Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Work Doesn’t Always Look Like Work: In Defense of Radical Laziness During COVID-19

Expecting financially devastated artists to produce during the coronavirus shutdown is akin to handing a condemned man a typewriter on his way to the gallows. To hell with that.

These are wild times. In a world seemingly being both destroyed and born anew on a daily basis by the horrors of the COVID19 pandemic, where the future's uncertain and the end is always near, it's nice to know some things remain the same. Namely, that the onus to keep the world from imploding into a dystopian hellhole has been placed squarely on the shoulders of some of the most vulnerable members of society – including frontline workers living paycheck to paycheck, and artists. And while plenty of column space has been rightfully taken up with praising the former (although not to the extent of advocating for any kind of living wage for them, of course) there seems to be little mention of those artists who are facing an increasingly uncertain future.

Artists who've lost their main source of income, their very identity to some degree, are now being expected to bear witness to this pandemic through the art they're supposed to be creating. This is something akin to handing a condemned man a typewriter on his way to the gallows. Don't worry. You'll be paid in exposure. It's almost as if the capitalist ghouls are no longer content with consuming the very lives and livelihoods of their victims across the globe. Now, even amidst the pandemic, they want our souls. There can be only one response: Radical Laziness.

little blue robot by vinsky2002 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Radical Laziness is a personal form of protest against the capitalist prosperity gospel that laid waste to the pre-COVID world as we knew it. It's a mindful refusal to constantly correlate your self worth with your level of productivity. There's a Henry Miller quote that has always stuck with me, and as of late it's taken on a whole new meaning. He said, "when you can't create, you can work." I think that we've become so indoctrinated into the mindless drive to create product and content that our whole concept of work is flawed.

We aren't machines. We aren't working on a production line. So why would those same standards of work apply to the artistic process? Why is our worth as artists always seen as so directly proportional to our productivity? Why do we as Americans suffer from this very specific and toxic Puritanical hangover? Could it possibly be because our system here is so skewed towards corporate profits and the Almighty GDP that most artists are forced to work multiple jobs just so they can have the "luxury" of creating art? I think this is likely.

Photo of Ben de la Cour by Neilson Hubbard (courtesy of the artist)

While it's true that this Puritanical hangover isn't unique to the United States, it's fair to say that in the US it has finally reached its logical conclusion; the manifest destiny of American Exceptionalism. Most cultures, even western ones, value artists that create art for arts sake. I have a record coming out on 15 May that I recorded in Winnipeg on a Canadian Artist Grant. I'm not even Canadian. Imagine if the US offered these types of grants to people from other nations. Or even, god forbid, to its own citizens on a regular basis. It seems like a wild concept. Is it?

As worn as the cliché is, most artists are empathetic, sensitive souls. At least the real ones tend to be. In the midst of a global pandemic, isolated not only from our loved ones but from our regular routines, support networks and creative collaborators, it strikes me as grotesque that artists are being shamed for not focusing on innovative and new creative outlets. Every social media platform is awash with so-called influencers and tastemakers reminding us that if we're not using this valuable "down time" to learn a new instrument, start a new painting, record that Operatic Doom Folk Opera or write the Next Great American Novel, then we're failures, frauds.

Never mind if you lost your sole source of income along with any side-hustles you might have had, or lost your home, or lost a loved one to COVID-19. Never mind that for most of us art is more than a source of income. It's an identity. And now we're being told, "you're an artist. Do your job. Create." Sounds pretty close to "shut up and sing" to me.

I was talking with my poet friend Tiana Clark recently about writer's block -- that mythical crypotzoological entity that neither one of us really believes in -- and she mentioned that when she talks to her students she defines the concept of work not only as the time one spends putting pen to paper, but also the time letting the writing "ferment in darkness" as she beautifully describes it. To read, cook, exercise, talk with friends, listen to music, watch TV with pleasure and without guilt. I must admit that some of my best ideas were born on scraps of paper that I'd find crumpled into my pocket from bar-rooms I have no recollection of being in. Work doesn't always look like work.

As I watch my two-year-old daughter grow I've come to realize more and more what I've suspected all along: that play and boredom are the twin gateways to the subconscious, the wardrobe leading to a strange world and wonderful world, the road to William Blake's palace of wisdom. Some of the most important work you'll ever do as an artist is when you're allowing your mind to wander and make connections, when you're fostering a playful environment of free association and creativity unburdened by the concept of work or expectation. Who among us hasn't felt the tug of the mystery while driving across the endless gray expanse of highway in Shitsville, Kansas, or while walking through the park alone at dusk, or staring mindlessly at the wall of a jail cell waiting for the drunk to wear off and the hangover to kick in, feeling like an empty jar of peanut butter that someone is trying to scrape the last morsel out of with a rusty butter knife?

As artists we have historically prided ourselves as being for the most part outside the tentacled reach of the soul-destroying drudgery of a 9:00-to-5:00 existence. That exchanging that life of relative security for the soul-destroying drudgery of driving 50,000 miles a year, haggling with promoters in half empty rooms, and the Sisyphean task of keeping body, soul and checkbook together is absolutely worth it. Because making art is worth it, right? And getting away with making art on your terms – that's worth even more.

When Dylan said "to live outside the law you must be honest", he must surely have been including being honest with ourselves. So here is my truth. You know what I believe is not worth it? Strapping yourself to the wheel, over and over, and grinding yourself into dust during a global pandemic because that's what society expects of you as an artist. Fuck that.

If you feel like making art right now then by all means do it. Not that any artist ever wanted or needed permission from anyone. But if you're feeling overwhelmed, if you're feeling ashamed about having been abandoned by the muse during these trying times, take heart in the knowledge that maybe the most radical thing you can do in a time like this is, as Nick Cave put it recently "to become eyewitnesses to a catastrophe that we are seeing unfold from the inside out... to watch and contemplate the possible implosion of our civilization in real time".

The monster thinks it may have finally found a way in, a weak point in the hull, a crack through which to slide its oily tentacles into our dreams. Don't let it in. Take a nap.

Works Cited

Cave, Nick. The Red Hand Files. Issue #90. March 2020.

Lukacs, Martin. "Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals". The Guardian. 27 April 2015.



Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.