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What Art Does for Us

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Welcome. When I was 22, I was a factotum at a nonprofit theater in New York City. I made fundraising calls and addressed envelopes. The job was pretty humdrum, but it had one massive perk: I’d frequently get free tickets to shows I’d never be able to afford otherwise: Cherry Jones in “Pride’s Crossing”; “Art,” with Alan Alda, Victor Garber and Alfred Molina; musicals like “Ragtime” and “The Lion King.”

I thought about that era of constant theatergoing — of sitting in the dark of the audience, overwhelmed by the grandness of the spectacle onstage and my luck at getting to experience it — while reading the critic Jason Farago’s suggestions for what the Biden administration can do to provide relief for the arts. He argues that the country is in urgent need of Aristotelian catharsis — of art, music, drama and the emotions they summon:

You go to the theater, you listen to a symphony, you look at a painting, you watch a ballet. You laugh, you cry. You feel pity, fear. You see in others’ lives a reflection of your own. And the catharsis comes: a cleansing, a clarity, a feeling of relief and understanding that you carry with you out of the theater or the concert hall. Art, music, drama — here is a point worth recalling in a pandemic — are instruments of psychic and social health.

Farago advises Biden to create a new Works Progress Administration-style program treating artists as essential workers, and to make it easier for artists to receive unemployment benefits, among other recommendations.

We’re all waiting for things to open up so we can resume what we think of as normal life. Considering what that will take is daunting, but it makes the promise of going to a play, hearing live music or standing awed before a painting that much more exciting to anticipate.

In the shorter term, I’m anticipating “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” George Saunders’s close reading of Chekhov. Parul Sehgal wrote, in her review of it, that Saunders “offers one of the most accurate and beautiful depictions of what it is like to be inside the mind of the writer that I’ve ever read.” Who could resist?

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