Who says crises foster creativity?

Maria do Carmo M. P. de Pontes

For those who still believe that suffering yields good art, we show that plagues, wars, and oppression have never been the engines of creativity.

“After all it’s not that awful,” Orson Welles improvises in the ending moments of The Third Man, in what’s perhaps his most famous monologue. “You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” The narrative is set in 1949 Vienna, still so devastated by the effects of World War II that bombed buildings could be filmed on site. Deliberately mistaking the origin of the aforementioned clock, it is also a tragic coincidence that Welles takes Italy as an example, one of the most affected countries by COVID-19 to date.   Moreover, his romantic naivety isn’t justified.

Orson Wells, The Third Man, 1950.

There is a recurring idea that moments of crisis – be them caused by war, governmental oppression, natural catastrophes, pandemics or the Borgias – catalyse creativity, as individuals are forced to reach beyond their comfort zones to circumvent adversities. The optimists remind us that the Spanish Flu caved the terrain for wonders such as Bauhaus and Dadaism, albeit claiming the lives of 50 million people during 1918 and 1920. Amid this statistic are individuals such as Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, an exceptional Portuguese painter. Also Bohumil Kubišta, a Czech critic and painter and a central figure to his country’s Modernism. As well as Egon Schiele, still considered one of the most exquisite artists of the 20th Century over a hundred years after his death. The latter’s last three days were likely spent in horror, grieving the loss of his wife Edith, who was six months pregnant, to the same illness. None of the above was older than 35.

Egon Schiele, Portrait Of The Artist’s Wife Seated, 1917/1918, Österreichische Galerie, Wien.

The Spanish Flu, which unlike what its name suggests, has no geographical relationship with the country, came in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, which claimed the life of around 40 million people. Such a number, obscenely abstract in its written form, more than doubles when it comes to the Second World War. These turbulent periods of the 20th Century, alongside the Vietnam War, the Cuban Revolution and many other conflicts, have inspired thousands of books, series, movies, artworks and so on. Some were produced in the thick of it, yet the great majority – such as The Third Man – in their aftermath. Through myriad narratives, all this war-inspired production is nearly unanimous in its anti-war discourse.

During the years of dictatorship in Brazil we saw a huge creative flux in the arts, literature, cinema, architecture and, above all, music. Would Tom Zé have written that “the Square of the Distressed was not square enough to fit my distress[1]” in 1973 had  not been the bloodthirsty General Médici the president of that country at the time? And Chico Buarque, back to Rio de Janeiro after a period of exile in Italy, would he have thanked God two years earlier “for letting me breath, for letting me be[2]” had  he not lived in a reality in which guerrilla leader and former army Captain Carlos Lamarca was brutally assassinated in Bahia at around the same time due to his political views? Rhetorical questions generate opinionated answers, but we like to think that, as of many of their peers in the creative fields, they would have done more, and better, if “democracy and peace” had been in place. And that the Renaissance would have been infinitely more glorious.

Emílio Garrastazu Médici (1905-1985)

The AIDS/ HIV pandemic has claimed millions of lives since the early 1980s. It is an incurable, endemic disease to this day, but the development of new drugs now allow individuals who carry the virus to live long lives, without the threat of imminent death – given that they have access to medication, which is not always the case. For when it comes to diseases, there is indeed a direct link between innovation – creativity? – and the scientific community. The art realm was hit hard by this pandemic, the world losing some of its finest artists at the height of their careers – Keith Haring, Lorenza Böttner, Absalon, Feliciano Centurión, Leonilson and Rotimi Fani-Kayode, to name but a few. Besides a broad and successful campaign towards the safe practice of sex that it enabled, it is hard to think of another benefit that the virus brought to the world. Alas, the gay community was heavily stigmatised and blamed for it.

Lorenza Böttner, Face Art, 1983, digital C-print.

In his History of Art, Gombrich reminds us that Van Gogh did what he did in spite of his demons, and not because of them. The most brilliant minds that we know are at home, undergoing physical and intellectual confinements, in the kindergarten of elaborating strategies for what will follow. The great majority of us will survive and reconfigure ourselves as species – not ‘go back to normal’, as there’s nothing normal in an ecology where a billion animals die in Australia due to bushfires and leaders of great nations deny the link between such fatalities and our modern lifestyle. As the lockdown begins to be eased around the world, we are faced with a reality that alludes to all biennial titles blended together – such as May You Live in Interesting Times, All the World’s Futures, Live Uncertainty and How to (…) Things that Don’t Exist, just to stick with Venice and São Paulo in recent years. The situation inspires questions, which now as ever, may act as a catalyst, or fully paralyse individuals. It is certainly great that pollution levels are low, and that generosity is sparkling among communities, but no romantic pseudo-Darwinism can disguise the fact that what we are living is an enormous tragedy, from any perspective. Other than making people more aware of their personal hygiene, no other benefits that will come from it are yet clear. In spite of COVID-19, creativity will prevail, as it always has.

[1] In the original Portuguese, “o Largo dos Aflitos não era bastante largo para caber minha aflição”, a very sophisticated pun with a word that stands both for “large” and “square” or “boulevard”. Free translation by the author.

[2] “Por me deixar respirar, por me deixar existir” in the original. Lyrics of “Construção” (“Construction”), one of the most beautiful songs, or indeed poems, in the Portuguese language, made of dodecasyllabic verses, each of which ends with a proparoxytone word. These are shuffled around in every new stanza (three is total), thus creating various interpretations.

June 16, 2020