Persons: John Arthur and Pal.
Scene: Parc Maisonneuve, Montreal, October 2020. Sounds of birdsong and, in the distance, cars.
PAL: Hey John, you’re a fairly arty guy, have you been enjoying all the online cultural offerings during the past few months? Concerts, plays, literary readings, poetry? Or maybe you’ve even been creating some of those things and putting them online?
JOHN ARTHUR: I haven’t watched any of them, and for the most part I haven’t been participating as a performer either.
PAL: What?! What have you been doing? Apart from talking to me?
JOHN ARTHUR: Well, let’s see. I’ve been working, reading a lot, eating, sleeping, going for walks. And I have watched movies and TV shows, but they were all available before the pandemic. I haven’t really watched any of the online arts offerings that would otherwise have been live. I’ll wait for them to be live.
PAL: Come on, this could go on for months! If we can’t attend live performances, we need to do the next best thing.
JOHN ARTHUR: But I don’t think virtual events, where someone films themselves with a phone or whatever, is the next best thing. See, I have a problem with this whole “let’s put it online” lark right from the get-go. Let me try to be as unequivocal as I can, sweetie:
I think the biggest problem in the world today is our relationship with technology. I believe that we are becoming dehumanized by our capitulation to our various devices. We are in a state of near-constant distraction. Our eternal souls are in peril.
Believing this to be true, it would be a bit disingenuous of me to say, oh, but of course if you’re listening to me, or watching me, on your phone/laptop/iPad, then that’s okay, because I’m doing something good. That would just be to participate in the ambient narcissism and the endless search for distraction.
The fact is, although I think that what I do creatively is thoughtful and worthwhile, if I were to put my work out there in the virtual world, I wouldn’t believe that people were spending their time in the best possible way by listening to me. I think they would be making a better choice than many other possible choices, such as watching angry YouTube rants or grainily filmed artistic cris de coeur. But I think, rather than watching anything, however well-intentioned, they would be far better to turn off their device and go for a walk, or read a book, or talk to someone. Or write an imaginary dialogue with a fictional friend. Or even just stare into space.
It’s the time we spend staring at screens that is the problem, regardless of what is on the screen.
That is what I believe.
PAL: You’re so intensely irritating a lot of the time. As it happens, I saw a fabulous piece of theatre online the other day! It was really well done, professionally filmed and everything.
JOHN ARTHUR: What you’re describing is called cinema. It’s not theatre.
PAL: Okay, well, call it cinema then, if that makes you happy.
JOHN ARTHUR: But cinema isn’t my thing. What I do and what I love is live performance. Theatre is, by definition, something that is performed live. If you record theatre and put it online, it’s not theatre. I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad, and I’m not putting it down, but it’s not theatre. Call it something else—if it’s really well done, and filmed with thought and artistry, call it cinema—but it’s not theatre. And theatre is what I do. Ergo, I cannot do what I do if I’m online.
So I’m willing to just wait out this pandemic. I don’t feel I really have any choice. Despite what some people say, the arts are not an essential service. I’m trying to use this time as a replenishing pause.
PAL: But don’t you think we need the arts to bring us together at this trying time? Don’t you have a responsibility to be putting your creativity out there?
JOHN ARTHUR: I agree that the performing arts are one of the things that can bring people together. But so is sports. So is a good meal at a restaurant. So is a beer at the pub with your chums. All of which, you may have noticed, are currently not allowed, because they could result in large numbers of people getting sick and dying.
So what can we do? We’re in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime major planetary public health crisis. We need to find other ways of coming together—like giving someone a call, going for a walk with a friend, talking to people at the shop. There are many, many ways to relieve the solitude.
PAL: But being nurtured by a work of art isn’t the same as talking to a friend. One doesn’t cancel out the other. We need art too!
JOHN ARTHUR: Well, if it’s art in a more general sense that one is needing—or, in other words, inspiration—how about reading a book? or watching a movie (speaking of cinema)? or listening to some music? If there’s one thing there is no shortage of in our modern lives, it’s art. We have ready access to almost anything that’s ever been produced in any artistic discipline. If you think we’re suffering from a shortage of art, I think you need to think about how you define “art.”
Have you noticed that the people who talk about how desperately we need the arts right now are mostly people who make their living from the arts? But what they really need—what everyone, in fact, needs—is a decent living wage, and because of the pandemic, many don’t have this, in various fields of endeavour. Curiously, what the government provided through its pandemic relief programs very closely resembled an artist’s subsistence grant. So we became a society of professional artists, in a sense, for a few months this year. I know at least one person who actually used the time to write his first book, and it’s being published, too!
All of which goes to show the importance of a basic minimum wage (and, in a way, the absurdity of the notion of the professional artist). If we all had a decent wage, we could do away with all this nonsense of arts grants to individuals. Everyone would be getting the equivalent of a grant (but it would be called a minimum guaranteed income) and people could decide whether they wanted to use their time to make art (and perhaps, if they were lucky, thereby even earn some extra income) or study philosophy or do something to supplement their income in a more reliable way than artistic creation.
Art will happen. In fact, art is happening. Art always happens, in all circumstances.
Let’s focus on the real problem, which has been highlighted by this pandemic.
The problem is loneliness and isolation. And that is not helped by having a society of atomized beings staring into screens at other lonely people doing things. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons people are so lonely—pandemic or no pandemic.
PAL: Hey, what’s that? Listen! [Silence as the two listen.] It’s a cardinal, isn’t it?
JOHN ARTHUR: I don’t know … I’m not really good at identifying things like that.
PAL: What? You mean birds?
JOHN ARTHUR: Natural things, yeah. Practical things.
PAL: But you know what theatre is? And art? . . . And loneliness? I mean to say, you can see these things . . . and label them . . . and yet …
[His voice fades as the two meander offstage.]