First, the Louvre in Paris closed. Then the galleries in London started to shut their doors, one by one, like the “lamps going out all over Europe” as the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey remarked on the eve of the First World War, adding “We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Maybe this is too pessimistic an analogy for the London art world. Or maybe not.
Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship – Susan Sontag
The art market is dependent on personal interaction: artists’ relationships with their galleries, galleries relationships with curators, staff and collectors. There is no milieu where personal networking is so intrinsic to its function as the art world. It is all about trends and confidence. Chat and charm. So will it ever be the same again after Covid19? There are some who talk of a world Before C19 and After C19 as one might refer to BC and AD.
So, with galleries and auction houses shutting and the stock markets crashing, trade in Art is likely to come to a sudden standstill. Looking at maps of China before the virus and during the virus, the CO2 emissions are drastically down, giving us cleaner air and less pollution. There is, it seems, a silver lining to even the blackest clouds. Might this, therefore, be a metaphor for what, in recent years, has become an over-inflated art market, dependent on money rather than on talent?
What is certain is that artists will retreat to their studios. Studios are safe and artists are used to being alone. Creativity not only helps mental health and anxiety but is a barometer of the social trends and events we live through. As the philosopher, Pascal once, famously, remarked: ‘the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he cannot stay quietly in his room’. But isolation is essential if we are going to create a painting, a novel, a poem or an installation worth its salts. To turn inward is to find the nub of creativity. Art that is made with one eye on the market is barely Art at all. Before the virus, the world had become used to being frenetically connected 24/7. Art fairs, auctions, exhibitions, private views, gallery dinners, biennales. The credo of postmodernism has been Surface over Depth. Maybe this is the end of an era. As M. Scott Peck wrote: It is not impractical to consider seriously changing the rules of the game when the game is clearly killing you.”
Modernism and postmodernism exalted the complete autonomy of Art, severing its bonds with society. With the collapse of religion and Art as a form of storytelling, it became increasingly about rebellion and the apparent existential absurdity, alienation and futility of contemporary life. But exalted individualism has proved to be neither a creative nor insightful response to the state of the planet. Nor will it be to this current pandemic.
As Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship’. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’ We have become used to a world where everything can be fixed. TB, cancer, infertility. For the first time in living memory, we are being confronted with a situation we can’t ‘fix’. As with any traumatic event, it will be the artists and poets who make sense of it. Who will provide us with the necessary emotional and psychological maps? This moment may, yet, become a tremendous artistic renaissance that will become known to future generations as Art in the Time of Covid19.
And the commercial art world? Well, there will be a lot of weeding out and slimming down. The overblow and hyperbolic are likely to disappear. And what will we be left with? No one can be sure. But with luck, Art that re-engages us with the personal as well as the aesthetic, the ethical and the emotional, Art that respects the planet as well as what is fresh, new and innovative. It’s a challenge to all who are creative. I hope we are up to it.
(My apologies to Gabriel Garcia Márquez for the headline title)
Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and art critic. Her latest novel Rainsongs is published by Duckworth and her new poetry collection Swimming to Albania is due as soon as this crisis is over.