As we sit cooped up in our homes, many of us are seeking and finding advice on what performances to watch online, what music to stream, what novels to read. We are looking to the arts, not just to fill empty hours, but to take us away from the anxieties of the here and now and offer us other worlds and other lives to inhabit. We expect that relief from the arts in the best of times, but there is more urgency to that expectation in our present situation.

James Parakilas

You might ask, though, how the arts can fulfill our expectations at a time when we are so isolated. After all, many of our encounters with the arts are social experiences: much of the thrill of going to the theater or movies or concerts comes from sharing the experience with family and friends and even with strangers, who come to feel like friends in the process. How can we replicate that feeling when we are at home by ourselves?

The best answer I know was given by the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, St. Basil the Great: singing a song, he wrote (thinking specifically of singing the Psalms), brings companionship in the wilderness and serenity in the marketplace. He had known both the loneliness of the wilderness as a monk and the hubbub of the city as a preacher.

Our marketplaces are not scenes of hubbub these days, but many of us are definitely feeling as deprived of our friends’ and neighbors’ companionship as if we were living in the wilderness. How can a song — or a story or image — fill that void? By creating virtual companions in our imaginations. If we are singing to ourselves in the wilderness, we feel a connection to an imagined listener who understands what we are feeling. If we are listening to a favorite singer, we feel as if we are that one special listener whom the singer needs. In watching dancers, we inhabit their movements and come to imagine what would motivate those movements in someone. In following a story, whether enacted or narrated, we imagine the lives of others and come to care about their fates. In looking at images, whether still or moving, we enter into the scenes where lives different from our own might play out.

Loneliness is the feeling of being confined in our own lives as in a prison, and all the arts dissolve our loneliness by making us feel connections beyond those confines, perhaps for only the time being, but perhaps for longer.

Someday the present viral scourge will run its course, our marketplaces will fill up again, and we will once more need to find serenity in our crowded lives. At the same time we will still have occasional or deep-seated feelings of isolation; we will still get into our cars and instinctively turn on some music.

For now, we can fight off the loneliness of our social isolation with arts experiences: by singing and dancing at home, by watching shows on television and by taking virtual museum tours and watching online performances on our computers. Many local artists and arts organizations are uploading their work on their websites and you can find notices of those opportunities in the Sun Journal, on the LA Arts Facebook page, or on the websites of local performers, museums, public libraries and performing arts organizations.

You will find that virtual connections through the arts are especially strong and touching when you are bringing the artists of our own community into your home. And when we can all return to our theaters and galleries and concert spaces, please remember how the arts helped you through the long days and nights when you couldn’t go there.

James Parakilas is board chair of LA Arts, the arts agency of the cities of Lewiston and Auburn. He lives in Lewiston.

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