Comment Editor Asher Gibson on how studying Plato has helped him rediscover his creativity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artistic responses to the Spanish Flu (H1N1) pandemic were oddly limited, especially compared to the prior crisis of World War I. The art that did come out of the crisis often depicted first-hand experiences of the virus, capturing its hallucinogenic and de-realising effects. Almost nothing was produced by people spared of the virus but forced to isolate from it. Though it is a common mantra for creatives facing quarantine that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in isolation from the plague, the truth is that pandemics stifle creative expression much more than other crises.
After coming home in March, a distinct lack of motivation to write took hold of me. Two months later, it has only just begun to ease its grip. I initially rationalised it as simply a focus on exams, but that excuse did not hold for long. The night I finished my World History essays, I stared up at my ceiling, desperate to construct semi-coherent ideas for articles, essays, poems, or stories – and came up entirely blank.
Plato, in the Symposium, argued that to perceive the purest essence – the form – of beauty in all things and to live an ideal life requires the continuous internal contemplation of ‘the science of beauty’. The ideal life is not the passive and hedonistic consumption of obvious beauty, but is learning the rules and functions of beauty which, he argued, allows a person to find it in all facets of the universe.
For creatives cut off from sources of beauty – galleries, concerts, theatres, and so on – that once inspired them, Plato’s contemplation of beauty, learning its rules to milk it out of these dire circumstances, could be a plaster-cast for this break in post-COVID creativity. However, to do this requires the emotional and cognitive capacity to think clearly, rationally, and optimistically. Artists, like the rest of society, are losing their families, friends, passions and livelihoods.
Rather than expending precious energy scraping the barrel for obscure sources of creative inspiration, many are focused merely on surviving the days until they are granted a level of normalcy again. It is almost no wonder why pandemics incapacitate artists in their creation of original incarnations of beauty.
I am extremely lucky, for I have been spared the need to navigate these barriers. I cannot quickly nip to the Tate Modern anymore, but my village is quiet, clean, and objectively beautiful. I can take multiple walks a day without state intervention because the low population density here makes social distancing effortless.
My bookshelf is full. I have access to three separate streaming services through a relatively strong and stable Wi-Fi signal. I am economically well off and do not rely on my writing for food or rent. I am living with my partner and two happily married parents for the extent of the quarantine, so even loneliness and touch starvation are beasts I need not battle.
It is easy to find beauty in my condition, so I came out of my creative rut rather quickly. For others, it will inevitably be more difficult. But I hope that it is not impossible.
No one is alone in this; creative loss in pandemics was a communal crisis that faced the surrealists, the Dada and the Bauhaus movements in 1918. It did not speak of personal failures in them, nor does it in us. However, I see the philosophy espoused by Plato in the approaches of those who, faced with H1N1, broke the artistic stagnation it imposed and restored their own creativity.
Following the H1N1 pandemic, Bauhaus artist Marcel Breuer crafted minimalist furniture, intended to be easy to sanitise to prevent further outbreaks. He found the form of beauty in utility, simplicity, and health, and was inspired to produce tools to maximise it. His interpretation of how Plato contemplated beauty – finding it in as odd a place as a wipe-down chair – might just be what is needed to tackle this crisis of creativity.