Illustration: Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir – this painting is part of the Phillip’s museum’s permanent collection.
As we browse the Internet for culture news these days, the phrase “art in the times of corona” (with local variations) appears in almost every article1.
These few words have become a catchphrase meant to evoke a number of different associations. It owes popularity to the capacity of its meaning. It can refer to least a few contexts in which people usually discuss art in “the state of epidemic”. It expresses concern with the condition of art and culture in time of a global institutional crisis (as museums and galleries remain closed). It is a promise made to the readers that they will be provided with latest information about interesting online art events and the cultural offer for the period of self-isolation. Finally, it also expresses a deep hope that art will serve as a “remedy” for current problems and fears for the future. But is it really the case?
To answer this question, one should ask about the way in which people perceive the remedial and healing function of art. The answer is conditioned strictly by the expectations we have about it. Do we want art to sooth us through with the promise of “beauty” understood only is aesthetic terms? Or, do we define “beauty” as the “truth” that leads to inner purification through criticizing the fiction of reality. In the first case, art refers rather to our feelings, in the second, to reason.
The virus forcing us to stay at home has also brought visible changes to the functioning of many art institutions. As the epidemic progressed, media around the world repeatedly reported about the closure of exhibitions, festivals, biennales, fairs and, finally, their organizers2. Some events were cancelled, others just postponed. Optimists expect the world to return to normal by autumn (e.g. Art Basel postponed their event to September 20203). Pessimists, on the other hand, prefer to play it safe and they predict a long-term crisis (e.g. Cleveland Triennial scheduled for 2021 was postponed to 20224). Even the Venice Biennale has been affected by the pandemic5. British museums, including Tate Modern, were the last to close. They seemingly delayed making decisions until the last possible moment.6 Will the repercussions of coronavirus last long enough to make postponing events two years ahead seem reasonable? One must not exclude such a course of events.
After the majority of art institutions, including the Louvre7, suspended activity in March and April 2020, hundreds of their employees were laid off. Many museums and galleries significantly reduced their staff. On 25 March, for example, Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Hammer Museum laid off 247 employees without permanent job contracts. On 3 April, the New York’s Whitney Museum announced it would lay off 76 employees as it expects a $7 million shortfall8. According to the estimates by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), each of their member institution is losing $33 million a day, which may lead to 33% of them being closed within a year9.
In mid-March, world’s two biggest auction houses – Christie’s10 and Sotheby’s11 – closed all their locations. Due to the cancellation or postponement of almost all art fairs12, the market has stalled making the Internet the only channel for art distribution13.
COVID-19 has also taken its deadly toll among people representing the world of art and culture. The 63-year-old critic and curator Maurice Berger passed away on 24 March 202014. The veteran of American architecture Michael McKinnell died at the beginning of April at the age of 8415. These are only a few examples. There have been many more16.
Although the epidemic has to greater or lesser extend affected everyone professionally engaged in culture, strategies of response to this crisis differ. Programmes of institutions that operate during the epidemic mostly turn to the past. They bring back old works, past exhibitions and glorious moments from their history. On the one hand, it has a therapeutic effect – it brings to the viewers the sense of the pre-quarantine normality. On the other hand, it may also mean that the world of art has not yet formulated any response to the current situation. Or at least, that the response is not as resolute as one would expect.
One practice that museums seem to apply is searching for new meanings older works e.g. once recorded scenes depicting empty streets have now become predictions about the future17. In certain way, such works correspond with photographs capturing the stark mood of the current situation18. Nowadays, artists continue to remind us that art is there to connect people in a time when there is no balance. Julian Schnabel, Laurie Anderson19, Jeff Koons20 and many others have emphasized this fact in their media appearances.
Although artists send a positive message, the fact is that culture is one of the areas most affected by the epidemic. It seems quite understandable. In dangerous situations, people strive to satisfy their basic needs in the order described in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. According to this model, aesthetic and cultural needs can only be satisfied once all the needs from lower levels (e.g. the physiological needs) have been satisfied. However, in a long-term perspective, this model proves to be not entirely correct. Ancient cave paintings as well as and the so-called ‘’ art of concentration camps’’ demonstrate it quite clearly. And this is still the case today. In the time of quarantine, art and culture prove to be as important for survival as food. In the world of art, negative consequences of the epidemic will in the first place affect unaffiliated artists, the so-called freelancers that shift from one project to another. Invitations to participate in exhibitions and other activities they receive from museums, galleries and curators constitute their sources of income21. Other groups likely to be affected by the crisis are self-employed artists and small, independent or partially commercial galleries that must fight for survival22. Many hastily created grants and scholarships have been dedicated to these groups. The most substantial aid programme has been drawn up in Germany. In her special speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that a staggering sum of €50 billion would be allocated to culture over the next few years23. These financial means will mostly be used for creating aid packages necessary for ensuring the continuity of cultural institutions and supporting small art businesses and independent artists24. The reason behind this decision is the strong conviction of the German government about art being an essential part of social life:
“Artists are not only indispensable, but also vital, especially now.” – said the German minister of state for culture Monika Grütters25. In current situation, culture needs support. The German government has calculated that due to the epidemic the entire sector of culture will lose €28 billion26. One must note that this is not the first when Germany allocates additional funds for the development of culture. In November 2019, the German government pledged to spend additional €2 billion on supporting culture, stating that art is “the engine of democracy”27.
The Chancellor’s declaration was as important as funds themselves. Germans have assessed the value of their own culture and, apparently, they find it quite precious. Not all countries, however, can take the same steps. The U.S. is in a slightly different situation as the country provides no public subsidies for art and does not have a Ministry of Culture. One telling example could be that if you enter words “covid-19’’ or ‘“coronavirus” on the website of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), an independent federal agency that grants funding for exhibitions, you will get no search results. In the U.S., culture is financed by private foundations and associations. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, for instance, plans to spend $5 million on scholarships over the next three years28. The Warhol Foundation will spend $1.6 million on emergency relief grants for artists buffeted by the coronavirus crisis29.
In the UK, Arts Council England has spent £160 million on emergency funding for art and culture in the time of crisis.30 France and Spain are also preparing their relief packages. In Italy, relief funding is still in discussion as most financial means are being spent on fighting the epidemic. The Polish Ministry of Culture is also still at the stage of preparing first relief programmes.
The differences in tackling the problem on both sides of the Atlantic may suggest that art world in Europe will recover faster than in America.31.
Waiting for money is not the only activity employees of the cultural sector engage in. Initiatives undertaken by cultural institutions are not only limited to making their collections available for free. Their initiatives are not only aimed at maintaining status quo. Quite the opposite, they try to engage in solving the most dire problems, proving why they deserve to be supported. Editors of art magazines create lists of cultural events available online that people could get access to while stuck at home32. Some art galleries convert their exhibition spaces into field hospitals33, or even mortuaries34. Hauser & Wirth decided to donate a part of profits to medical organizations battling the coronavirus35. Art organizations relocate their financial resources to help with the production of face masks and protective gear for health services36. Artists start groups to help the most needy that are self-isolating due to the quarantine.37 They also initiate projects aimed at raising people’s spirits and offering mental support38.
However, an in-depth discussion about the ways in which the coronavirus affected culture and its production seems to be still ahead of us. It has already begun in some professional art magazines39. A few articles on this issue have been published in Frieze magazineand online in the The Art Newspaper.
These texts raised the question of whether the art world, including the art market, would rise up after the crisis. Some shy voices speculate that the epidemic could have a refreshing effect on culture, especially on its commercial aspect. Many of those who operate in the world of art perceive the coronavirus as a chance for slowing down the frenzied pace of global activities and for re-thinking the whole system40. As one of the author’s writing for The Art Newspaper bluntly put it:
“Will coronavirus-related cancellations spell the end of >>fairtigue<<?”41.
By fairtigue she understands the flood of commercial events that could be observed in the art world. Another author asks not whether the art world will rise up, but if we would like it to rise up to the same form it collapsed in42. We still have to wait for the answers. The greatest challenge now seems to be the threat of a whole generation of artists being “wiped out” by the crisis43. Art is not easily transferred to the Internet. Not all artistic are suitable for that strategies. Though COVID-19 is not a threat for physical existence, it can strongly affect the symbolic existence. It can exclude from art circulation those who are not proficient in new technologies.
Another question is if the current crisis will bring an end to the “economics of direct experiencing” that for the last 20 years has been the driving force of the world’s economy. The very existence of the Internet allows to stay connected with the world, but the things it offers are a “mere” substitute for the real experience. If this was not true, concerts would be mostly happening online for many years already. Another example could be that fact that zoos still exist today. If people were satisfied with nature documentaries only, zoos would have been shut down a long time ago.
Among voices full of concern about the future condition of art and culture, there are only few that consider the current situation in a political context. In an article published by The Art Newspaper, the Chinese artist and activist Ai Wei Wei suggests that the real ideological war is yet to begin44. He argues that authoritarian political systems were able to handle the crisis more effectively and this fact earned them a symbolic mandate they did not use to possess.
“The epidemic has precipitated the thinking on life and death in human society, and posed a major challenge for the economy, culture and morality. […] Today China is in a cheerful mood after surviving a great catastrophe. It proves to the world the effectiveness of authoritarian rules and exposes the disadvantages and malpractices of free and democratic societies in controlling the epidemic. Obviously, many countries with freedom of the press and social security measures have reacted to this epidemic helplessly, and even ridiculously.”44 – the Chinese artist writes. Although his article strongly suggests that the conflict between two political models and their values is imminent, it lacks a direct reference to artists and their role in the course of this conflict. The real questions are not whether the West is ready for limiting personal liberty, but rather how will it happen and if doing so will affect the freedom of ideas. In social policy, “security” and “freedom” are two opposite matters, but the extent of their opposition is strictly related to the reason for some actions. This correlation is illustrated by the universal acceptance of security controls at airports. Despite their restrictive nature, they do not impede the freedom of movement per se. We allow them because we know they increase chances of reaching our destination safely. We therefore find some restrictions to personal liberties proportional and justified. As long as the limitations in public space related to the epidemic will serve as a way of protecting the populace against the virus, Western values will not be threatened. In a democratic state where laws are based on the rules of pluralism, human rights and freedom of speech, artists speak about and defend these values. And this is the role of culture as a “remedy” in the mental context.
In an article published on artnews.com, Dorothy Kosinski shares with the readers her insights on the situation45. She speaks about the circumstances in which The Phillips Memorial Gallery was founded in Washington in 1921. It is a private museum created with the intention of presenting art as a way of maintaining social well-being. It was founded by Duncan Phillips who dedicated it to his father and brother. Both of them died at the end of World War I during the epidemic of the Spanish flu. From the very beginning, the cultural programme of this institution acknowledged a close relationship between art and the well-being of people who experience it. Art was expected to be a “remedy’ for everyday problems, a moment for easing one’s mind. In an introductory text entitled A collection in the making, a foundation stone for the collection, Phillips explained his motivations:
“There came a time when sorrow all but overwhelmed me. Then I turned to my love of painting for the will to live […] So in 1918 I incorporated the Phillips Memorial Gallery, first, to occupy my mind with a large constructive social purpose and to create a Memorial worthy of the virile spirits of my lost leaders – my Father… and my Brother… […] And I saw a Chance to create a beneficient force in the community where I live – a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see.”46
This way the author defined the essence of art as a “remedy’’ in the aesthetic context. His personal story proves that art helps us survive.
Although many things have changed in art and culture since the American founder wrote his text, the values he referred to still remain. This is why maintaining the cultural flow is so important for protecting our values. Infrastructure alone is not sufficient for ensuring the existence of art, but it is a necessary condition.
Luckily, nowadays material reality exists alongside virtual reality. The latter provides a chance for a fast reorganization of art world. It also gives hope for a possible redefinition of culture. Although the Internet cannot replace everything, it allows many artistic initiatives to survive in the time of institutional recession.
In 1926, Duncan Phillips whom I cited earlier wrote:“Art offers two great gifts of emotion – the emotion of recognition and the emotion of escape. Both emotions take us out of the boundaries of self. […] At my period of crisis I was prompted to create something which would express my awareness to life’s returning joys and my potential escape into the land of artists’ dreams.46
Could one imagine a better definition of art as a ‘’remedy”?
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- A. Greenberger, Tate Leads the Pack as British Museums Close Amid Coronavirus Outbreak, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/england-museum-closures-coronavirus-tate-1202681354/, accessed 6 April 2020.
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- A. Greenberger, Christie’s Becomes First Major Auction House to Close Most Locations in Response to Coronavirus Pandemic, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/christies-closures-postponements-coronavirus-1202681174/, accessed 6 April 2020.
- A. Greenberger, Sotheby’s Shuffles Auction Schedule, Closes Most Locations to Help Combat Coronavirus, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/sothebys-closures-postponements-coronavirus-1202681344/, accessed 6.04.2020.
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- Z. Small, Adapting to Coronavirus Quarantine, Arts Workers Brace for New Economic Reality, https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/coronavirus-art-handlers-finances-1202681400/, accessed 6 April 2020.
- W. Ludel, Maurice Berger, critic and curator, has died of complications from Covid-19, aged 63, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/maurice-berger-critic-and-curator-has-died-of-covid-19-aged-63, accessed 7 April 2020.
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- C. Rosen, The Human Toll: The Artists Who Have Died From Coronavirus, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/04/stars-we-lost-coronavirus, accessed 7 April 2020.
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