The Arts in a Changing World

What we need from the arts in the modern era with Icarus editor Eloise Rodger

When the pandemic struck in 2020, worldwide panic and confusion ensued. Entire human systems ground to a halt as bans were placed on travel, work and face-to-face interaction. International health organisations issued pamphlets and instructions intended to curb the spread of the new virus. However, it was not enough to simply exist in this experience. Throughout the art world, there was a common desire to translate this moment into something meaningful.

Accordingly, the arts saw a resurgence during those long months of isolation. Creating and consuming various forms of art reassured people that they were not alone in experiencing pandemic difficulties. In times of crisis, why do we turn to the arts to translate our experience? Who better to ask than Eloise Rodger, one of Icarus magazine’s editors.

Student-run literary magazine Icarus publishes two to three issues annually and accepts submissions of poetry, prose, drama, personal essays and visual art from the students, staff and alumni of Trinity College. Subject matter ranges from the “weird” to the “wonderful” and offers, as stated in the foreword of the latest issue, a means of making “terrible feelings worthwhile”. This sentiment goes some way to explain the magazine’s unending popularity – the glossy stacks of the latest volumes are usually snatched up within an hour or two – but it also holds true for Rodger, herself a writer and creative.

When asked what motivates her to write, she explained: “It’s for catharsis or enjoyment, the satisfaction of turning the messy and nonsensical into something that glistens or moves — something that feels perfected.” Her motivation to write comes from the desire to translate individual experience into art: “I feel it like an itch that needs to be scratched. Like I need to clear my head or straighten out a thought. Once I’ve honed my craft, I hope to use it to some noble effect, but at the moment, I’m just trying to get the basics nailed!”

“When we talk about collective experience, we really mean lots of individual experiences heaped together. Art is able to bind these, regardless of their dissimilarities, in its ability to hone in on the truth”

Often, however, the urge to write comes from a unique and individual space, but ends up speaking to a collective. “When we talk about collective experience,” Rodger said, “we really mean lots of individual experiences heaped together. Art is able to bind these, regardless of their dissimilarities, in its ability to hone in on the truth.” There is a certain poignance to her words; experiences that seem unique to the individual are often shared by many others — especially within cultures or communities. “Arts are an antidote to isolation,” she continued, “when you teach art, you teach communication and authentic self-representation. It’s a crucial education in life skills, it steers people away from silence or violence, it teaches you how to talk, how to think… the creation of art is a vital reminder that you have something only you can offer, that your individuality can make something spectacular.”

Art and literature, in representing experience, often strike a common chord for a large number of people and may offer a certain solace. “Whether it’s a bunch of wizards in space, or a kid living alone in Alaska, if a story hits an emotional reality, it taps into that collective, something universal and age-old.” Take Seamus Heaney, for example. Recognised as one of the major poets of the 20th century, he was appreciated by literary critics and ordinary people alike. Readers looked to his work for clarity and guidance, particularly during times of crisis in Ireland (i.e. the Troubles). When asked to comment on the importance of poetry in times of crisis, he said: “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”

The source of many of our shared experiences begins online. Particularly over the past few months, many of us have been witness to severely violent images and videos, in particular from Israel’s relentless bombardment of the Palestinian people and infrastructure in Gaza. Studies from the National Institutes of Health show that increased exposure to violence through media is believed to lead to emotional and psychological desensitisation. This media coexists with the usual overwhelming levels of information churned out by social media each day.

“I won’t talk about this nearly as eloquently as she does, but Jia Tolentino’s ‘Trick Mirror’ explains the way the internet is a ‘feverish, electric, unlivable hell!’ She talks about online echo chambers, the loss of nuance and the obsession with performance and symbols,” Rodger explained, “she does a beautiful job at understanding why social media can make you feel so inhuman. When you are inundated with content 24/7 and half of it is mindless and the other half is so unbelievably devastating you are forced to switch off from it, of course, you feel numb to words.”

This can be a dangerous thing, as desensitisation may cause reduced sympathy and even indifference towards real-life instances of violence, instances that we need to be receptive to in order to respond in a proportionate manner. Rodger believes that writing has a role in healing this problem: “Good writing makes you stop and slow down. It’s not always obvious or easily-digestible, it requires sitting with. It tells stories with the care and detail that evokes empathy and connection, and makes people feel human again. It’s not about click-bait or abundance, it is subtle, ambiguous and hand-crafted. And above all, it takes time, it makes you think.”

In response to a question about whether or not enough value is placed on the arts in current society, she said: “We live in a post-truth age, where western culture seems to have promoted polarisation, inauthenticity and echo chambers of ideas.” Indeed, intelligent algorithms keep users online firmly within mental comfort zones – their beliefs and ideas are reinforced and they ignore dissenting views and information. Research from PNAS shows that users online tend to “form polarised groups around shared narratives” and “when polarisation is high, misinformation quickly proliferates.” In an era of click-bait copy, fake news, and an absurdly steep decline in political integrity, writing as a truth-telling exercise seems more vital than ever before.

On this topic Rodger said: “Art and writing offer an opportunity to test and explore a broader range of thinking, in a safe and respectful way. Safe does not mean not challenging. In a world where we need to empathise with people who we disagree with, to find solutions and paths forward, the expression of the truths that are common to all of us is a great place to begin.”

“If we can, it is important it does get put into words… to serve as a stark reminder of what should never happen again”

What about, though, when some things seem beyond words, and beyond expression? Surely, there are limits to the power of words. For Rodger, this is “the great challenge of writing. It’s all about capturing ideas that feel too elusive to grasp, about conveying experiences that feel too difficult to process. It is obviously immensely hard to do this well. And when it comes to some of the horrors that humans have put each other through, I think, if we can, it is important it does get put into words. So, that people feel seen or be forced to understand, to serve as a stark reminder of what should never happen again.”

Rodger’s further reading recommendations include: Jia Tolentino – “consistently produces writing that grapples with exceedingly complicated topics in totally accessible ways.”; Savannah Brown’s poetry collection Closer Baby Closer; “feels like love in the age of the internet and explores intimacy and Jeff Bezos, and does a superb job of navigating that muddle.”;  Postmodernist theory and hyperrealities; “equal parts fascinating and frightening.”; Out of the Blue by Simon Armitage; “writing that really manages to navigate tragedy.”; “Necessary and brutal testaments to some of the terrors of the 20th century — Everything from Mark Zusak’s The Book Thief to the recent release of The Zone of Interest.”

Maisie Mould

Maisie Mould is a copy editor and contributing writer for Trinity News and is currently in her Senior Fresh year of English Literature and French.