When Muses Speak Part 1: Being an Artist in 2020
By Laura Kincaid
“There is an old Russian phrase,” Mikhail Zorich, director of the Multicultural Arts Exchange (MAE) tells me over the phone. Like all performing arts organizations, the Multicultural Arts Exchange sits at a crossroads. As we talked about how MAE can move forward in a world of pandemic and protests, Mikhail brought up the phrase, “when the guns are talking, the Muses are silent.”
In Greek Mythology, the Nine Muses are divine guardians of the arts who bestow inspiration onto artists and philosophers. They are ethereal women, like in the painting Minerva among the Muses by Balen, clad in colorful gowns, holding the objects of their domains: instruments, a scroll of poetry, a theater mask. When they speak—through artists, writers, and performers—every soul would listen. Today in 2020, the Muses would look quite different. They’re more like The Muse of the Fountain by Osbert: in the dark, alone, no one to listen.
The wounds to the arts are not just metaphorical. The arts and culture industry has reportedly lost $4.5 billion due to COVID-19. The bleeding does not stop at canceled events and lost ticket sales. With every sector struggling, arts funding is often the first to go. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, which funds vital programs for the community, was cut to a third of its budget for 2021.
It is easy to think that the old saying is true; the Muses are silent. People are trying to survive or fight for a better tomorrow. It is easy to assume the arts are a luxury we cannot afford right now. Honestly, I would not be surprised if the Muses swapped out their gowns for sweatpants and started driving for Grubhub like the rest of us.
However, the Muses are not dying—they’re surviving and evolving, like the rest of us.
“We defied the Coronavirus because we didn't even push the show off,” says dancer Asya Zlatina, artistic director of the dance company ARTIST HOUSE. With MAE, Zlatina and her dancers were scheduled to perform their show Maybe Even Higher to North Philly audiences on May 17th. In the show, dancers bring to life the artwork of children from the Terezin concentration camp.
Instead of going in-person, audience members received a link to view the show at their convenience and attended a live video conference with the performers. For Zlatina, dancing is her survival tactic. “Art transcends words and logical sense. It is something you can do when there is no logic around you,” she explains. “It was important for me to continue meeting with my dancers and rehearsals.”
The shutdown has even created new opportunities for performers. Michael Shingo Crawford is a Philadelphia violinist and composer who performs with the Independence String Ensemble. Like everyone, his in-person performances were canceled due to COVID-19.
“I found myself with a large amount of time to pursue the interests that I was passionate about but couldn’t find time in my schedule previously,” he explains, like his passion for anime and film music. “One year ago, I had posted a very casual video of myself playing violin music from an anime soundtrack and saw that tens of thousands of people were watching it.” Michael has relaunched his YouTube channel, uploading new arrangements of popular scores from movies and shows.
The Muses still speak. And we need them more than ever. On the phone, Director Zorich describes his new campaign to share music during this time. The campaign’s slogan turns the old phrase on its head: “When the Muses talk, the world is quiet.”
To be continued in “When Muses Speak Part 2: Art for Survival’s Sake.”