The last art review I wrote for ArtsWatch was about an exhibit I saw the day before I went on lockdown. In that essay I wrote about the difference seeing art in person makes, as opposed to seeing its digital representation, as there were subtleties I would have missed had I just seen the work online. And if one holds to the rule that art needs to be seen in situ in order to be properly reviewed, I don’t foresee getting much art writing done for quite a while, given the risk factors for myself plus the mounting drive to make genocide by default the national coronavirus policy.
Not that there is a dearth of art online worthy of review. Not that there wasn’t an overabundance on social media before the pandemic, and in the last two months it has increased exponentially. As a response to the stay at home orders and closing of brick and mortar venues, artists are doing virtual studio visits or posting mini-retrospectives. Galleries do video tours of their exhibits, and museums are opening up their collections to view on their websites. Dance ensembles, chorales, and other musicians of all sorts are performing remotely, all gathered together in frames on Zoom. Indicative of various needs that may or not be obvious, and may or may not be met, I find it both a bit tragic and heartening (although I have to work at any positives that come out of this crisis) at the same time.
Tragic because despite the clarion call that “we are all in this together,” the massive amount of virtual exposure also serves to highlight an ongoing crisis for the arts and artists: There remains a surplus to the demand. The economy of scale has become so much worse that I’m afraid no amount of patronage will remedy that which was already tenuous at best. Mind you, it’s only my opinion, but I figure 5% of the population actually gives a shit for anything except passive entertainment shoveled through the tube any given evening. Add to that all but the very rich have moved into survival mode.
Gross characterizations, yes, yet we should not forget that we have arrived at this point after a 40-year, systematic campaign in the United States to remove the arts from schools, to glorify individualism in the name of capital and at the expense of the commonweal, and demean intellectual curiosity. While it is clear that we need a shift in priorities, we should not be surprised to instead lose galleries, music venues, theaters and dance groups by the score. Our penchant for rationalization turns prior complacency into stoicism.
Before the pandemic there was a scant local collector base. Galleries who had booths at fairs seemed to do better with a wider audience and may have access to those collectors now, as the fairs seem to be going virtual themselves. As for the rest, those gallerists with a second source of income or who run their operation on a shoestring budget may fare better than some of the more established spaces. Although I have no idea what it may look like, perhaps this crisis will bring forth a new way art is presented, and with that, an invigorated interest.
My partner tries to lead me away from a personal precipice by reminding me that amidst the darkness, artists sharing online are at least a welcome distraction, and at best an inspiration as they persevere via their increased social media presence. After a day of news overload, she dances to select sets of ‘80s music that are being broadcast from places like Chicago, Long Island and the UK. Indeed, I have watched my fair share of music events, artist talks and virtual gallery walks. Is there enough comfort found in that testament to a spirited resilience to maintain and sustain both artists and those who depend on the arts to bring light into their lives? I suppose it will have to do. I just wish it didn’t feel like we are in a movie theater with the doors chained shut while a fire rages in the city around us.
We should remain cognizant of the destruction that has yet to fully play out, and with that, the aftermath. Even so, if I can once again visit galleries and museums, I have to wonder if I will be able to look at art without the filter of the virus. I am reminded of going to galleries shortly after 9/11. Every show I saw was forced into the context of that rupture.
Similarly, with the current situation the temptation is to slide further into a weakened, reductive state of mind. Perhaps no new art needs to be made or art criticism written. After all, conceptualism saw to the end of art, everything thereafter mere celebration or therapy (nowadays it seems more a case of the latter). And criticism is necessarily anachronistic, reactive in its analysis, so why bother? Why? Because we accept the idea that even fatalism is performative and therefore can be examined as such.
Artists are a hardy bunch, and the likelihood that this crisis will lead to a cessation of making by any who have endured decades of rowing upstream is minimal. Likewise, critics are intent on understanding and clarifying that which may not be readily apparent. Even so, I remain pessimistic that any of the art produced or criticism written during this time will have an immediate impact on our understanding of what this crisis means, especially to a greater society seemingly dead set on romanticizing the status quo.
Always the Dougie Downer with the tongue to the sore tooth, it seems like this would be my time to feel vindicated. Except this mix of dread, grief and urgency, for both the collective and the individual, is more than I bargained for. I know that this essay might be more acceptable if I instead wrote about the specific artists who are persevering and therefore should be held up as examples of the good around. Yet, I also know that as people worldwide are suffering much more than I will ever will, and concerns for the preservation of culture is somewhat of a first-world problem. As such, it reeks of entitlement with only slightly less of the stench arising from the armed protesters at state capitals.
Still, I mourn for all.
Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele died from the Spanish Flu. AIDS took Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz. There were hundreds if not thousands of other artists who died just as millions of others passed and left their loved ones with a world forever changed. And yet, their survivors lived on in that new world. This is what we face now.
Call it self-preservation if you must, but there is a little voice in my head that says surely not all is lost, and when I listen to it (while still recognizing impermanence in all of its manifestations) I know I must find ways to cope. I take this as emblematic of a smoldering hope. When my editor, Barry Johnson reminded me that I had not spent much time, if any at all, in this essay on any “heartening” aspect of our current situation, I knew where it existed. As much as I am loathe to mention my own art in my ArtsWatch essays, respite is found in the studio. As I mentioned at the conclusion of my last essay for ArtsWatch, visual artists make a habit of working in isolation, and so it is for me (and judging from the tone of this essay, perhaps where I should stay until my mood improves). In the studio, external events disappear, if just for a little while, and if I’m lucky, a little joy shows up on my drawing table.
Yes, I miss going to galleries. I want to write reviews again as this is how I maintain a sense of community, of which the lack is one source of my grief, and a little bit of my dread as well. While I hope to see art and artists again on a regular basis, I’m not leaving the house for a while. After all, this can’t be the last thing I write for ArtsWatch.
I’ll see you online.
Patrick Collier is on Instagram @ptcpatrick