This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks. To view other blogs in the series, please click here.
Teaching artists are no stranger to the American hustle culture – if anything, it’s the nature of the work we do. In New York City, we’re on and off trains, buses and subways. We’re in and out of classrooms, federal institutions and midtown buildings. We’re on late night and early morning weekend calls and basically just doing the whole damn lot. Before I was faced with the reality of losing many of my employment opportunities, sudden social distancing, and isolation, you might have caught me saying, “Well, if only I had more time, I’d be able to finally write my novel.”
The nature of the pandemic has forced many of us to interrogate truths we ordinarily wouldn’t have had to. This looks different for everyone, and has been particularly poignant, as ever, for communities living below the poverty line. As a teaching artist, I am anxious about the impact a recession will have on arts education and our students, as well as the pressure on many artists to hustle: to commodify and monetize their newfound “free time” toward an unattainable benchmark of success.
“Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear,” musician Rosanne Cash, and many other Twitter users along with her, began as the pandemic was actualized in the states. Thomas Nashe wrote Summers’ Last Will and Testament and Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron during historical plagues. Isaac Newton invented his theory of gravity while quarantined and Edvard Munch continued to paint even when he contracted the Spanish Flu.
One could argue that none of these people had access to Hulu or Netflix, but that’s not what’s important. These singular, historical creators are being upheld as the pinnacle example of optimism, goodness and, let’s face it, profit coming from our immediate times of uncertainty and hardship during Covid-19. Can you imagine a cultural standard that drives us, even during an outbreak, to think of how our own pandemics can look successful? Allow me to take the pressure off. Take a breath, unclench your shoulders, and release. You are not going to write King Lear. You probably aren’t even going to write King Lear 2. And that’s more than okay.
Let me pose a different question: when is the last time you created without the idea of product, success or audience in mind? At the start of my social distancing and isolation, I painted for the first time since I was a teenager. As a writer, I can’t explain what drew me to create this way, but as I took to the page with color and made something imperfect, I felt free. I video chatted with friends and colleagues this week and found them answering in the midst of baking recipes from their childhoods, learning guitar for the first time, and taking online dance classes. Lack of time may not have been stopping us from writing a Nobel-worthy novel, but it has kept us from the liberating nature of creating for fun, for experimentation, for solace and, most importantly, for ourselves.
In a time when the hustle is pushing down upon us, when everything remains uncertain, I wonder what our communities would look like if we could take a moment together in solace to start this artistic revolution without the expectation of volume, quality or driving a profit, but by the nature of creation itself? When I video called my friend the other night, she answered in the middle of cooking a harrowing recipe she’d been trying to get right for almost two hours. I laughed and marveled why she was putting herself through it. She just shrugged. “Why not? What else are we supposed to do?”
Chelsea Asher is a writer and educator, living in Queens, NY. She received her MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence college and her work has been featured in Lunch Ticket, Dark Moon Digest and more.