Great crises produce great art – so where is it?

The art world’s response to Trump fell flat but the Covid-19 crisis may spur creativity

A mural in Ladywell, south London, by street artist Lionel Stanhope depicting a painting by Flemish master Jan van Eyck wearing a protective face mask. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

A mural in Ladywell, south London, by street artist Lionel Stanhope depicting a painting by Flemish master Jan van Eyck wearing a protective face mask. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016, gravely upsetting the liberal sensibilities of many in the West, one silver lining was identified: it would be the genesis of a period for great art. After all, isn’t all great art a product of hardship and resistance?

Picasso’s Guernica – widely acclaimed as one of the greatest anti-war paintings – emerged almost instantaneously from the Spanish civil war. Anselm Kiefer reacted to the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust. More broadly the first World War gave us surrealism, the second World War existentialism. The thesis seems to hold tight.

And as crass as it may seem to speak of silver linings in times of crisis and widespread misery, it is perhaps in our nature. New York magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz wrote soon after Trump’s election: “The election left many feeling alienated, alone, in shapeless psychic pain. But in fact this foul, broken, alien place is a very old locus of art.”

Unfortunately the thesis was not borne out in reality. Rather than being met with great protest art against a maniacal reality-television star elevated to the position of US president – who announced his election bid with an infamously racist rant against Mexican immigration – what we received instead fell flat.

Maurizio Cattelan’s gold toilet titled America (subtle!); the proliferation of the “covfefe” meme, referencing a time Trump misspelled a word (likely to have been “coverage”) on his Twitter account (who cares?); and a statue of a naked and overweight Trump appearing in New York overnight (as if the fact that Trump is fat should be counted as one of his worse crimes) became emblematic of the movement. The great renaissance was not to be.

Lifestyle perk

It is a shame that Saltz was wrong about art in the age of Trump – even in the worst of all circumstances a silver lining is still a silver lining. And, it has also been hard to ascertain exactly why the thesis did not hold. Critic Anna Khachiyan reckoned that the art world itself is to blame – the stomping ground of hedge fund managers, and the preserve of the uber-wealthy collectors who populate fundraising galas, was never going to succeed in mounting legitimate protest: for these people “political dissent is not so much an inalienable right as a lifestyle perk,” she wrote.

But now moving forward, artists the world over have been confronted with a new and unlikely source of inspiration. Though it is perhaps too early to assess the merits of art in the time of Covid-19, we are already seeing artists reacting to the pandemic, adapting to the confines of a world in lockdown, and exploiting new avenues for sharing their work.

We have been inundated with the predictable and milquetoast: a mural depicting the Mona Lisa wearing a face mask; a reimagining of da Vinci’s Last Supper being held over Zoom; and Swedish artist Ricardo Tomás’s drawing of a crossword puzzle where the individual tiles are sparsely arranged, as though they too are social distancing. The ideas are neat and clever, but hardly ground-breaking. And they don’t seem to aspire to the lofty heights of Picasso’s Guernica.

But there is perhaps another renaissance occurring amid the dross. Art has long been available online, and for years now some artists have used mediums such as Instagram to promote and even define their work. But lockdown has acted as a catalyst – forcing a wholesale embrace of the digital world as a means to creating and sharing art.

Therapeutic mantra

David Hockney has published 10 portraits of springtime in his home of Normandy, created on his iPad. The title of one of his illustrations (depicting daffodils in bloom) Do Remember They Can’t Cancel the Spring has already been adopted as a therapeutic mantra across social media. Tracey Emin, meanwhile, is publishing a daily diary of her life in lockdown in collaboration with the White Cube Gallery. And artists are offering tours of their private studios for any member of the public to access, too.

The scale of the public reaction to art under lockdown was, perhaps, also underestimated. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s video sCourtald Galleryeries – the Met 360 Project – has seen a 4106 per cent growth in viewing since the effects of the pandemic really kicked in. In the UK, the Courtauld Gallery’s virtual tour saw a 723 per cent spike in visitors. The Art Basel fair too migrated online, with people rushing to its site.

While it seems the election of Trump – in spite of many fair predictions – failed to ignite any great moment in the art world, the novel coronavirus could prove the opposite. The realities of life amid a pandemic has necessitated a pivot to the digital world as a means of sharing and accessing art – whether we think that development is positive or not. And, it is no doubt remarkable to see the extent to which we flock towards art in this unsettling and unprecedented time.

When our real-life options are so severely limited, our digital choices say a lot about us. Art is proving an invaluable asset to understand the world and seek solace in confusing times – it is small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless.

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