Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: On Artists and Survival

Robert Longo, "Men in the Cities - Men Trapped in Ice," 1980. Collection Mera and Donald Rebell, New York. Image courtesy of Robertlongo.com

An artist recently lamented to me that, these days, being an artist felt so painfully inadequate. Against fascism and pandemic, the racist cruelty of police backdropped by impending ecological catastrophe, I could hear the purpose slipping from her voice. Both of us sat outside, socially distanced, dressed up in costumes (why not?), and drinking cocktails. A few humans far from their extended families, we decided to roll out this pandemic as best we could with the humble adoption of a hermetic coterie. But there’s more than one way to lose your mental health lately.

My artist friend described her work as a thing too small to fight the horrors of our times, an exercise in vanity for a too-small audience while others fought and died against an existential threat. Every grocery clerk and nurse, grape-picker and pharmacist, was doing something classifiably essential, risking themselves to keep us alive, laboring each day to ensure our physical well-being. The political uprisings swell and burst and whatever the subject of our work, whether it be political documentary or dreamland poetics, making a work of art doesn’t feel nearly as necessary as marching in the streets for racial justice, or concerted actions for electoral change. The flailing petulance of the worst leader in the world has ensured the death of more humans than grief can count, and his incompetence guarantees our isolation. The fundamental cruelty of an entire world laid bare so quickly with a cough.

I can hear in my friend’s voice a shiver. I feel it too, that numbing powerlessness of apocalypse depression, the lugubrious despair that hides in the bottom of our souls waiting for us to stop caring and succumb.

And that shiver of despair is everywhere. In my extended community, I know as many people to have died from suicide as Coronavirus. The despair is so thick in our houses it’s hard to move from room to room. Each morning I struggle to throw off the weight of it, a blanket soaked with listless anxiety. I reach for my phone and flick through the news, hoping there will be something to slice through the stagnation. And I do find strength from the cracks I see in white supremacy along with the buoying sacrifices so many are making, both large and small, for the health of us all. But the news, rather than giving me the security of the informed, feels more like a pleasureless addiction, my daily dose of horror and hopelessness. With each story I read there, my body grows heavier.

I keep looking for something that I know I can’t find. What might have been delicious solitude is poisoned with storm and stress. And it seems so simple, even lazy on the surface, to simply stay put, and stay away from others. Of course, we do it because we must, but there’s a reason the wardens put prisoners in isolation. As weeks stretch into months, a body down wears down and a mind fractures.

Against all this, who can make a drawing or a sculpture, a poem, an art review? To summon the force to survive already feels like too much, and yet what can any of us do against this crushing weight of crisis but survive.

It took me time, weeks and maybe months more than it should have, to realize that the solace I needed was always there – the same one I’ve turned to my whole life when things got bad: art.

I’ve never needed art more than I do now, and I know I’m not alone. Everyday we turn to books and movies, we listen to songs of heartbreak and struggle to soothe our wounds and fire our hearts. With the window blowing a summer breeze into our lockdowns, we read love poems and do our best to let our bodies release into the sensuous breath of language, to let it move the dust and fever. We run our eyes over pictures of paintings and sculptures, and turn again to the few that perhaps we keep close. And all those things we’ve seen locked away in our past, I reach back for them in my memory. They’re still there.

This is hardly an escapism (though during severe trauma, there’s no shame in that mode of survival), but truly a necessary jolt that it isn’t enough to simply keep a body alive; we must give it a reason to live.

That art saved many of our lives is perhaps a familiar kind of cliché amongst those who have devoted their life to it, and like many clichés, it carries truth. I do not write this to diminish any endeavor lately deemed essential. I am truly grateful for the labors of those showing up to keep us fed and healthy, to keep the water running and the lights on. I give deepest appreciation to those researchers and scientists out there tirelessly working towards a vaccine. But in the meantime, I dearly need an antidote to despair. Laughter and love, the intimacy we feel with others is essential. Art is an aspect of this, a deep one that transcends distance. The artist reaching across time and space to connect with us, to share their visions, and even their darkness, wending from there to here, and linking with ours to give us succor.

One of many fantasies I have for after all this is over is to sublime into a giant sweaty dance party, the ecstatic release of humans fearless with jubilance. And that dream DJ at that fantasy party, along with all the poets and filmmakers, painters and sculptors, is keeping me alive.

Art has held off despair for me before and is doing so again now. It is a debt I will never know how to repay but have spent a lifetime, so far, trying. Every artist I know struggles to make some meaning out of existence, and in doing so, they produce meaning for others. Without this meaning, many of us won’t make it.

And so, I’m writing to all the artists out there, fighting to survive as best they can: we need you. While some of you might be emerging from the haze, I know that, for many, desperation is just arriving at your door. If all you can do is survive right now, well, we need you to survive. I need you to survive. Many of us wouldn’t have made it this far, and won’t make it any further, without you.

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