The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has not only been a major threat to global health, but also a large-scale socioeconomic disaster. Beyond the immediate tragedies of death and disease, the pandemic had some other negative implications, gravely affecting, for instance, the economic activity and people’s mental health. The outbreak of the virus and the subsequent national lockdowns that have plagued the world ever since, meant that museums, theatres and cinemas were closed and movie and music festivals were postponed indefinitely in the large majority of countries in accordance with the WHO guidelines. It is not in the least bit surprising that the International Council of Museums reported in May that over 13 per cent of museums worldwide face permanent closure due to the pandemic. The lockdowns led to thousands of professionals throughout the artistic spectrum, from ballet dancers to singers and actors, to become redundant during the pandemic, ultimately living on insufficient governmental support.
Disclaimer: Please note that some of the views stated in our articles are those of the writers, and not necessarily those of FAECTOR.
Even if art and the artists themselves can be regarded as collateral victims in our fight against the raging Covid virus, people were socially distancing themselves from art long before the pandemic started. At a museum, it’s customary to stand a respectful 2 meters (rounded up) away from any art piece, a space maintained by security sensors or fear of the piercing looks and subsequent wrath of mistrustful guards. Now, with Covid-19 leading to even tougher restrictions on indoor spaces, art lovers have found themselves observing it from an even greater distance: via screen. Museums and galleries (e.g., the Vatican Museums, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, Paris’ Musée d'Orsay, Florence’s Uffizi Galleries) made virtual tours available for people who wanted to experience art from the comfort of their own homes. For instance, July’s London Art Week (LAW), comprising of over 40 galleries throughout London, took a hybrid form including the real, on-site exhibition as well as art shows organised online (i.e., Arturo Galansino, director-general of Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, curated an online show under the theme “Revolution and Renewal”, featuring one work drawn from each participating gallery). Any conceivable form of art was moved to the online environment in a similar fashion, from theatre plays broadcast on Youtube to ballet shows available on social media platforms. What is more, there have even been attempts to create shows dedicated to virtual reality (VR), i.e., Boston Ballet has commissioned three choreographers to create works designed entirely for VR. Imagine being so close to the dancers that you can see the sweat and sinew. Would you like it?
Nonetheless, there could be a different story to this. Not a story of how museums and art galleries made use of technology (online environment, VR) to save themselves from bankruptcy (many did not even try, many could not afford to try and ultimately, many failed), but rather about how they weathered the storm by using technology to future-proof themselves. This makes me dream of a subscription service dedicated to art, a sort of arts Netflix. Would you subscribe? This can be a decent idea worth investing in, if not for my fear that this is not necessarily what people are looking for. Specifically, don’t you fear that if people were able to take selfies with the most well-known art exhibits from galleries throughout the world (i.e., Michelangelo’s David), there would barely be any people visiting said museums?
From the aforementioned exhibitions and art shows, I make one recommendation: the Met’s The Medici: Portraits & Politics 1512-1570 (available till the 11th of October 2021), an exhibition focusing primarily on the Medici family, the ruling family of the Renaissance capital of Florence (you can access it here: https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId=%7B2c98eb4f-1cd0-43dc-912e-1fd5d5ef9c00%7D#!?page=1&offset=&perPage=4). Said exhibition boasts an ensemble cast of greats (including Raphael and Cellini), all honouring the dandyish flair of the 16th-century Florentine ruling class. Nonetheless, two pairs of men stand out: the artists Pontormo and Bronzino, and two young Medici dukes, Alessandro and Cosimo I.
Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici by Bronzino
The exhibition has the purpose of making a stand for an old-fashioned kind of elitism by drawing on the traits that have made de Medici, the art patrons, the true forerunners to our contemporary influencers. If the exhibition and artistic tribute paid towards the Medici family and the respective artists seems archaic, Met’s marketing department points out one aspect which ensures that the given exhibition is indeed current, that being the “How to be a Renaissance influencer” guide. The gist, as explained by the Met’s website, is the following:
1) Build your brand.
2) Grow your reach.
3) Secure your legacy.
Who knows, it might prove useful to influencers who want to add style to their répertoire. Nonetheless, the exhibition’s very link to today’s influencers has led to a polemic described as a fun fact at the very end of the article.
That being said, for artists, the transition to the online environment has been a bit bumpier. Displaying frame-ready paintings or photographs translates ok-ish to the online environment, but not everyone uses those mediums. Brooklyn-based artist Anicka Yi, for example, creates work using live matter like algae and bacteria. In this case, she succeeded in adapting to the given circumstances. Yi curated much of her upcoming commission at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London, her most ambitious project to date, remotely while collaborating online with a team of at least 30 people scattered around the world. But she was fortunate, just think of the countless artists who do not have the means to employ such a large number of art minions or cannot possibly transfer the task to another (i.e., actors). Covid-19 has been tough on so many, but not everything is all that gloomy.
Despite countless plagues, famines and wars, humankind has endured and even more importantly, art has flourished as the purest form of expression. I only remark on the correlation and do not attempt to infer any causality, but if you stop to think about it, it makes sense for people to have more to say in the direst of moments. Admiring, for instance, Botticelli’s Primavera (Spring) or reading Dante’s Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy)*, does it not make you feel like the suffering and the subsequent metaphorical rebirth have given us much better works of art than comfort and happiness will ever do?
*the choice of examples is biased towards Florence as I am currently sitting in a café in front of the Florentine Duomo writing small piece.
While I am not aware of any such paramount art being created during the past year or so, the pandemic proved a worthy challenge/opportunity to channel our inner creativity. Just think of people painting their face masks or how people took to themselves to adapt so many pieces of art to the pandemic times (putting masks on sculptures or statues, etc). Nonetheless, Covid-19 has also led to entire new “movements” with the goal of expressing the tragedies and hardships of life during the pandemic. The interesting aspect regarding said art “movement” is that the artists are not only professionals, but amateurs or even people who only took up that artistic interest during the quarantine period. If you want to discover more on this trend, here’s the link to a Washington Post article depicting the best pieces of art created by its readers, not professionals, mind you. https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2020/07/06/art-pandemic-readers/
Finally, I believe it is worth saying on record that the following is not to entertain political debates surrounding the measures taken by some governments, but rather to reflect on the paramount character of art in our society irrespective of temporal and geographical coordinates. In the face of another cataclysmic event, the Covid-19, taking drastic measures seemed a must. As people’s lives hung in the balance, redirecting funds towards the health department, and restricting economic activity to the minimum in a bid to limit the spread of the deadly virus seemed reasonable. But this shift in focus towards physical health has come up short regarding the taboo side of one’s health, - *draws breath, looks right, looks left and whispers* - the mental health. Nature medicine, a medical journal, published a digital gallery of artistic works created by health workers since the Covid-19 outbreak, art created for the mere sake of coping with the hardships and loss witnessed. It is phenomenal, each piece comes with its own story, a small background of the respective artist and their interpretation of their own work. I cannot but recommend you to check the entire gallery (https://www.nature.com/articles/d41591-021-00009-5). I guarantee it will prove to be far more interesting than your Instagram feed.
As I am writing the customary conclusion, it is only now that I realise that this article is simply a collection of small ideas and events that have taken place during the pandemic, with just one common denominator: art. If this has not been too baffling to read, let me wrap this up by sharing one last thought inspired by Robin Williams’ Dead Poet Society performance. Art has been so important in allowing us to feel like we belong, to comfort us during our lowest lows and reassure us that we are not alone, to captivate us and, even for a split second, distract us from the crumbling world around us. Art, this immense amalgam of literature, cinematography, a whole plethora of types of painting , drawing, poetry, et cetera, is what makes life worth living and it has been dearly missed during the past year or so. It is high time we welcome it back into our lives.
Fun fact: Met’s Medici gallery controversy: After the death of Leonardo and Raphael, sixteenth-century Florence was hardly the “crucible of Renaissance culture” of old, but rather a land stained by degeneracy. By the time of the Medici’s return to power in the Florentine Ducat, art was already in the Mannerist age, and, as much pleasure as Pontormo and Bronzino may give, this school fails to correctly depict the aforementioned degeneration that marked the end of the Renaissance in Italy. To relate them, as the Met does, to our own “influencers” is a powerful and not at all complimentary comment on our own age.