Art in the Time of Coronavirus

The Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Marilynne Robinson has written extensively over the importance of the humanities in everyday life. And since we are in the throes of a crisis, it bears repeating.

It is tempting in moments like these, similar to the political choices of the 1980s, to focus on what we call “austerity.” This is a word that means a number of things to different people, but to most of the pragmatic in American thought, it means dispensing with the sophisticated and articulate, getting rid of music, literature, culture, arts, and letting the auditoriums of high schools fall to ruin.

But we forget how essential the humanities can be. It’s important to recognize that in human history, people with far less craved art far more.

The University of Iowa was founded in 1847, only two months after the state was admitted into the union. According to Wikipedia, the original class catalog offered courses in such inessential things as ancient languages and moral philosophy. Yes of course we also see other scientific pursuits such as chemistry and natural philosophy available for the local farmers who would feed our world, but we also see a delicate care, not just to the basic functions of living, but also to articulating soundly the experiences of our hearts.

And who could have imagined that The University of Iowa would become home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the leading creative writing department in the country?

The Coronavirus, after it has had its way with us, will call to us a revolution of sorts. Do we really need the humanities?

The thoughts that cater these sorts of dilemmas are so startling. Truth be told, even to this day, we do not really know where inspiration comes from. It is so illusive, that mathematicians often have a phrase: bed, bus, bathtub, for the places in which an inspired thought typically occurs. Many filmmakers speak widely of their favorite literature, not remarking how different the mediums are.

The past is an ugly place, and people died younger of horrible diseases. Yet they still craved the violin concerto. They still yearned to see the next Caravaggio, and they still had the utmost respect for Jane Austen, writing in secret.

People are going to be stuck in their homes. To find truth, they are not going to seek out the most soullessly advertised item on Amazon. They are going to need something emotionally substantial, and rigorously thought. Perhaps in that social isolation, they will remember what they left behind.

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