Art Is The “Self-Care” We Need Right Now

How the arts will help us heal over the next four years and beyond.

Illustration by Louisa Cannell

I’ve been really into Paul Simon’s Graceland these days. It’s been a favorite of mine for a long time — an inherited taste passed down from my dad, who played the album on warm nights at dinnertime as we milled around the kitchen and outdoor patio area. The sunny acoustic guitar and bongo drums was the soundtrack to happy nights; the kind when we kids would stay out playing marbles along the hot cul-de-sac tarmac until dusk. I think Graceland reminds my whole family of those times, so we always play it when the weather is warm and we are feeling a little carefree.

This summer I biked across the Williamsburg bridge, my feet pedaling to the rhythm of Crazy Love, Vol II. and a salty breeze at my back. It was only a couple of months until the election. I felt like a was riding the wave of something big. History was in the making, and I was in such a unique place to witness it: living New York City, and working as a social editor for a publication whose mission is to connect and amplify women’s voices.

It was as if this political occasion was falling into place just as my friends and I were falling into place, too. We had moved on from our first desk jobs, which left most of us feeling jaded and apprehensive about the future, and onto things that made us feel more like ourselves. We relocated from Manhattan to the calmer neighborhoods of Brooklyn and relished every stereotype imaginable. We biked out to Fort Tilden on weekends, took way too many film photos of each other and our feet, and frequented trendy bars with overpriced cocktails. The weather was finally warm — and a woman was about to become president.

Everyone has their own version of what happens next. Not only was the idea of a woman president knocked from the realm of possibility, but the symbolism of the shift from a thoughtful, kind, black leader to Donald Trump was almost too much to bear. The pendulum of progress swings back.

My dad tells me he used to listen to Graceland on his walkman during his commute to class when he was in grad school in Florida. When the album came out, it was 1986. Reagan was president. The climate was one of deregulation, xenophobia, and greed. But Dad was experiencing of wave of defiant optimism. Despite the systemic stress that pervaded, he felt the world was on the precipice of change.

To me, Graceland represents the constancy of that possibility. When the album was released, the Soviet Union had yet to fall and Apartheid had yet to be defeated*. It was a strange, uncertain time. But Graceland’s music is the sound of an energy and optimism can be summoned both in good times and in bad. It’s the sound of a global community coming together against all odds. It’s a narrative, not of the world as it is, but a world that could be.

We need more of this. I need more of this. Poet and dancer Marc Bamuthi Joesph said it best in his recent essay:

“My art is not and never will be a bridge to this. It is a socket, inviting all who wish to be charged to plug in. It is a battery.”

*Graceland had a complicated and controversial role in the fight against Apartheid. I encourage anyone who’s interested in the album to learn about just why. This is a good starting explainer: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/paul-simons-graceland-10-things-you-didnt-know-w435711

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