elizabeth hardwick

Home front: arts at a distance

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the coronavirus crisis reshapes the world, culture shifts gears and our virtual and physical realities overlap

HOW IS SOCIAL DISTANCING WORKING IN YOUR CORNER OF THE WORLD? Are you out and about at all – one of the vital people in our food and delivery and public utility and medical-care systems, maybe, keeping things going through the crisis? Are you busily creating a makeshift world while you keep inside your home, bringing the outside in virtually, via emails and social media and radio and television and music downloads? Are you keeping a sense of the actual, physical territory of our lives that we take for granted until it’s not under our feet anymore?

It’s been five weeks since I’ve been anywhere but home, and my reality has shifted both very little and very much. I’ve been lucky. I have good shelter, and food, and I’m sharing space with close family (including one indispensable and highly entertaining cat). I work from home, anyway, so the adjustment hasn’t been nearly so abrupt as it has been for many people. I miss my afternoon coffee-shop breaks, and going out for conversations with writers or news sources, and real-time, face-to-face interaction with performing and visual art. But those things are small potatoes. I’ve been spared the horrors the COVID-19 pandemic has visited on so many.

The difference between the real and the virtual becomes stark when the real is taken away from us. The other day I was reading Out of Time: Mortality and the Old Masters, a particularly timely column in The New Yorker by the veteran art critic Peter Schjeldahl in which he ponders why “the art of what we term the Old Masters (has) so much more soulful heft than that of most moderns and nearly all of our contemporaries.” It’s an imaginative and provocative piece of writing, bound to raise a few hackles and also prompt a lot of nods of agreement. In it he comments on the real and the not-quite-real – “… the art in the world’s now shuttered museums: inoperative without the physical presence of attentive viewers. Online ‘virtual tours’ add insult to injury, in my view, as strictly spectacular, amorphous disembodiments of aesthetic experience. Inaccessible, the works conjure in the imagination a significance that we have taken for granted.”

El Greco, “View of Toledo,” 1596-1600, oil on canvas, 47.8 x 42.8 inches, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.

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