Creativity and the Age of COVID-19

You’ve probably seen the quotation going around social media: “If you think artists are useless try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies and paintings.” It’s pithy and it rings true – how many of us are getting lost in books that have long sat on our shelves, watching that show everyone’s been talking about, or playfully recreating museum masterpieces in our living rooms? These experiences provide us with much needed diversion and stimulation at a time when we are cut off from many of our standard outlets.

This, however, is only part of the story of why we need art and artists now more than ever. The bigger reason has to do with what creativity can do for us.

Experiencing and creating art enables us to see the world in different ways. When we look at a painting, or listen to a piece of music, or attend a performance, we are experiencing a momentarily different world. The artist is showing us something we have never seen. In turn, we bring our lives and experiences to that moment, creating something totally unique. Artist and viewer, connecting across time and space, create a temporary world with its own rules. If just for a moment, we feel as much as see that the world could be otherwise.

To be sure, creativity lives in all domains, not just the arts. Creativity is the process of using imagination and critical thinking to generate a new idea of value. When we create— whether a painting, a poem, a new recipe, or a solution to a daily challenge – we are imagining a possibility and applying critical thinking until we find the right way that bring that idea into the world. At Columbus Museum of Art, we embrace artists as models of creativity because they constantly imagine and create in the face of ambiguity and with a desire to shake off status quo ways of being. To “think like an artist” is to question everything, embrace complexity, attend to human needs and impulses, and have the courage to forge a new path through – and into – uncertainty. And we are living in very uncertain times indeed. Happily, we are surrounded by examples of people making new paths by walking, with creativity, through this ambiguity.

Creativity is musicians livestreaming powerful performances from their homes or playing curbside concerts from the backs of pick-up trucks;

Creativity is photographers creating quarantine porch portraits in exchange for donations to non-profits;

Creativity is neighbors creating signal systems  to help communicate with those who live alone – and creating sidewalk chalk obstacle courses to bring each other cheer;

Creativity is the grocery clerk devising a zero-contact system for elderly patrons to get what they need;

Creativity is teachers staging socially-distanced parades  around their students’ neighborhoods to say “we miss you;”

And creativity is everyone from scientists at Columbus-based Battle coming up with a new way to sterilize PPE masks to the quilter next door to asking, How can my talents help protect those on the front lines?

Through creativity we not only imagine new possibilities, we create something out of that vision. We ask “what if,” we embrace a guiding “why,” and we act. It is our individual and collective creativity that will see us through this storm. Art, artists, and our own creative impulses give us hope and agency to build new worlds around purposeful possibilities. What could be a more remarkable gift and a more worthy provocation for our times?

– Jen Lehe is CMA’s Manager of Strategic Partnerships, overseeing programs for learners throughout their lives. Jen directed the IMLS-funded Making Creativity Visible initiative and launched the Leaders in Creativity fellowship to build teachers’ capacity to advocate beyond their classrooms. Jen holds an Masters in Arts in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a BFA in Photography from NYU. When she’s not at CMA, she’s gardening with her pit bull, Chompsky.