Given the worldwide freeze on public life, one would think that the arts would have suffered. Certainly, art, film, and music festivals have been cancelled, movie and stage theaters have closed their doors, and galleries have closed. Yet art persists—even thrives—despite social distancing. Now more than ever, art is central to people’s lives. “There’s an innate need to relate our experience, and I think a lot of art is also about relating with each other,” notes curator and anthropologist Dr. Rafael Schacter of University College London. “There’s this idea that it’s only produced when you have all your other basic needs taken care of, but art is a basic need.”
We’re well into our third month of enforced shelter-in-place, and a new normal has emerged. We’ve learned Zoom etiquette, we’ve taken sides in the elastic v. tie-on mask debate, and we swap news about different quarantine policies. One thing is constant: people want to talk about the new cultural canon that seems to have sprung up overnight: Did you catch the Together at Home concert? Did you hear that the Met is making their shows available for free?
Art is, by definition, part of the public sphere. Picasso once famously quipped “give me a museum and I’ll fill it.” There’s no better way to describe the human instinct to create meaning and connection—give us a space and we’ll fill it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed unprecedented strain on the arts and cultural community. Economic uncertainty has been more prevalent than ever—particularly for freelancers and those who work on commission—yet artists are also providing a lifeline for a world on lock down through their content via live streams, podcasts, and online courses. They might not be classified as essential workers, but they are no less vital.
For many of us, this is the first time in our lives that the world has grounded to a halt. Even for those that can remember similar situations during war or natural disasters, the uncertainty has been frightening and has seriously threatened the stability of our society. We’re used to leaning on others for support in a crisis, but with social distancing in place, we’ve had to adapt. Art is providing an escape, a balm, and a way to stay connected.
Although traditional venues are temporarily out of play, artists have found ways to maintain visibility and build community. A renaissance of mail art has allowed galleries to showcase work and spark public participation—with a bonus of helping to save the U.S. Postal Service. Neighborhoods are turning their streets into galleries with public art contests, albeit with social distancing measures in place. And of course, there’s the digital world, which has responded with remarkable speed to the crisis. The MoMA may have shuttered, but is still offering virtual tours, podcasts, and even free online courses. Gibson is offering netizens three months of complimentary guitar lessons. Illustrator Carson Ellis launched the Quarantine Art Club to provide free drawing lessons for all ages. There’s even a new museum as a result of this pandemic—the COVID Art Museum, exclusively on Instagram. And here in Los Angeles, artists have been bringing the art to the people by displaying pieces along roads, in windows, and in lawns. Quarantine itself is serving as inspiration to artists, as evidenced by the world-class photographers capturing both the eerie and the beautiful sides of “corona claustrophobia.”
Art galleries in several major cities have moved their collections to the virtual sphere, where interested collectors are able to speak with artists and curators until they are able to physically re-open. One such example is the assortment of Los Angeles art dealers who banded together to create Gallery Association Los Angeles (GALA). Without physical constraints, these virtual galleries are even able to feature younger, less-established artists who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity—thereby providing a lifeline in this time of crisis.
Musicians have also been continually active in the past few months. Ugandan parliamentary member Robert Kyagulanyi, also known by his stage name Bobi Wine, released what might be the catchiest health advisory of all time. Other musical PSAs include Ariel de Cuba’s Quedate en casa (Stay Home), Erik and Min’s Ghen Cô Vy (Wash Your Hands), and Sunstroke Project’s Mама дома сиди (Stay Home, Mom). Beyond lending some rhythm to public health efforts, artists across a spectrum of genres are offering free virtual concerts, often to support charities and public agencies on the front lines of this crisis, but just as often simply to connect to all of us.
As we move away from lock down-induced anxiety and paralysis, we will doubtlessly rely on the arts to keep us going and to pick us up when we fall. Artists have proven time and time again to be transformational and staunch in their support of communities amidst crises. In fact, the arts be the only sector that managed to mobilize instant global cooperation in response to COVID-19. Let us hope that our political leaders can learn from this example—this is not the time to draw out negotiations or demand concessions; this is the time to prioritize cooperation, sensibility, and community.