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Additional Anthem: The arts in a time of pandemic

Wednesday, January 6, 2021
News Type

The arts in a time of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about how we see and interact with our world. Few aspects of society have been as affected as the performing arts, where musicians, singers, dancers, actors and others have been prevented from gathering with audiences to share the creative experience.

The Fall 2020 issue of Anthem looked at Ambrose University’s core disciplines through the lens of the pandemic. In October 2020, Mark Bartel, Associate Professor of Music (Choral Activities), delved more deeply into the impact on the arts, and what the future may hold for arts education, performance and graduates.

Looking through the Arts lens, how do you see the pandemic?

For the most part, art, like athletics (and a long list of other human endeavours!) needs to be embodied — to be done in order to actually “be” what it is. When it is dangerous to gather, sing or touch, the initial effect of the pandemic was to eliminate the “doing” of these most natural, human expressions.

Those involved in the arts were left asking what (if anything) was left. How can the “world be saved by beauty” (to quote Dostoyevsky), when the means of experiencing this beauty is taken away?

As of this writing, in-person arts practice and performance gatherings are among many restricted activities. For much of the arts sector, “shutdown” literally meant “shutting down” … as in full stop … at first. After the initial shock and hope-deflation, we moved through stages of clarifying purpose and outcomes, to alternative or substitute experiences, to redirecting and innovating in light of the restrictions.

The pandemic has significantly redirected each of the three ways in which the arts function at Ambrose: primarily in terms of curriculum, and also in the roles of enriching campus life and representing the University to the constituency and community.

As we stand in hope between the challenges of the present and the uncertainty of the future, we are trying to focus upon the role the arts can play in turning the feeling of hope into action.

We are trying to use the very creativity endemic to art in solving the pandemic-induced problems we face. The survival instinct is strong!

Does the pandemic have an impact on teaching or scholarship?

The influence on teaching is on a spectrum: one end being the less-impacted academic courses which function fairly well with alternative delivery methods, and the other the highly-impacted applied courses which are predicated on in-person skills development, collaboration and live-performance outcomes.

The learning curve was steep. For instance, how do we provide the essential collaborative work when in-person learning is restricted or can’t happen? Are some experiences better put on hold completely because of the radical way in which they have to be reimagined? How do we provide and reimagine learning outcomes without live performances? Is the shift to the virtual mode — without infrastructure and resources readily in place — a desirable difficulty to be seized upon or a temporary second-best?

Responding required a coordinated organizational effort and sharp scrutiny of almost every aspect of what we do, from course delivery, to facilities and equipment use, to scheduling, to the handling of physical objects such as props and music scores. As faculty, we have been reminded anew that we are co-learners with our students — to a great extent, we are all learning as we go and the “flow” goes in both directions.

While we continue to focus on essential subject matter, there is now a greater focus on “learning about learning” because of the need for alternative delivery, and this focus on pedagogy is hopefully making us better educators in the process.

Scholarship in the arts consists of research and performance. While traditional forms of research will be impacted but can largely continue, artists whose scholarship consists of performance-based work face significant challenges. They’re having to defer experiences in the immediate term and develop alternative performance projects in the short term, all while planning and developing their practice for a hoped-for return to conventional performances. Notably, as in other fields, the pandemic-arts relationship itself is also becoming a research topic!

Although we know the legacy and future of the arts is sure and will return to some form of normalcy, there is at the same time a sense that there is no turning back, and the arts as we know them may never be the same. The technologizing of the arts, while always in process, has been hastened and now we are coming to see it as an adjacent, if not fully known, future possibility.

Will there be long-term impact in Arts?

Some are negative in the various kinds of fallout that come from an industry in forced decline: emotional trauma, loss of employment, less live art shared with audiences, etc. These negative impacts are felt in different ways by artists and audiences.

There may also be positives if the pandemic can be experienced as a desirable difficulty which causes artists to come up with new answers to questions: why art is essential, who art is for (the artist and the audience participants), how to spot and nurture the “green shoots” of renewal.

Answers may lie in breaking down barriers between performer and audience and finding new ways to help restore the art of everyday life. Live performances have traditionally brought people to the art, so how do we turn that around and bring art to the people? How do we all make art in our lives?

We are also focused on what adaptations will need to occur regarding the larger questions about the future of the arts in general, and careers in the arts in particular, and how this may impact the demand for and design of post-secondary education in the arts. On this front, there are many more questions than answers!

How might the pandemic affect Arts graduates?

In the midst of pandemic limitations, we have reminded our students (and ourselves) that the principles of developing our craft and competency as artists remain. In fact, with some programming being taken away, there is more time and mental space to focus on individual skills.

The lack of a traditional audience does not have to erode the pursuit of excellence. In a faith community, to borrow from Soren Kierkegaard’s concept of corporate worship, the most important “audience” is a divine one and we pursue our vocation as an act of worship in and of itself.

Whether in performance, education, administration, ministry, community arts or graduate studies, the pandemic is fostering in students a new understanding of the relative importance of achieving success vs. contributing value to the church and society. The resilience and innovation born in times of stress will be an asset to all our graduates, including those who pursue further studies and careers in many non-arts fields such as law, education and medicine.

The balance between the pursuit of process and product has always been essential. The pandemic has edged pedagogy toward an understanding and application of process-related skills, as many of the traditional products — live performances — have been taken away.

We are drawing our students into the experience in more holistic ways. A more direct understanding of the unique thought processes, competencies and attitudes that go into production will serve our graduates as they become leaders, educators and facilitators. At the same time, it is helping us to redefine what a product may be and to turn to technology not only for delivering educational experiences, but to share our product in virtual form.