When Art is Not a Luxury
Art is not a luxury when you need it to survive.
When you are far from the home you love and the song you sing brings you back to your own soul.
When making an instrument brings you out of your own depression.
When you fold paper cranes, hundreds of them, for your own healing journey out of cancer.
When dancing the dance danced by your ancestors and their ancestors and their ancestors tells you who you are and where you come from.
When you are sitting in quarantine, and you can’t touch anyone, but you can pick up that guitar, or the paintbrush, or the spindle, or the clay, and create something that tells you that you are still alive.
You still can create beauty. There is something beyond yourself that can flow through you and keep you in the flow. You can lean into it. Even if you have no training, even if you were told your art-work was stupid or crazy or would never “get” you anywhere, even if your 10-year-old can make a “better” drawing than you can. Nevertheless.
Whatever medium is calling you, trust that call. That call is not the call of a ridiculous dream. That call is from Life Force Herself, summoning you to your higher self.
I first experienced this when I was living in India. The man I was ready to marry decided to marry someone else. Far from my home, surrounded by male friends who could not, by social convention, physically touch me and offer me comfort, I was overwhelmed with grief. One night, sitting alone on top of a friend’s rooftop overlooking rice fields, I reached out to the heavens and suddenly found something upwelling inside of me, and a song came out. I had not sung in years. I was a social scientist who worked for big named institutions attempting to solve serious social and ecological problems, not a singer.
But I started to sing that night, to the moon and the rice fields and the dark sky and, most important, to myself. The singing brought me back to a new version of myself.
My own song touched and began to heal a part of myself that I could not reach in any other way.
Not long after I started singing to others who were deeply depressed, and found it touched them too. I became a traveling singer. People would tell me their stories and I would turn the stories into songs using my rudimentary knowledge of American folk music. Not that I am a particularly good singer. I do not practice enough. It is my ability to convey my heart, not simply my technical skill, that matters.
For all of you who are spending more time letting the music flow through you, more time painting, more time with collage or poetry or dance, even if it is clumsy and awkward and constrained by the walls of your home and garden: Yes. Keep going. No one is laughing at you. Or if they are, laugh with them. Laugh at yourself. At the warble in your voice and the awkwardness of your brush stroke and the way you keep dropping the stitch in your embroidery because your phone keeps buzzing (or just turn off your phone, really, you’ll be ok).
Consider that your artistic expression is more important than you think it is. Consider that the world might be better served by you being more artistic and less — (fill in the blank). Consider that you know something: that there is an inner wisdom in the way you, say, take your photographs, waiting for that moment when you are fully connected to the creature you are photographing, when you feel them, even when you cannot touch them, and then you snap the lens and no you haven’t really “captured” anything you’ve really set something free. It is that freedom that shines forth in your image, evoking from the viewer an expression of unexpected intimacy with the wildness of the squirrel, the towhee, the lion: the wildness that they know because it is also in themselves. This knowledge that emerges when you create: this way of being is a way of problem solving and it has implications for this time of our lives — and for whatever we as a society collectively create from here going forth. The regenerative society so many of us know is our only pathway forward is a highly artistic and creative society.
I am currently supporting friend and colleague Dorothy Cameron as she writes a beautiful little book on why art is a necessity, not a luxury. She writes from her experience first growing up in the Celtic highlands of Scotland, where music flowed through and literally sustained their wind-swept lives; her own experience as a painter; and, primarily, her experience working with vulnerable populations long before art therapy was a profession.
Cameron taught painting to elders, homeless people, drug addicts, and women who were suffering from domestic violence. She brought them through a spiritually grounded process of engaging with art, inspired from her own mystical upbringing. Again and again, they told her, this art program has helped me to solve problems. It has given me hope. Art is helping me to survive.
As Cameron says: if the homeless people say art is helping them survive, we should listen to them. Art is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
As a healer, educator and guide in supporting new forms of legacies, I consistently find that Cameron’s experience mirrors my own (hence why I am working with her). I watch my clients and students transform their deep, harrowing depressions through an integrated falling-apart and re-creative process that includes some kind of art, philosophical movement (such as Tai Chi or yoga) and dance.
Science backs up this antidotal experience. The Harvard Medical School has increasing evidence that music improves the performance of invasive procedures; can help restore lost speech; supports pain release; and improves quality of life. For those interested in the nexus of music, sustainability, and culture, you might find my more academic article on why music is essential for sustainability of interest.
Perhaps it is time to put to one side Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that says first you have to feel secure and then you can create art. Not necessarily. Sometimes, security arises from art.
Don’t discount your own desire to create — dance, sing, paint, garden, collage, cook, beautify, arrange flowers, throw pots, write poems, play, weave, sew — during this time. It is not just for kids. Consider it as an essential service for your own mental health and capacity for solving problems — and possibly for others around you.
And if at all possible, give more to the professional musicians, filmmakers, actors, theater troupes, acrobats, opera singers and others whose livelihoods depend whose work you love. All musicians and theater professionals are at grave risk of bankruptcy right now, from the Met Oprah to jazz saxophonists to modern dance troupes. Streaming music pays artists less than a minimum wage. Professional artists and musicians often live on a knife’s edge: they simply do not have the relative safety nets that other professions have. There are a number of funds to support musicians due to the COVID-19; you can donate to a fund or, better yet, directly to artists whose work keeps you going.
The need here is not “just” to survive quarantine by brushing up on your guitar chords. The need and potentially the opportunity is to revolutionize and re-center our relationship to all of the arts, but especially to the role of creativity in our own lives. We do not yet know how to create an economy that centers collective creativity. We still act as if art is a luxury, and artists (outside of a few exceptions) are not highly financially valued.
We are unlikely to prioritize the arts — from not cutting art education in schools to funding participatory artistic expressions — until more and more of us reclaim our own artistic selves, even as we find ways to support professional artists during this time. Let your hands, your voice, your feet, your poems guide you into a new way of being. Don’t dismiss the creative potential of this moment. Let it flow.
Sara Jolena Wolcott is a healer, artist, legacy coach, educator and social innovator. She is enabling social, ecological and spiritual well-being and re-enchanting our world. You can reach her through www.sarajolena.com. Her beloved online courses and growing anticipatory community can be found at www.sequoiasamanvaya.com. She lives on the historical homeland of the Ohlone people in the California Bay Area.