Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Starting Over: Masks and democracy

Can we move forward when our government can't test, trace or isolate us? The processes of artists can show us how.


In Seoul, Korea, a metropolis of 10 million, “a steady stream of Mercedes sedans pulled up to the valet, disgorging their fashion-forward passengers,” in front of the Seoul outpost of a fashionable New York-based gallery, the New York Times reported yesterday. Seoul now has its share of high-end contemporary art galleries and collectors, and after months of lockdown, everyone was ready to see some art.

The art they were seeing was by Billy Childish, a long-time art world rebel and working-class leftist, not to mention garage band rock’n’roller.  His work is now fetching prices cresting beyond $25,000, which he himself considers a matter of luck—after 40 years, the curators and dealers who championed him had finally seized the reins at major institutions, he told the Times.

After experiencing the little tingle that comes when I see the prices politically progressive artists are commanding in the rarefied art marketplace, I marveled at another statistic in the story. Seoul, with more than double the population of Oregon, has recorded only two deaths due to Covid-19.

Billy Childish, birches with green shadows, 2016
© Billy Childish, courtesy of Carl Freedman Gallery, photo: Andy Keate

Two. Deaths.

South Korea jumped immediately into the appropriate pandemic response. The country locked down early, it embraced social distancing, it distributed N-95 quality masks to all of its people, it tested widely, and when people tested positive for Covid-19, it traced and isolated those who came into contact with them. The public took this regime seriously.

Whether or not South Korea can keep its discipline when and if the careful attempts at reopening lead to more outbreaks, is another question. But the successful responses in New Zealand and Hong Kong, in addition to South Korea, show that humans can organize themselves well enough to minimize the damage.

Just not American humans. In our cities, for the most part, Americans sheltered in place and distanced themselves from each other. And outside of New York, we managed to dodge the worst of Covid-19. But after that, nothing went right. No masks, no testing, no tracing, no isolation of those exposed. America once had a public health system (as opposed to private healthcare) and an emergency response system that were arguably the world’s best. That was a while ago, back before the decline of democracy here really took hold. More than half of us, even now, would vote for restoring our public health and emergency response systems to their previous heights. But that never seems to come up for a vote, and that’s one good measure of how broken our democracy—the distance between the wishes of the people and the government’s public policy.

I have some reservations about my sense of the whole. When the slogans of one political party include “We’re all going to die sometime” and “Granny is willing to sacrifice herself so that the transfer of wealth to the tiny top of the pyramid can continue unabated,” it does give me pause. But, America, I see you staying at home and social distancing. You’re not entirely crazy. You understand the simple argument that we protect ourselves by protecting each other. (Please, wear a mask!) 

So, if you think that American democracy and American society have hit a dead end, you’re not alone. Covid-19 presents us with a daily reminder of our inability to deal with a general health crisis. And as so many other observers have noted, it exposes crises of other sorts, too, much deeper ones that will keep us from ever responding appropriately to emergencies. Climate change will drop many plagues upon us. A pandemic with a death rate that seems to hover around two percent may be a picnic compared to what could be coming our way. The more democratic we are, the better the chance we’ll have to deal with them.


American democracy was not the subject of my conversation with George Thorn, arts consultant/advisor extraordinaire, late last week. We were talking about Portland arts organizations, though more general matters also came up, including our local government.

Since the pandemic lockdown in Portland, Thorn reckons that he’s talked to staffers from at least 40 arts organizations. The bottom line: “Everybody is being hurt by this, and some really, really badly.”

Each group has different problems, but they are all calculating how many staffers they can keep on, a difficult calculation when no one knows how much federal support they will get (or whether they will get any at all), and how to keep enough money set aside to start up again when the stay-at-home restrictions are loosened. And what the world will be like when they do: “Each organization needs to envision what this new reality will be,” Thorn advised.

How much can they count on the City of Portland? “I don’t think the City cares about what happens to arts and culture organizations,” Thorn said. That assertion led me to consider whether or not society and democracy in Portland had also hit a dead end. I think most of us DO care what happens to arts and culture organizations in the city. That’s because, unlike our leaders, we understand the many roles the arts play in a city and in our personal lives.

Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

“The arts have never been needed more than they are today,” Thorn said. “The arts are how we come together. They ask, how do you want to shape the new reality?”

“What everyone is trying to figure out, that’s what artists do every day,” he continued. Artists move from idea to vision to process to procuring resources. The idea evolves, the problems are solved, there’s never enough time, people or money. And yet, something arrives on the stage,  concert hall, gallery wall, page, or some other platform. Often enough, something amazing. When we re-embrace the practicality of artists, their creativity and problem-solving, then we’ll be able to mask, test, trace and isolate. “This isn’t something we don’t know how to do.”

“We can’t wait to be in a room together with artists; we all want to be back in a room together,” Thorn said.

And what are the artists saying, I asked him. “Stay with us. We’re going to need some help.”

Executive Editor

Barry Johnson has written about and edited arts and culture stories of various sorts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the Seattle Sun. He edited the arts section of Willamette Week and wrote a general culture column in the  early 1980s and started at The Oregonian as arts editor in 1983, moving between editing and writing (visual arts, movies, theater, dance) until leaving in 2009. Since then, he's been thinking about new ideas to help make arts and culture journalism ever more useful and engaged. Oregon ArtsWatch is one of those ideas.

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