How to keep the art world at a distance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the coronavirus pandemic hitting on top of this year’s stressful election, I’m doubting the value of being an artist right now. Governor Cuomo has ordered all nonessential workers to stay home, which makes me feel even more useless these days. On Facebook, I see old classmates who are doctors, scientists, and social workers improving people’s lives in real ways. Meanwhile, I’m literally sitting on my yoga mat staring at a blank canvas. I don’t make socially engaged, overtly political art, and moving in that direction would be really fake. I feel like I don’t have anything to offer society except pictures and anxiety. In this crisis, am I “essential” to anybody?

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Illustration by Mario Wagner.

Hey, you are essential to us. We may be advice columnists, but existential dread is a dark corner we know all too well. Howie worked for seven years in a windowless office at a museum that subsequently closed. Andrew held a top industry position at a nonprofit for well over a decade without ever getting a raise. While our friends were inventing the internet and pioneering acai energy bowls, we spent our youths chasing after Art. Through the years we’ve suffered the indignities of devils, douchebags, and fools galore. We’ve spent innumerable lunches and sleepless nights questioning our compulsion to make the art world a better place despite its being so tainted. Your question is a reminder that in these frightening, destabilized times, feeling helpless is communal trauma shared from a social distance, or psychotically on Twitter.

No one on the planet really knows what to do right now, but at the same time nobody is looking to a painter to come up with the solution. Why do you assume that this is your problem to fix? Your old scientist friends have been trained to develop a cure for this complex scourge, whereas you’ve devoted your time to constructing transporting images that temporarily uplift us from the wretched world in which we’re forced to live. Besides offering the foundation for a community and an outlet for expression, art represents the possibility of distraction and escape, for the viewer and the creator both. We all need this kind of relief now more than ever. You must remember that art is always useful, even if it’s just therapeutic, especially in our seclusion.

Can artists make a difference? Well, staying home is a good start. Given the shit we’re in, it’s nearly impossible to make a global difference if you aren’t a doctor or a toilet paper factory owner. Most important, you’re overlooking the heavy lifting that art is already doing for us while in quarantine. Think about the quirky indie movies and stand-up specials in your Netflix queue, the innocuous yet cheery paintings that bring calm in a hospital room, or the soundtrack of mellow jams that soothes the people at a ravaged Trader Joe’s. These sorts of things are affecting people’s lives in truly meaningful ways during the current insanity. You might feel like you can’t paint right now, but can you make a dank handwashing meme? It could provide a creative outlet, possibly go viral (in a good way), and actually help someone. You can also assist by volunteering in urgent mutual aid projects in your neighborhood or donating the gloves and masks from your studio to hospitals right now.

And while your Facebook friends are visibly virtuous to you, let’s take a paragraph to acknowledge the other venerable front liners who are keeping society from falling apart. While we sit at home snacking, a largely POC and immigrant-led workforce of society’s most undervalued professionals—delivery people, sanitation workers, grocery store clerks, nurses and caregivers, Amazon employees, to name a few—have quickly become our greatest national heroes. Let’s hope to be as essential as they are.

 

I moved to New York City last fall after graduating from a really good art grad school. Everyone knows that to make it in the art world you need to show up at openings and be seen. Talking to people, making studio visits, the whole thing happens face-to-face. Now with this COVID crap I’m wondering how I’ll get the chance to meet a gallerist or talk up a curator. Seriously, I moved here for the art action and feel like I’m getting shortchanged while everyone else has had their day. What will openings be like after they find a cure for this gnarly ass virus? 

Wait a minute, you miss openings? Dude, you don’t get it. This crisis has already upended the norms and decorum for how people will experience art and lubricate their careers moving forward. Getting cornered in a humid gallery by throngs of attention-mooching super spreaders is a thing of the past. At this point, no elderly gallerist can afford to be near a needy, germy young person, even if their market has major pump potential. Collectors don’t care, either, because they’ve already decorated their bunkers and aren’t coming out for fresh air anytime soon.

Openings, if they are resurrected by space people in the year 2021, will be fundamentally different. Hazmat-wearing artists and unmasked sociopaths will be left elbow bumping each other as they strain to talk about themselves over the hum of oxygen tanks, power generators, and omnipresent cold wave synth music. Say goodbye to searching for the last beer in an ice-filled trash can, because openings will be completely dry to prevent community spread. Social awkwardness and eye-darting will immediately rise to unprecedented heights.

Good luck glomming onto people in a world where even artists won’t attend their own openings anymore out of fear that well-wishers will congratulate them straight to the grave. You can also forget being a plus-one at a gallery dinner. Those have already been replaced by Bottino gift certificates and kombucha coupons for artists to redeem at their convenience. If you still want in, it’s all yours.

Questions? Email hardtruths@artinamericamag.com.



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