Confession: It can be exceedingly difficult to concentrate on writing a film review when Hillary Clinton is making history at the Democratic National Convention. Or to research a visual artist while Ted Cruz is shocking the Republican National Convention by not endorsing Donald Trump. Or to finish reading a novel for an author profile when a post-coup crackdown is playing out in Turkey. Or a truck mows through Bastille Day celebrants in Nice. Or an elderly priest in Normandy is murdered by fanatics. Or the Islamic State kills more than 300 people in Baghdad. Or … there are too many recent examples to list, I'm afraid.
I have been paralyzed at times by what feels like the futility of writing about the arts when the world is blowing up – sometimes literally. How can this interview with this actor matter? Or this art exhibition? Or this book of poetry?
What I always come back to is that the arts do matter, of course. Maybe never more than when the world is churning out toxic ideas and deadly deeds with such alarming frequency and impact.
Art can be (terrifyingly) relevant, with lessons that resonate. It's easy to draw similarities between Philip Roth's 2004 novel The Plot Against America and the scary reality of America today. Roth imagines a 1940 Republican Party nomination of aviator Charles Lindbergh – a populist who openly criticizes Jews and wins anyway – then strikes a pact with Hitler. Jews are targeted, feel marginalized. Sound familiar?
Anyone who has watched through to the end of the recently released fourth season of Orange is the New Black (this paragraph contains vague spoilers) can see the parallels between what happens in the fictional prison and what is happening in the culture: "I Can't Breathe" and Black Lives Matter, rape culture, gay rights, the war against drugs, PTSD, the dangers of putting budgets before well-being, even using a business empire to assert one's power and in the process swerve off into megalomania.
Or if you prefer to laugh at a fictional (and thus devoid of consequences) chaotic Washington – Veep delivered a stellar fifth season, with lines sometimes more outrageous than Trump's. (From Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus: "You're gonna cancel this recount like it's Anne Frank's bat mitzvah.")
Fiction can teach us so much about the world – no textbook required. What did you learn about the American South from To Kill a Mockingbird? Or about the dangers of totalitarianism from George Orwell's 1984?
Canadian author Madeleine Thien's new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing – which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize this week – enriches the reader's understanding of 20th-century (and thus contemporary) China – as well as the Canadian immigrant experience. (Not that there is a singular experience, but there are many commonalities.)
I digest a lot of news about the Middle East, but learned so much about the Arab-Israeli experience from reading Sayed Kashua's novel Second Person Singular. When he wrote it, Kashua was a Palestinian living in Israel; he finally left, in despair, and now lives in the United States.
While we have to beware the history lessons we receive from the big screen (hello, Argo), films can expose us to historical events – The Killing Fields, Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave and next, The Birth of a Nation, announced this week as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's 2016 lineup.
Art illuminates and analyzes the human condition. Shakespeare's lessons still apply. The suffering portrayed in opera provokes tears, even in another language. I learned a great deal about the impact of wars on those who fight them from the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives and, more recently, The Hurt Locker. The Crystal Pite/Jonathon Young co-creation Betroffenheit was probably the best thing I have seen all year – a stunning dance piece about catastrophe and grief.
Art opens us up to new ideas – so important always, but crucial now as the world seems to be losing its peripheral vision. We can all take refuge in our echo chambers, but the danger of cutting ourselves off from other ideas – or from ideas, period – is in vibrant display at the moment.
And on an emotional level, art – from pop songs to poetry – can keep us company when we're down, inspire us to do better.
Art is beauty. I think about newcomers to Canada – refugees from Syria and elsewhere – touring through the National Gallery of Canada or the Art Gallery of Ontario and being introduced to the works of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven – exquisite perspectives on their new country after so much horror at home.
The arts can be an antidote to the tumult. Listen to Mozart or Bach. Log on to Google's art project. Lose yourself for a few minutes – or hours – as you zoom in on Van Gogh's brush strokes or street map your way through the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Finally, at the end of the day – yes, literally – art can at the very least serve as a distraction. After Donald Trump's epic America-is-the-worst speech last week, I felt the need to, um, drink and shower – but also to think about something else. I turned off the commentators and fired up Netflix. Marcella – with its bloodshed, betrayals, chaos and confusion – felt like sweet relief.
Editor's note: An earlier digital version of this piece incorrectly called the Republican Party, the 'Republication Party.' This version has been updated.