“Literature had to become political because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty” – George Orwell, ‘The Frontier of Art and Propaganda’.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the political, social, and pretty much every landscape imaginable, for the past eighteen months. It has bled into every aspect of our lives; it is now unusual to come across any conversation without hearing mention of the upheaval we have all experienced since last March.
People have reported watching television programmes recorded pre-pandemic and feeling an amalgam of nostalgia and anxiety at the sight of people not wearing masks, not social distancing, and not rushing to self-isolate at the sound of a sneeze.
We are accustomed to seeing art, whether it be in the form of a song or a film or something in between, that reflects our lives as they are. It is true that we sometimes struggle to make art that mirrors society at its truest. However, it is also true that we certainly strive towards it.
We connect with a creative output that relates most strongly to our present situation. When we ask ourselves questions about art, namely that age-old question of whether art mirrors life or vice versa, we do not do so with any definitive answer in mind.
In a sense, to focus on the answer or lack of answer, would be to miss the point. It is the asking of the question itself that signals our fundamental desire; to see art as a depiction of the shared experience of being human.
That is why there has been such a flurry of artistic activity in the wake of the pandemic. In our ‘on demand’ world, we cannot linger on the issues that affect us most keenly. We use every sort of media at our disposal as a tool to explore anything and everything, from something as inconsequential as posting we ate for dinner on social media, to something as politically timely yet ideologically divisive as Brexit: The Uncivil War.
Whether it be Bo Burnham’s critically acclaimed Inside, the less-than-critically-acclaimed Songbird, or even David Tennant and Michael Sheen’s comedy miniseries Staged, we have an undeniable hunger for multimedia that grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
As politicians like to repeat, this is the greatest crisis we have faced as a nation and a world since the second world war. It is natural that we would want to talk about it, discuss it, explore it.
This might seem like a bit of a departure, but when I consider the nature of art in the wake of the pandemic, I cannot help but think of George Orwell. If there is one great chronicler of the disruption caused by the second world war, it is George Orwell. Orwell often wrestled with this question of representation in his work.
He was aware of the importance of language, but often he wasn’t quite sure of its place in the contemporary political canon. The question of whether he ought to merely describe to his reader, or implore them to act, often surfaces in his journalism and his fiction.
The intersection between politics and art, the way they represent and relate to one another, preoccupied Orwell throughout his life.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Orwell’s ‘The Frontier of Art and Propaganda’. This essay originally took the form of a radio broadcast by the BBC in 1941; it was published later that same year by The Listener. ‘Frontier’ is an underappreciated essay, often outshone by the sheer quotability of such essays as ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’.
Yet it is in ‘The Frontier of Art and Propaganda’ that we are given the most acute glimpse into Orwell’s ideas of the problem of representation within art in the wake of the second world war. In this essay, Orwell says that “almost every European between 1890 and 1930 lived in the tacit belief that civilization would last for ever.
You might be individually fortunate or unfortunate, but you had inside you the feeling that nothing would ever fundamentally change”. Although circumstances have shifted radically, I think that many of us, in the wake of the pandemic, can perhaps relate to these feelings of, perhaps security is a strong word, but rather stability, within society before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the first lockdown, there was a sense that capitalism, and the despotic world leaders borne out of it, could wreak havoc on the less fortunate across the globe; but even in the face of religious fanaticism and sycophantic nationalism and climate crises, the same systems of governance and structure of society would remain predominantly unchanged.
There was a sense that history followed a straight line – it could not be interrupted. The sense of rupture that Orwell describes in the 1940s, is in essence the same feeling that artists and civilians alike are feeling now, after eighteen months of intermittent lockdowns.
Orwell gestures towards the fact that “the writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one’s life but one’s whole scheme of values is constantly menaced.”
Orwell goes on to state that “in such circumstances detachment is not possible. You cannot take a purely aesthetic interest in a disease you are dying from… Literature had to become political because anything else would have entailed mental dishonesty”. Similarly, art today must respond to the pandemic because to do otherwise would necessitate a willful ignorance of the global situation.
The reason why art that takes the pandemic as its subject is consumed so avidly, is because society has fundamentally changed. The channels of communication and consumerism that we once took for granted, have vanished. Not only that, but we have witnessed how quickly they could vanish again.
If there was an established order of things previously, the pandemic has laid it to rest, either temporarily or more permanently. Because of such instability, art must change to reflect it. The art that we consume becomes far more socially and politically relevant, whether we like it or not.
The sense of continuity prevalent before the tide of the pandemic has been lost. We have an insatiable hunger for new forms of representation, forms that consider the helplessness we have all been feeling over the course of the last eighteen months.