Are we back to normal? That asterisk keeps creeping back. New York is experiencing yet another Covid wave, and it’s hard to ignore the undercurrent of loss in some of the music, performances and other art forms coming this season. The Rolling Stones are putting out a new album, their first since the 2021 death of their drummer, Charlie Watts. “Here We Are,” the final musical by Stephen Sondheim, who also died in 2021, is set to open at the Shed this month. The novelist Michael Cunningham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Hours,” is releasing his first book in a decade, and it’s set during the pandemic, as is the National Book Award winner Sigrid Nunez’s upcoming novel, “The Vulnerables.”
Not everyone wants to seek out art and entertainment that deals with the stressors and trauma of day-to-day life, and I understand that feeling. Sometimes with culture we want to reflect on life, death and the world, to feel understood or seen, but sometimes we want to escape, and the right comedy or video game or 19th-century painting is a work of art, yes, but more important in that moment, a distraction, a pause on the chaos just out of frame.
What I love about culture is that it can provide a response to the world as well as a respite we sometimes need from it. In August, I admit I was distracted from the deadlines and meetings and cat-herding of Arts & Leisure as I read, anxiously refreshing the screen, about the wildfires in Maui. My family is from Hawaii, and I see the pictures of people who have lost homes, livelihoods, loved ones, and I feel Nunez’s words in “The Vulnerables” when she writes, “We are now a world that is defined by continuous disaster.”
Later I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the few places in New York that’s been part of my life since I first visited the city on a high school trip. Looked at the same centuries-old artworks I’ve been staring at since I was that closeted band nerd from Alabama. Imagined the disasters, natural and man-made, that the artists who created them went through during their lifetimes. It all reminded me how culture can help you both escape something and face it. This was reinforced when I read about the French dance collective (La)Horde and how its members have grappled with the idea of collapse — of the environment and stabilizing structures but of harmful, violent ones, too — telling my colleague Gia Kourlas, “The way to be punk today might be to work for a brighter future.”