Art, the pandemic’s survival toolkit

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The pandemic changed many things and created a lot of havoc, but it also brought art back into focus. The Pothi Team revisits that moment in our current history and looks at how art fought back against the coronavirus and other stories tied to it in this FOUR PART series. 

This collage of a NHS worker is composed of over 200 photographs of actual NHS workers. The artist Nathan Wyburn has appropriately put a ‘Thank You’ to express gratitude to frontline COVID warriors

First of all, let’s start with an apology. Sorry, but the pandemic has to be brought up one more time. Not only because it is making a comeback in Maharashtra currently. This most esteemed virus has gnawed on every facet of life, including cultural institutions, ever since the lockdown started in March last year. And it looks like life will never be the same again.

For instance, all the greatest art festivals of the world, like Art Basel were severely affected by the virus. The art fair, which goes on for a week, attracts over 80,000 people from around the world. Hundreds of galleries showcase thousands of artists, who often make very decent sales and do not have to worry about the rest of the year. An entire business eco-system springs up around the fair, with hotels in Basel filled to the brim. Restaurants to places of historical interest also get a huge chunk of these visitors. It’s not just an art fair, but a celebration of what it means to be human.

Similarly, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in the last five years, has brought the city over $1.5 billion. Obviously, having to shut its doors due to the coronavirus means a huge loss of revenue. The NGMA in New Delhi too went visitor-less for a long time due to the pandemic.

The thing about visual art is that it is site-dependent. You can watch a music concert online and enjoy it, though you would miss the vibe of a real concert. The audience itself enhances an event it is watching. With visual art, the fun is even lesser because, well, how can the Guernica have the same impact on a computer screen? If you are the kind that likes installations, it is even worse.

In short, these were serious problems and, often, serious problems generate ingenious solutions. Does COVID have a silver lining for the art world after all?

The pandemic forced museums and galleries to not only go online but also adopt better technologies to make their collections available virtually. Immersive tech made virtual viewing a lot more life-like and fun, and online sales curved upwards. The new normal, incidentally, began to bring in new business. For instance, Sotheby’s held over 100 online sales between March and June, with almost 30% being new buyers. Sales touched $200 million during the period, a real boom considering that in the same period in 2019, sales stood at $23 million from 40 online sales.

Ironically, the lockdown made people understand the value of the arts even more. The oft-cited opinion that art did not have practical value did not seem like a valid viewpoint anymore. It isn’t just the tangible that makes life bearable turned into a mantra during the lockdown. Artists too became far more productive during this time. Without the pressure of “producing” work as per the needs of a gallery or an agent, artists had time to meditate on their work, they could work at leisure and the result was an amazing body of global art that documents our collective history with great insight.

A piece of art that generated worldwide attention was by Nathan Wyburn, an artist from Cardiff. Inspired by the ‘Clap for our Carers’ in March, he invited frontline hospital staff to send their photographs and turned it into a portrait of a health worker with a mask on. It was a collage that contained over 200 photographs. This picture was widely shared on social media, especially by NHS workers. It was a heartbreakingly beautiful tribute to the frontline COVID army, something that would have never happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic.

The mural shows Jack and Rose from the blockbuster love story ‘Titanic’. The couple is shown at a distance of one metre, as per the social distancing protocol. The characters are also wearing masks. (Picture credit: Twitter/Baadal Nanjundaswamy)

Artists also took on the job of educating the public about the pandemic with street art. It was a great proof of concept – that artists make a significant dent in how a society thinks and behaves. Indian artist lit up the streets of Bengaluru with colourful murals that sought to raise awareness about the coronavirus and it worked really well. Colour, form and the narratives in the murals were a happier way of talking about an event that took so many lives. And there are countless such examples.

The pandemic firmly established the artist as the mirror through which a society reflects upon itself. The artist as the keeper of a people’s conscience seemed a far clearer idea now. The elitism that surrounds art and the exclusivity of the gallery system broke down considerably, as art spilled onto public spaces and smartphone screens everywhere. In fact, it would be fair to say that art became a part of the survival toolkit.

To be continued.

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