We Need the Arts Now More than Ever

05 October 2020

In times of crisis, humanity expresses itself through the Arts

The Arts are a vital part of how humanity copes with crisis: by communicating human emotion through creative activities. There is something cathartic about the shared artistic experience that transcends all artificial boundaries, be they political, racial, or otherwise. Ultimately, we are all human.

Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize winning poet, passed in 2019 before anyone had heard of the virus that is currently ravaging the world. In 2015, she wrote an opinion piece for The Nation in which she discussed Art in times of crisis: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Pablo Picasso embodied this approach to crisis in his masterpiece, Guernica. This work was a response to the Nazi Luftwaffe’s devastating bombing of the Basque village by the same name during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bombing was essentially a practice run – with live targets – for the new blitzkrieg tactic that had been developed by the Germans. In 1939, a Nazi soldier visited Picasso’s studio in German-occupied Paris. On seeing a reproduction of Guernica, the soldier asked, “Did you do that?” to which Picasso replied, “No, you did.” Picasso’s answer to the horror and brutality of war remains a powerful image today.


The New York Philharmonic has a long history of responding to crises, going back as far as memorial music for Abraham Lincoln. Two days after the Kennedy assassination, the orchestra changed their scheduled programme and performed Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, “The Resurrection,” in memory of the late president. In a speech the following day, Conductor Leonard Bernstein said “We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him…Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”

In another example, the NY Philharmonic was on its way home from Germany when the World Trade Center towers fell on 11 September 2001. Nine days later, they were finally back in New York for a Memorial Concert to open the new season with Johannes Brahms’s “German Requiem.” According to The New York Times review of the concert, “If ever there was a moment when Americans, particularly New Yorkers, needed musical inspiration and healing it is now.”

Returning to Bernstein: “The point is, art never stopped a war and never got anybody a job. That was never its function. Art cannot change events. But it can change people.”

During the current global pandemic, arts organizations and individual artists from all disciplines have been active in bringing relief to the isolation and frustration that has been brought on by everything from closed borders and restaurants to closed hospital rooms and nursing homes. These include virtual exhibits and performances sponsored by art galleries, orchestras, opera companies, and individual poets, musicians, and other artists from around the world. One excellent Malaysian example is the MPOPlaysOn project of the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. This flagship national orchestra is now streaming live performances directly from Dewan Filharmonik Petronas.

Society needs the Arts. Human tragedy is made more bearable through the Arts. How else can one express the inner conflict that will take place when a family is unable to hold the hand of a dying loved one? Or a medical professional has one available ventilator and three critically ill patients?

Whether it is through a concert, a film, a poem, a novel, a painting, or any other work of art, these are the acts that define us as human.

This same vision places the Arts as an integral part of the future of Sunway University, where construction on a new performing arts centre began in 2019. Tan Sri Jeffrey Cheah has made a commitment to the Arts here, and to the concept of Sunway City as a future cultural hub for the region. Like all construction projects in Malaysia, work halted for almost three months during the MCO but is now underway again. We look forward to welcoming all for local arts experiences in a few short years, furthering the communication of human emotion through creative activities that bring peoples together.

Fill the world with Art!

For The Expat magazine (November 2020)


Don Bowyer
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