I was asked in a recent interview how artists have made sense of the pandemic. German playwright Bertolt Brecht said, “In the dark times Will there be singing? There will be singing Of the dark times.”
While I know it would take unnumbered decades to observe shifts in art movements stemming from the social to the physical to the psychological impact of coronavirus, I suggest we wait, watch and listen. And, perhaps, we can learn from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, in which artists from Gustav Klimt to Edvard Munch to the founding members of the Bauhaus School itself, noted, according to the May 5, 2020 edition of Time, “A sense of meaninglessness spread, and people started to lose faith in their governments, existing social structures and accepted moral values. Everyday life felt ridiculous.”
“The art movements that came out of this period explored this hopelessness, tried to fight against it and showed the ways in which everyone was trying to cope.”
The existential trials of living and working in pandemic conditions have without question affected artists, for they, too, are a part of the social fabric. We know for certain some succumbed to the virus, some have contracted the virus and lived, some have lost family and friends, and some — like many of us — face the daily challenge of seeing loved ones rarely, if at all. Another symptom of the times: We seem unable to find the time and space to mourn those who have transitioned due to the disease.
Back to the original question of how artists cope. The Dada movement, which emerged in Switzerland following World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, harnessed the existential despair felt around the world and created art that mirrored the irrational, the absurd, and the illusory nature of civilization at the time. The German Expressionist artists, labeled “degenerate” by Hitler, offered their dark commentary on the rise of fascism between the two World Wars. Later, American artist Edward Hopper painted not only the physical estrangement between human beings in contemporary life, but hauntingly captured the social isolation, inertia, and all-too-quiet self-quarantine many of us still find ourselves in today.
Yet, while these themes of sickness and isolation seem despairing on the surface, artists then and now continue to create, in spite of it all, within and apart from the confusion. In 2021 at the AMA, we shall welcome master artist Butch Anthony and his improvisational joie de vivre through the display of his collages, assemblages, and found art which, too, interrogate our shared life through his cabinets of curiosities, laying bare the theater of the absurd of living in these strange times.
Here, as in so many art museums, artists galleries, and in any unique experience of the arts, there is to be discovered the inherent beauty in creation and the meaning we can draw from these baffling times. I learn every day the importance of seeking out the healing modalities of the arts, the sure blessing of family and friends, and the recognition that courage and perseverance is a group activity.
It was Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico whose haunting portrayals of empty city squares and shadowy colonnades, observing the plight of the individual in the industrial world, who wrote: “What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma. To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.”
From months of bewilderment, we can glimpse peace, solidarity, and the always available opportunity to visit the museum, pause, and unplug. In a time of needed healing on so many levels, may you find solace, energy, imagination and friendship at the AMA. We are here for you.