lindsey Buckingham can do with his guitar and a computer and tell me you don’t get all teary.
The artists are out there. And trust me when I say that you need them just as much as they need you.
Art by Derick Wells
Appears in the January 2021 issue of Augusta Magazine.